Worrying About Climate Change From 35,000 Feet

I have very little patience with climate change denial, and even less patience with spluttered, “even if the climate is changing we’re still not sure it’s human-caused” hold-outs. The science is solid, the climate is changing, and quickly, and on a trajectory that could ultimately be disastrous for all of us, regardless of how much of that change can be attributed to human activity to date.

If you were on a train track and there were a train roaring down the track toward you, you would, valuing your life, get OFF the track whether you walked onto it yourself or someone shoved you.

I’m optimistic enough about human ingenuity and collaborative potential to believe that we can save lives, assure international and domestic security, and protect beloved cities and natural spaces threatened by nightmare climate change projections, some of which have already begun to come true. That being said, I first learned about climate change when I was eight years old, more than twenty years ago. Something about the school lesson so horrified me that I couldn’t sleep for days (I was an intense kid)– it was a fear I couldn’t articulate then: that not enough was being done to address an impending crisis, that complacence of the many was muffling the frantic alarm of the few.

Realizing the issue is incredibly complex and having no plans to become a politician or policy-maker or engineer, I feel the best way for me to support an effort to address climate change is to vote for candidates who claim to prioritize this issue, while making a reasonable effort to reduce my own individual contribution to the problem. I like not having a car and hope to continue living in places with decent public transport options. I try to limit the amount of plastic that I buy and the amount of meat that I eat. I heat my apartment only as needed and layer my clothes more heavily when I’m at home during the winter; I don’t use air conditioning in the summer. When I’m feeling especially ambitious, I buy produce in season that hasn’t had to travel as far. I don’t plan to own a large house, ever.

I’m not patting myself on the back– none of these things is any real inconvenience or sacrifice for me, and frankly I suspect they do more to assuage my own feelings of helplessness and guilt than anything else. After all, despite being more conscious and concerned than many, I still commit one of the greatest climate-affecting sins: I fly.

I love travel, and I’m lucky enough to have the time and means to do it. Budget travel is easier than ever before, so I’m part of a growing number of casual jetsetters criss-crossing the globe. A trip that once would have taken dangerous weeks or months is now possible in a few safe hours. A pastime traditionally open to only a very small group of wealthy “gentlemen” is now within reach of “the masses.” Afflicted with an incurable case of travel bug, I’m on the move whenever I have the time and funds, favoring trains but jumping on a plane when ground travel is too expensive or impractical. I’ve made the choice to live abroad and make one or two annual cross-ocean plane trips to see family. It’s wonderful.

Unfortunately, planes dump loads of emissions in the atmosphere, and the hypocrisy of scoffing at others for owning gas-guzzling vehicles or upgrading to the latest phone model while continuing to indulge this pastime gnaws on my conscience. Claiming to feel so guilty, why don’t I move close to family, cut the flying, and stop wringing my hands like some self-absorbed nutcase? I recognize that being in a position to even reflect on this issue is illustrative of how privileged I am. I sound like an asshole, right?

The fact is that travel is one of my greatest joys and I don’t want to give it up. I try to compensate through efforts in other areas, and to remember that natural resources and native populations under threat can be bolstered and protected by responsible tourism. The dream: that our political leaders will grow a backbone and work with business to create a future in which long-distance travel is more sustainable, whether because of improved technology or policy or, ideally, a combination of the two.

In the meantime, is it OK to continue to enjoy the perks of our times in moderation? The conclusion I’ve arrived at is shaky at best: I hope so.

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2 thoughts on “Worrying About Climate Change From 35,000 Feet

  1. I’ve hardly even considered the negative environmental effects of flying and now I feel like a bad person. (I didn’t turn on the airconditioning once this summer, but that’s because, you know, we don’t have that here.) If it makes you feel better, I probably cause twice as much damage when I fly home, and if that doesn’t make you feel better, I worked for a guy who flew internationally at least two times a week. And I don’t mean like to Canada, I mean like California to Germany to Brazil. So you know. There’s that.

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