Fiddling While We Burn

We mocked Nero who fiddled while Rome burned. The latest report by the United Nations on climate change states: “Climate change is widespread, rapid and intensifying.”

Climate change…a deadly pandemic…and the ease of global travel in mass tourism – all these things are linked and all of them we could do something about.

Our response to the pandemic across the world has been deeply concerning exposing the greed of some nations over vaccine supply and to ‘let it rip’ instead of closing borders to effectively spread onward transmission. The link between the pandemic and climate change means this Covid encounter will not be the last. Instead of actually doing something about severing this link the UK – Scotland – has rushed headlong back to some kind of ‘normal’ with the bizarrely named ‘Freedom Day’. The Beyond Level 0 state of being in Scotland which actually deprives the most vulnerable in our society of their ‘freedom’ so that others can party on in nightclubs and cruise ships can disgorge hundreds of passengers into small island communities.

Cruise Ships

Yesterday Orkney Islands Council took the decision to allow cruise ship passengers to ‘wander freely’. Last week passengers were in ‘bubbles’ but with cases of Covid still on the rise in the islands OIC has removed that limitation to where the visitors from the ships can go. It’s billed as ‘another step forward’ – where that leads us to is of course another question. It’s not a step forward to address the climate crisis or to limit the onward transmission of the virus.

I wish those visitors from the cruise ships well, they are double vaccinated and took a PCR test before they went onboard, but of course that does not prevent them from contracting the virus in Orkney.

Up to 600 people will be able to visit from the ‘Celebrity Silhouette’, go where they want, into the wee cafes and shops where there is little ventilation or room to space out.

The Council’s Head of Marine Services, Transportation and, Harbour Master, Jim Buck, said:

“Our rigorous port COVID-19 health and safety procedures and those of the cruise liner operators, in line with Scottish Government and Health Protection Scotland advice, have stood us in good stead since the first liner called again on 30 July.

“The cruise operators rightly took a cautionary approach to the resumption and maintained the ‘bubble’ shore excursions. However, confidence is slowly growing within the industry – and within all other industries – that all the carefully crafted policies and procedures in place to keep everyone as safe as possible are doing just that.

“Please be assured that although we have had a number of successful cruise ship visits, we are not resting on our laurels and the stringent procedures will remain. But this further move is yet another step on the road to our new normality and, I hope, will be welcomed by our many fantastic local shops and businesses. The recent Kirkwall BID Costa del Kirkwall event in the town centre was a tremendous success with many people drawn back into the main thoroughfare – we hope the allowance of free movement of double vaccinated passengers will add to this.

 “The people of Orkney have been cautious and wise to be so, however, many are now telling us that it is time to get back to a more normal way of living, and part of this is the resumption of cruise, which is a vital part of the tourism sector and many associated businesses in the islands. This has been a long time coming and many months have been spent putting in place the correct health and safety protocols in collaboration with operators and Public Health.”

I don’t know who the people are who are telling Jim Buck that it is’time to get back to normal’ as I’m not aware of any consultation or any kind of survey taking place prior to this decision being taken. Have councillors been contacting their constituents to find out how they feel about this?

I have been contacted by those running holiday accommodation in Orkney who have gone to tremendous efforts to provide safe facilities for their visitors, people who have also been double vaccinated and taken 2 tests prior to visiting Orkney. The comments I have had from those local businesses say how disappointed their visitors were at not being able to get into tourist sites because spaces had been fully taken up by cruise ship tours. I have also been contacted by people who simply won’t be going into Kirkwall, as they might usually do, and have been doing all through the pandemic to support local shops and cafes because they don’t want to expose themselves to the added risk of contracting Covid. So perhaps some businesses will see increased trade from cruise ship passengers but may lose the local spend. The gamble of OIC going ahead with 600 people wandering freely during a pandemic won’t be known for 10 days perhaps two weeks.

Last week, as Orkney Islands Council welcomed the return of cruise ships into the islands, I contacted all the MSPs who are elected to represent the People of Orkney: Liam McArthur MSP LibDem, Ariane Burgess MSP Scottish Greens, Rhoda Grant MSP Labour, Emma Roddick MSP SNP and Donald Cameron MSP Conservatives.

I wanted to know what their view were on the resumption of cruise ships to Orkney.

I received no replies from the LibDems, the Scottish Greens, and the Conservatives. The SNP replied that they did not have a comment to make on this issue. Only Labour replied and I thank the office of Rhoda Grant for having the courtesy to reply which they did promptly. Rhoda Grant answered all the questions posed.

What are your views given we are still in a Covid pandemic?

“It appears that Covid-19 is increasingly becoming a virus that we are going to have to learn to deal with,  by possibly updating vaccines annually to protect us. Global eradication does not appear possible at this time and won’t be until such a time that all individuals, across the globe, have access to a vaccine. While we need to continue to push for this we need to accept that it might not happen quickly.  Therefore, we need to find ways of living with it and keeping everyone as safe as possible. 

“I know people who have been on cruises recently and it appears they take safety very seriously.  Cruise companies are used to dealing with infection control; outbreaks of norovirus on board can be costly so they are possibly better placed to deal with infection control.  That said they need to be extremely careful for those on board and those who host their visits to ensure no spread.”

Do you think the cruise ship industry is a contributor to our climate emergency and if so could you expand on your thinking? Should Scotland be encouraging this form of mass tourism?

“Every form of tourism contributes to the climate emergency and that is why we should focus on decarbonising travel.  Travel is good for us and we shouldn’t sacrifice that. It broadens our minds to other cultures and settings, makes us more conscious of our surroundings and how we impact on others, it provides many benefits. However, we need to have clearly in mind the impact that has on the environment. Until a time where travel is less of a contributor, we should perhaps look at spending more of our holidays at home, like we have done recently, but not everyone has a garden or lives in a place where you can spend your leisure time and we need to be aware of that. “

Could you provide us with your reaction to the implications for island communities  of the role of  cruise ships for local economies?

“Cruise ships provide a boost to local economies. We have seen this in Orkney as many businesses have grown and flourished due to the cruise ship income.  This is not only a benefit to them and to the tourists, it also means there is more variety available to Orcadians as they have access to shops, restaurants and the like that they would not be able to sustain without this inward travel.  The challenge is getting the balance right and I know many locals will avoid certain areas when they know a cruise ship is due because of the enormous influx of people.  It is for islanders themselves to gauge what is an acceptable level given the impacts on their lives and livelihoods.”

What in your view is the alternative to cruise ships and how can that sector change what it does to reduce its impact on local marine areas with regards to discharge etc.

“Like every sector the cruise sector needs to clean up its act, frankly we can all do better.  If we blame someone or something else for this impact then nothing will change and instead we should unite to tackle this issue together.”

If any of the other MSPs respond I will add them into this article.

If you don’t think climate change affects you – even with the link to our current coronavirus pandemic – then think again because the UN report concludes that every region on our planet is affected. And not in a good way.

With further global warming, every region is projected to increasingly experience concurrent and multiple changes in climatic impact-drivers. Changes in several climatic impact-drivers would be more widespread at 2°C compared to 1.5°C global warming and even more widespread and/or pronounced for higher warming levels

Sixth assessment report

In previous editions of The Orkney News we reported on the Nobel Laureates and their online conference on our climate crisis. “Let’s defend our future, let’s fight for it, let’s create it” #NobelPrizeSummit

That article opens with: The Covid19 pandemic is a clear warning that we need to address climate change. It is also an opportunity to rebuild in a new direction. That was the message from Sir David Attenborough on the opening day of the Nobel Prize Summit “Our Planet Our Future”.

The conference concluded with an urgent call for action for world leaders and for all of us Our Planet Our Future: An Urgent Call For Action

We need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included, requires us to become effective stewards of the global commons — the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system. There is now an existential need to build economies and societies that support Earth system harmony rather than disrupt it.

The report by the Nobel laureates also addresses the inequality not just between countries but that which exists in our own communities . As we’ve watched TV news of villages being consumed by severe floods and rampaging fires, we were also seeing images of a couple of mega billionaires splurging their wealth on personal jollies into space flight. Not for the greater good of humankind, just for the fun of it, because they can. That’s at the same time as crowdfunds are launched not for space flight but to purchase vaccines for countries struggling to afford them.

The lobbyists employed by the airline,mass tourism, fossil fuel extraction sectors have been extremely effective at influencing governments in the UK to return to this ‘new normal’, which looks very like the old ‘normal’except with people becoming extremely ill and some dying due to a highly transmissible virus still very much mutating its way through the population.

In a few weeks Glasgow will host COP26 – I’m not feeling very hopeful as it flies thousands of attendees into the city to take part.

red and orange fire
Photo by Adonyi Gábor on

Fiona Grahame

4 replies »

  1. Dear Fiona!
    I have yet to come across an article of yours which I don’t admire.
    This one is no exception. You are clear, concise, to the point and satisfyingly explicit in putting down your fact based views. I totally agree with your views. I have been a regular visitor to Orkney for 32 years and will be coming to live in my house in Kirkwall for the larger part of each year now that I’m (newly) retired. I am very much aware of Orkney’s treasures and vulnerabilities and am much concerned about the direction tourist management seems to be taking, coming from a country with a very long history of tourism and of living with the consequences of harmful decisions past and present as well as with healthy decisions (mostly made by individuals or individual communities, not by the government…) to combine welcoming guests with preserving what is still left to be preserved and with getting onto a track mindful of nature’s and of local residents’ needs.
    Disappointing individual visitors by booking up your most popular sights and places with Cruise groups eats away at the benefits for all those businesses not involved in the cruise ship sector, and I believe that letting loose thousands of people who may be doubly vaccinated and tested, but who may still be carrying and therefore spreading the virus is not really in the best interest of the majority of local people.
    I fervently hope Orkney will manage to avoid major damages done and to preserve it’s uniqueness based on you Orcadians first and on caring, mindful tourists second!
    Best regards
    Elisabeth Sidler

  2. I’m wondering exactly by what process this decision was come to? In a full Council meeting – or was King James just throwing his weight about?

    I hope, I hope, I hope that the people of Orkney remember this when the next local elections come round.

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