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Flying Is One of the Worst Things You Can Do for the Environment -- So Why Do So Many Well-Intentioned Folks Do It?

Flying is the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption. Can we kick the habit, or at least cut back?

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Yet it is striking how little one hears about this from those involved in environmental and social justice work. To many, the link between the problems they decry and try to remedy and their own consumption is seemingly invisible. Take, for instance, a Jan. 7, 2010 article by Orville Schell of the Asia Institute, where he works on, among other matters, climate change. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Schell laments the Himalaya’s melting glaciers. They are, he writes, “wasting away on an overheated planet, and no one knows what to do about it.” Meanwhile, he mentions that he has “roamed the world from San Francisco to Copenhagen to Beijing to Dubai” over “the past few months” -- presumably by airplane.

Such a disconnect is hardly exceptional: a few years ago, a friend who works on climate issues for a progressive international NGO informed me that he and his colleagues had never discussed the ecological costs of flying in relation to their participation in meetings in distant locales.

Critical scrutiny of these costs did emerge somewhat in the context of the Dec. 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. The gathering reportedly generated 46,200 metric tons of carbon dioxide (an estimated 2,000-plus tons of which was due to President Barack Obama’s two Air Force One jets alone), the vast majority of which came from the flights of the delegates, officials, journalists, activists, and observers in attendance. (This is roughly equal to the annual emissions output of 660,000 Ethiopians or, given the profoundly different levels of consumption across the planet, 2,300 Americans -- according to U.S. government data.)

But the voicing of concerns about such matters was isolated and, in places like the United States, almost non-existent -- at least as indicated by media coverage.

Ironically, an organization critical of efforts to regulate carbon emissions, “Americans for Prosperity,” raised the issue. Trying to discredit U.S. student activists who had disrupted one of the Tea Party-allied group’s climate-change-skeptic sessions in Copenhagen, it posted a video on YouTube titled “Eco Hypocrites Fly in Jets Across Atlantic to Attack AFP.”

Given Americans for Prosperity’s climate-change-denial politics and the fact that its representatives had also flown to Denmark, it is difficult to take seriously its accusation of hypocrisy. That said, it forces the question of how one justifies an oversized ecological footprint -- as Grist, the online environmental magazine put it in relation to flying to Copenhagen -- “to help save the planet.”

What is striking about the Grist piece (May 17, 2009) is that it merely mentions ships as a low-impact alternative to flights, but only after saying that flying “is pretty much the only option” for non-European attendees. More importantly, it didn’t even raise the option of not going to Copenhagen -- and pursuing other courses of action to advance a climate justice agenda in relation to the conference. To give one example, how about organizing in one’s hometown during the gathering and pressuring elected officials from the area to actively support a strong international agreement?

This is not to say that no one should have gone to Copenhagen -- or to call for the end of all gatherings that involve long-distance travel. Nor is to say that no one should ever fly. For some, attending meetings in far-flung locales is absolutely necessary. But for many their attendance is not vital to the cause’s advancement. Moreover, some who would normally fly can get there by other means. And, of course, perhaps the in-person gathering need not take place, and would-be participants can figure out other ways to communicate and collaborate, and to further their political agenda.

 
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