The Lure of Travel, the Shame of Flying

If you care about your impact on the planet, you should stop flying

Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.

When it comes to the environmental costs of flights ‘we need to figure out how to turn that shame into action’

Most of the friends I have in Oaxaca are Americans, most have money, and most love to travel—usually by air. And they tend to take several long-distance trips a year. These are smart people who understand (at least I think they understand) that aviation produces enormous amounts of carbon pollution.

Yet these folks are expats who have family in the U.S. or elsewhere. They are retired and yearn finally to indulge the urge to see the world. They have personal connections abroad or would create them. Flying seems to activate this kind of personal globalization in all its ambiguous consequences, and there are millions of travelers like them.

What are the costs of this sort of indulgence?

Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand.

And neither biofuels nor reduced demand are likely to happen soon. Putting it another way: a one-way flight from London to New York for each traveler in economy class will “put an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air—about as much as taking a round-trip 15-mile commute every day for a year in a fuel-efficient car.”

So the question of whether or not to give up or restrict one’s flying typically becomes an ethical and very personal one. For me and my friends in Mexico, Oaxaca has recently improved its air service options, and with more airlines and more flights operating, we’re more tempted to use them. Bus travel within the country is much less polluting, and the buses are good. But if they have the money, most will choose to fly.

I fly to the U.S. maybe once a year to see family. I don’t like what air travel has become and I don’t want to contribute to climate pollution. Others will have different needs and convictions. Americans fly more than most anyone else in the world (and contribute the second-most pollution of any country). They are not going to quit flying but they should think long and hard before making any trip. They should also think long and hard about the systemic and political changes that the climate crisis demands. Shame and personal guilt are not enough.

Artisanal Martini Wisdom on Climate Change

Elizabeth Warren thinks corruption is why the US hasn’t acted on climate change

 How One Billionaire Could Keep Three Countries Hooked on Coal for Decades

 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si’ of the Holy Father Francis on Care for Our Common Home

We were drinking freshly distilled artisanal martinis at Ralph’s house (he makes his gin from a small still), and so after a time the subject of climate change had to come up. We also talked about the latest Trump outrage, Rashida Tlaib and Israel, uses of CBD oil, the broken bones in Epstein’s neck. Yet climate seemed to dominate, with several expressing strong opinions as to how the Democrats could approach the issue.

None of us felt the Dems were doing justice to the climate crisis, much less scoring any political points with their “programs.” They have invariably ducked the hard issues of cost and scale and failed to get much media attention. After another martini we generated several brilliant solutions to their problems.

Bryan thought that Elizabeth Warren, the policy maven, needed to make a strong capitalistic pitch.

“She has the brains to come up with a policy that meets some of the challenges but she doesn’t know how to sell it. The economic benefits are what’s going to sell it. The government will prime the pump and money will pour into software development, clean energy companies, biomass, electric cars, agriculture, all of that. Farmers will get rich. People will breathe clean air. The trade deficit will fall. Poverty will decline. The country will come back from its present madness.

“She’s got five climate change plans now. Who knows what any of those are? This is a capitalistic country, for God’s sake.”

Bryan got a round of applause, and Ralph took another approach. À propos my last blog post, which he and others found very depressing, the third martini produced this:

“My bedrock notion is that global warming/climate change can only be moderated with less resource consumption, especially carbon-based fuels. So how do we do this? Unless the global populace really, really lowers its carbon footprint (like taking sailboats to China to visit grandkids [Ralph’s is there]) or escapes materialism in the first place (not a chance—look at India’s buying coal from Australia to generate electricity to sell to Bangladesh), disastrous levels of global warming/climate change are inevitable.

“Other than some wacko techno fixes (like nuclear-powered ice machines on American-owned Greenland), the other approach I think holds promise would be to lower the world’s population—whether as: 1) a policy (China did it actually); or more likely 2) as a result of some as yet unknown and very nasty calamity (e.g., defective nuclear ice machines make all of Greenland melt, and hence the world’s oceans become deadly radioactive).”

We stood and cheered for this ode to climate fatalism. After that, I didn’t feel so bad about writing “The Climate Change Blues.” I wanted to end on a more hopeful note and so talked about Pope Francis’s encyclical of four years ago, Laudato Si’. 

You know, no one else has written anything like it. It is a directive to all of us to wake up and recognize the oneness of life. And it’s really much more than a Catholic document. It tells us that everyone is responsible for the health of the earth; everything is connected; and climate change is both a social and environmental crisis.”

Bringing a religious document into the discussion produced more discussion, of course. But who has a better grasp on reality—the Pope or Bill McKibben?

The Climate Change Blues

The Green New Deal isn’t big enough

Climate change will force 120 million people into poverty

What I learned writing about climate change and the US south for a year


The outlook is full of distressing signs. A climate change blues plays in heavy rotation on our interior Spotify. It echoes the rainstorm that never quits, the drought that never ends. Try applying analytical reason or talking about solutions, and you confront boundless examples of human inertia, narcissism, bias and denial.

One problem is the vast scale that a viable solution requires. The Green New Deal by itself can’t stave off calamity even if the US adopted it. It’s not nearly enough because the problem is global and historic. The U.S. and other wealthy nations will have to kick in vast amounts of money in “climate finance” to mitigate emissions in developing countries, not to mention their own. Electorates show no sign of being willing to do this.

The leaders of developing nations aren’t suckers, and they know how dire the problem is. They have something rich countries want (emissions reductions), and they’d be fools to just give it away for free, even if they could. If we want them to succeed, it’s going to cost us, and we’ll need to move quickly. The science is clear: We do not have another decade to waste.

Likewise, Philip Alston, author of a devastating UN report, finds that

mainstream discussions about climate change are remarkably out of touch with the scale of the crisis and the economic and social upheaval it will bring. Political leaders have failed to put forward a vision for avoiding catastrophic consequences or protecting those most affected. . . . 

[Climate change] will impoverish hundreds of millions, including middle class people in wealthy countries. It will push 120 million people into poverty by 2030 alone, and could lead to a “climate apartheid” scenario where the wealthy pay to escape overheating, hunger and conflict while the rest of the world is left to suffer.

While American attitudes toward the climate crisis vary significantly, many people in rural regions like the South have powerful interests in promoting denial. A climate reporter for The Guardian comments:

A Pew survey indicated that white evangelical protestants are the least likely to profess a belief in climate change. Power companies, developers and conservative politicians have a vested interest in deregulation and maintaining the environmental status quo, and many paint environmental concerns as nothing but liberal pagan ideas.

In a region that recapitulates decades of delay and denial, some plan to stick it out at any cost and go down with the ship. Is it really any different with the rest of the country? Although their scale and threat have dramatically increased, floods, famine and extreme weather events have always been with us. Bessie may help us remember that “when it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow /there’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

Individual Choices Don’t Really Count

The best way to reduce your personal carbon emissions: don’t be rich

There has been much talk about how individuals can fight climate change through making personal choices. Well, finally we have a study, reported by David Roberts in Vox, that proves out how silly most of that discussion has been.

The study concluded that the biggest impact on reducing your carbon impact was to “have one fewer child.” Everybody went up in arms about that and, as Roberts shows, there are three big problems with framing the problem as one of individual choices.

  1. Attributing children’s emissions to their parents is unworkable
  2. If you want avoided children, the developed world is the wrong place to look
  3. Not all children are created equal (that is, kids of the wealthy produce way more carbon emissions).

What becomes obvious is that “climate change is primarily being driven by the behavior of the world’s wealthy. The same disparity holds within countries, none more so than the US [where rich people] produce 10 times more per capita emissions than the wealthy in China. That is pretty mind-boggling.”

When the G20 leaders meet in a few days, they would do well to consider this graphic:

Eating less meat, flying less and driving less are of course good personal choices that primarily affect the local environment. Yet,

the very ones whose choices matter most seem least inclined to cut back on consumption. I mean, maybe you could persuade the developed-world wealthy to voluntarily downsize their lifestyles, but . . . have you met the developed-world wealthy? That doesn’t sound like them.

The obvious and most direct approach to addressing the role of individual choices in climate change is to tax the consumptive choices of the wealthy. For now, and for the foreseeable future, carbon emissions rise with wealth. Redistributing wealth down the income scale, ceteris paribus, reduces lifestyle emissions.