While climate change has long been in the back of my mind, I am embarrassed to admit that’s where it’s been: in the back of my mind.
But clearly, with fire after disaster after flood, report after buried report after report, it can no longer stay there.
What’s even more embarrassing is that this realization has arrived in the midst of a yearlong trip around the world. Which, as it turns out, is completely antithetical to caring about climate change.
Just how bad is flying for the planet?
“On an individual level, there is no other human activity that emits as much over such a short period of time as aviation, because it is so energy-intensive,” professor Stefan Gössling, co-editor of “Climate Change and Aviation,” told DW.
According to a recent NYT article, on a 2,500-mile flight, one passenger’s share of emissions melts 32 square feet of Arctic summer sea ice cover.
“Even a serious environmentalist who eats vegan, heats using solar power and rides a bike to work, but who still takes the occasional flight, wouldn’t look very green at all,” explains DW. “Just two hypothetical short-haul return flights and one long-haul round-trip in a given year would outweigh otherwise exemplary behavior.”
Womp womp. It’s not looking good for me, or for anyone else who likes to travel by plane. Even if we’re otherwise conscious consumers / earth dwellers, there’s not really a way to reconcile our passion for traveling with our passion for, um, living and breathing on this globe.
You might ask: What about offsetting flights? While certainly better than nothing, I believe offsetting is a bit like greenwashing of the soul: a way for us to feel better about our bad behavior. (The UN agrees.)
It’s not just flying, either
For more than a decade, I have been a travel evangelist, espousing it as the best way to learn about other cultures (and yourself), the best way to develop empathy, the best way to build character.
While that all may be true, I can’t ignore the other very real, less rosy ramifications, too.
Cities have become overtouristed, polluted with people and plastic. Locals have been driven from their homes, as rents rise to accommodate a deluge of Airbnbs. World Heritage sites have been transformed; national parks have become parking lots.
When combined with the biggest, most dire effect — the potential destruction of our planet — I have been asking myself every day if traveling with a clean conscience is even possible anymore.
And I am far from the only one asking it.
Do personal actions really matter?
You can make the argument that one person’s actions — whether it’s eating less meat or giving up flying entirely — don’t matter. It’s a big planet, after all, and it’s up to fossil fuel companies and governments to make the changes that count.
But our choices matter because they are a signal to those around us.
“People taking action in their personal lives is actually one of the best ways to get to a society that implements the policy-level change that is truly needed,” write Leor Hackel and Gregg Sparkman in an excellent Wired article. “Research on social behavior suggests lifestyle change can build momentum for systemic change.”
“One person skipping a flight will not solve global warming alone, but when one person withdraws from a system that causes harm, they make that harm palpable to others,” they continue.
The thing is: It can’t end there. In a must-read story in Vox, NRDC staffer Mary Annaïse Heglar writes: “While personal actions can be meaningful starting points, they can also be dangerous stopping points.” It’s important, she says, to magnify those actions into “something bigger than what kind of bag totes your groceries.”
She suggests showing up to rallies, participating in climate strikes, and of course, voting for politicians with strong environmental policies. And then holding them accountable.
As Hackel and Sparkman explain, humans are social animals that only recognize emergencies through social cues. In one study, for example, people were less likely to report smoke when surrounded by others who pretended not to notice. “People don’t spring into action just because they see smoke; they spring into action because they see others rushing in with water,” they write.
So let’s be clear: This is not a declaration that I’m giving up traveling. (Or dairy, or my Camry.) And I don’t have an answer to the question I asked in the headline — at least not one I’m comfortable facing yet.
At this point, all I can say is I have seen the smoke. And am thinking a lot about ways we can rush in with water before it’s too late.
In the spirit of Pledge 1%, and following the lead of my friend Cait Flanders, I have decided to allocate 1% of my income to combating climate change. It’s my own small first step; my own greenwashing of the soul, for now.
The question is: Where’s the best place to donate it? To the Environmental Defense Fund? To the Sunrise Movement? Or to politicians, who, you know, believe in science? I’m leaning towards the latter option, but would love to read comments from people who know more about this topic than me. Or from anyone who is thinking about these issues, too.