Plane carbon footprint: I went a year without flying to fight climate change.

I Went a Year Without Flying to Help Fight Climate Change

I Went a Year Without Flying to Help Fight Climate Change

The citizen’s guide to the future.
Oct. 2 2014 12:56 PM
FROM SLATE, NEW AMERICA, AND ASU

My Year Without Flying

I’ve stayed on the ground, to help fight climate change. Here’s what happened.

140930_FT_PlaneHaze
A Virgin Atlantic airplane flies past the haze-covered skyline of Lower Manhattan as seen from the Eagle Rock Reservation in West Orange, New Jersey, on Aug. 31, 2012.

Photo by Gary Hershorn/Reuters

This week marks one year since I last flew on an airplane. To the likely dismay of Fox News, which called me a “sniveling beta male,” my decision didn’t result in a dramatic tailspin of self-loathing or suicide, the ultimate carbon footprint reducer. Quite the contrary: It’s been an amazing year.

My decision was prompted by a science report that brought me to tears. It wasn’t that the consensus statement was particularly new or noteworthy—we all know by now that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a civilization—but that, for the first time, I realized that my daily actions were powerful enough to make a meaningful change.

On that day, I entered my own version of the Anthropocene and glimpsed a story I think merits far more attention: Climate change isn’t about fancy light bulbs or SUVs or distant glaciers. It’s about people. Real people who just want to live healthy, happy, interesting lives and raise our kids in a world that’s beautiful.

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I wrote an essay about my decision in Quartz, and much to my surprise, I made international headlines, including the Washington Post, the Daily Mail, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, and more. Clearly my decision touched a nerve.

As a scientist and a journalist, society tells me I’m not supposed to have emotions. I’m supposed to report the data and stay objective, tweaking my wording here and there to account for the increasing scientific consensus. But climate change is different. There’s no way you can be on the fence after seeing the data the way I’ve seen it.

Over the past year, I’ve had to make a few small sacrifices, sure. (My 28-hour bus ride from Wisconsin to Atlanta wasn’t the most relaxing travel experience I’ve ever taken. I’d have much preferred one of these.) But an amazing thing has also happened since I’ve embraced slow travel: My world has shrunk and become richer. (It’s also easier to escape those awkward family reunions.)

My wife and I canceled a frequent-flier trip we had planned to Hawaii and instead spent a weekend at the otherworldly ice caves on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. I sent our Civic into a 360-degree spin on an ice road to Madeline Island in a moment of pure joy. It was the coldest I had ever been. What initially felt like one of the biggest sacrifices of our decision to stop flying (enjoying the polar vortex instead of Hawaii in February) turned into a moment I’ll never forget.

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In March, my wife and I embarked on an epic road trip through the drought-stricken West to visit family and friends and report for Slate. That trip changed the way I think about California and opened my eyes to the complexity of water issues rarely seen in front-page coverage of the drought. I also got to introduce my wife to one of my favorite places on the planet: Oregon’s breathtaking Columbia River Gorge, which was shrouded in fog on our early morning transit as we headed home to Wisconsin.

There’ve been challenges, too. I work from home, and I first met my editor in person just last month, after nearly a year writing daily at Slate. I’ve also given up work opportunities in Ethiopia and at the United Nations, and speaking engagements on both coasts.

My travel calculus now revolves around time, not money (and it’s freed up a lot of cash). It’s opened my mind more to enjoying the journey than just rushing to get to the destination. Cliché maybe, but true. Slower travel makes me appreciate where I am because I know how long it took to get there, I can feel it. And it makes me even more happy to get back home. (Plus, we can take the dog with us much more easily.)

Don’t get me wrong, I loved flying. I even, at one time, had a pilot’s license. But there’s something very unnatural about it. It warps your sense of time and place. Jetlag didn’t exist a hundred years ago.

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My wife and I fell in love, in part, due to our shared fascination with international travel. And we’re not giving up on international travel. We still want to have new experiences and see parts of the world we haven’t seen. We’re just going to have to be more creative and patient. For example, a year ago, I never thought I’d consider planning a trip to Europe on a cargo ship. We’ll still encourage our children to travel internationally if there’s a reasonably climate-friendly way of doing so. (And if not, maybe by then scientists will have perfected real-life holodecks.)

I’m not pretending I’m on to something particularly novel here, just that our culture has at times overvalued quick, exotic travel in an era of climate change. It’s gotten to the point that, at least in the United States, train and bus systems prove to be pretty appalling alternatives. (On a recent round-trip Amtrak journey to New York, I was delayed five hours each way because freight trains had the right of way on the route I was taking. All the more reason that bus systems are the future.) At the very least, a carbon tax might help to level the incentives a bit.

This week, buried within a highly entertaining first-hand review of Singapore Airlines’ new Suites Class—the first and only commercial air service with a double bed in the sky—entrepreneur Derek Low reported that he overheard that the United Nations’ newest celebrity climate champion, Leonardo DiCaprio, had previously flown in Suites Class. You can think of Suites Class as something akin to a private jet experience. From the looks of Low’s review, a suite on Singapore Airlines displaces at least nine coach class seats, with an associated boost in relative carbon emissions. (A representative from DiCaprio’s eponymous foundation, which is devoted primarily to environmental causes, did not respond to a request for comment.)

Before I gave up flying, I’d been trying myself to ignore this dirty secret: For someone so concerned about global warming, each year I was pumping a dozen times the CO2 as the average world citizen into the atmosphere. For all our efforts in recent decades, the U.S. emits almost exactly as much greenhouse gases each year as it did way back in 1990. That’s more carbon per person than almost every other country on Earth. As a country with only 5 percent of the world’s population, our lifestyle has been so outsized for so long that no other nation on Earth is more to blame historically than us. Sure, flying makes up just a few percent of global emissions right now, but it’s rapidly growing. By 2050, aviation could account for about half of total U.S. emissions, simply because nothing invented yet (or even on the horizon) can hurtle metal through the air quite like petroleum. By continuing to take to the skies, we’re locking in the infrastructure and voting for a high carbon future with our dollars.

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On Monday, I talked to Kevin Anderson, a professor at the University of Manchester’s Tyndall Center who has gone 11 years without flying—though he’s quick to admit that, like me, his emissions are still well above the global average despite being voluntarily grounded.

In an essay Anderson wrote as part of his effort to chronicle a recent 20-day round-trip journey by train from his home in the United Kingdom to a climate meeting in Shanghai, he summed up the feeling I’ve come to know so well this year: “Slow forms of travel fundamentally change our perception of the essential.”

Anderson was motivated to begin slow travel primarily by the results of his research. Along with his colleagues, he’s shown that, in order for the world to keep its commitment of holding global warming to safe levels, emissions in Europe and the United States (and other relatively wealthy countries) must drop by about 10 percent per year starting almost immediately. Last year, Anderson held a conference on radical emissions reductions for colleagues to brainstorm science-based ways to bring about these rates of change in ways that don’t seriously affect quality of life. He said:

There are technical things that we can do that would avoid us having to make the dramatic radical changes to how we live our lives. The real hard choices are not the shift from fossil fuels to renewables or nuclear or whatever it might be. The real hard choices are the ones that bring about rapid reductions in our carbon emissions. Those are ones that have to do with how we are living our lives today and those are extremely difficult and very few people are prepared to really countenance those.
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What the math behind climate science is asking for is nothing less than a revolution. Anderson thinks scientists like him should lead by example. “I think we have to start to actually act accordingly with our own analysis. That lends credibility to our work.” This holds true for nonscientist advocates, too, he believes. “Al Gore’s probably got an emission footprint similar to a small African country, and he’s wandering about the planet telling other people that they should reduce their carbon emissions.”

Still, Anderson admits that it’s a big ask to broaden the efforts from a few passionate scientists to broader society. But without that, the chances of maintaining a stable climate are slim. Still, Anderson remains about as optimistic as his research permits him to be.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”

*  *  *

For me, quitting flying is just another choice that brings me closer to living a life that’s in line with what I believe.

Our year without flying has inspired me to think about what else I can do during the second year. Maybe we’ll move into a smaller house.

Special thanks to my wife, Karen Edquist, for her help with crafting this piece and being a creative and patient travel companion. 

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.