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Environment

Oprah Winfrey's 'Year of Adventure' Includes a Trip With Carnival Cruises, Which Has Increased Its Climate Pollution 20% Over the Last Decade

Oprah has a passion for the environment, so why is she supporting a massive polluter?

Photo Credit: Krista Kennell/Shutterstock

When Oprah Winfrey declared 2017 her "Year of Adventure," no one imagined that a big piece of her yearlong wanderlust would involve one of the most environmentally destructive forms of travel.

On July 15, Oprah will step on board her first cruise to Alaska, as part of a two-year partnership with Holland America Cruise Lines, which is owned by Carnival Cruise Line. While we love the idea of exploring our beautiful planet, we cringe at the idea of doing so aboard a cruise ship.

Cruising’s climate quandary

Cruise ships, as you already know, are enormous. The amount of energy it takes to push these floating cities through the oceans is staggering. The world’s largest cruise ship burns 66,000 gallons of fuel per day at full power. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Holland America’s parent company, Carnival, is the largest cruise company in the world. While the rest of the world is striving to lower their impacts on the planet, Carnival is cruising in the opposite direction. The company has increased its climate pollution by 20 percent over the last decade. In fact, the company’s own accounting reveals that its ships create the same amount of climate pollution as 2.2 million cars, each and every year.

Heavy fuel, hefty consequences

Why do ships pollute so much? In part, it’s because they burn heavy fuel oil, or HFO. This fuel is a thick, dirty and cheap way to power ships.

  • Burning heavy fuel oil creates black carbon, which is dark-colored dust that is carried in air currents and eventually settles out to the ground. Black carbon turns ice and snow a dingy grey. Not only is it ugly, but the dark dust allows the snow to absorb more sunlight, which warms it up. Black carbon is one of the leading factors causing melting of the Arctic.

  • Heavy fuel oil also releases pollutants that cause cancer and cardiovascular disease. It is responsible for the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people every year.

  • Passengers breathing heavy fuel oil exhaust on cruise ships could be exposed to levels of air pollution that are twice as high as busy, congested city centers.

  • When (not if) heavy fuel oil is spilled, it is basically impossible to clean up. The thick gel coats the fur and feathers of marine animals and birds, causing hypothermia and death. Normal cleanup techniques don’t work, particularly in cold water. The toxic brew of spilled heavy fuel oil is 50 times more toxic than medium or light crude oil.

Ironically, the effects of this pollution are disproportionately damaging the pristine and iconic destinations that cruise ship passengers are so excited to visit, including Alaska, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean.

The localized problems are twofold—an increased dose of air pollution in port cities, and a trail of soot and black carbon in the wake of the ships.

The northernmost destination on Oprah’s Alaska cruise, Glacier Bay National Park, is reeling from the effects of climate change. Field measurements and photography show that the once-vast Muir Glacier in the park has lost more than 6 miles of its length between 1976 and 2003.

Muir Glacier in 1941 (top) and 2004 (above). (images: National Snow and Ice Data Center)

Business as usual? Or time for a change?

Currently, heavy fuel oil accounts for over 78 percent of Carnival’s greenhouse gas emissions. A business-as-usual approach will cause a staggering 250 percent increase of greenhouse gas emissions from the cruise and shipping industry by 2050, according to estimates.

Interestingly, greenhouse gas emissions from shipping are excluded from the emissions of any nation under the Paris climate accord. These emissions are truly under the radar screen, with no one held accountable.

Thankfully, it’s not all dire news. Better options are possible. A movement is afoot to phase out heavy fuel oil in the Arctic, and it was recently banned in Antarctic. Norway, a vanguard of environmental protection, has banned the use of heavy fuel oil off the coast of Svalbard, and other Arctic nations support the idea of phasing out this dirty fuel. It’s time for Carnival to look for cleaner ways to propel its fleet.

A solution Oprah can get behind

Oprah, one of the world’s most influential celebrities, has a passion for the environment, animals and social justice. She has the ability to move companies like Carnival to address climate change. And thankfully, there are a series of steps Carnival can adopt to reduce its carbon footprint and clean up the cruise industry:

  • Stand with the Marshall Islands and other countries facing severe threats from climate change by supporting an aggressive decarbonization plan for the shipping industry.

  • Develop and implement a company-wide plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris accord.

  • Protect the Arctic by immediately ending the use of heavy fuel oil in polar regions.

  • Improve the air quality in port communities by ensuring that the same air quality controls used in developed countries are also used in small island states and developing nations.

  • Install advanced sewage and wastewater treatment systems on every ship to protect the oceans from the immense amount of waste generated by cruise ships.

In the Trump era of aggressive environmental rollbacks and industry favors, we know we can’t look to our federal government to curb pollution or protect public health. But we have inspiring examples of forward-thinking corporations and civic leaders who are moving ahead with practical, innovative solutions. Carnival can play a pivotal role in pushing the shipping industry toward modern, clean and safe practices.

As Oprah prepares to embark on an adventure to see the natural wonders of Alaska that are under threat from climate change, there’s no better moment to make sure she knows about Carnival’s dirty fuel secrets and helps push the company toward cleaner options.

Together we can take a stand against the dirtiest fuel on earth and protect the special places where adventure awaits.

Send a message to Oprah asking her to partner with the climate, not Carnival CruisesTo learn more about the campaign, visit www.CleanUpCarnival.com.

Todd J. Paglia is the executive director of Stand.earth

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