I Am Flying to Another Conference and I Know I Shouldn't

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CC BY 2.0. Thinking about flying drives me to drink these days/ Lloyd Alter

The question of flight shaming keeps coming up, and there has been some significant pushback.

After not having been in a plane for some time, I am off to Atlanta to see Greenbuild and attend some important meetings, and then next week I am going back to Portugal to do lectures at a Passive House conference and two universities. Last year, on the way back from Portugal I asked, Should we just stop flying to conferences? I noted in that post that "it was silly, putting big heavy cement overshoes on my carbon footprint to speak at a conference about reducing our carbon footprint."

At the time I was invited to return and was planning to do it virtually, but here I am, booked to go. Recently I was speaking with an architect, a leader in the mass timber world, who seems to live in a plane, going to lecture or teach. I asked how he justified this and he almost exploded. "I am speaking all over the world, convincing people not to build out of concrete or steel, to change the way we do things. I have to be there to do that!"

This plane took me to the Galapagos

This plane took me to the Galapagos/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

That got me looking at what others are saying as I tried to justify my own travel. On Ensia, a number of climate scientists looked into the issue and concluded that air travel is not significantly worse on a per mile basis, that a full car is better than an empty plane (who sees empty seats on a plane anymore, and cars don't go nearly as far as planes, so that's not convincing). They suggest we should be "thoughtful and selective about all travel."

While flying is the biggest culprit in terms of climate impacts for those who can afford to fly (including most climate scientists), the majority of the world’s people do not fly and road transportation remains the largest share of transportation emissions. While refusing to fly does send an important message, it’s important to make sure a narrow focus on flight emissions doesn’t cause us to lose sight of the need for impactful climate action in multiple sectors.

This is also the argument used by another guy always in the sky, Mikael Colville-Andersen, who complains, "People flying to visit family and friends, to experience foreign cultures or people just doing their job — are these really the bogeymen that we need to target? Are they the evil henchmen from the industrial complex that need to be named, shamed and taken down?" Colville-Andersen suggests that we should concentrate on where the problem actually is and where we actually have alternatives, and that's the car. "If our house is on fire, as it indeed is, where would you point your hoses?" We are shaming the wrong people.

I am firmly convinced that our efforts can be better directed as we scramble to figure out solutions to fight climate change. I ask you to consider how wise it is to shame people who travel by plane for a myriad of good reasons when we aren’t shaming people who drive, for example, in cities when other options exist — or could exist with little effort. Like bike lanes or Bus Rapid Transit.

Peter Kalmus is having none of this. The climate scientist was one of the original flight shamers and is sticking to his guns, writing recently in Physics that it's time we got serious and acted like it's a climate emergency.

Flying contributes only 3% of global carbon emissions. But hour for hour, there’s no faster way to warm the planet, and the carbon emissions from universities and academic societies are dominated by flights. This is why flying less is arguably the most important symbolic action any academic institution or individual can take to communicate climate emergency. Furthermore, because there’s no carbon-free alternative to flying, its symbolic power becomes that much greater. By flying less or refusing to fly as scientists, we’re stating that the crisis is bad enough to merit moving away from business-as-usual practices to address it.

He notes that academia has to change the way it does conferences; "to push this movement forward, we also need to develop tools for virtual reality collaborations and advocate for low-carbon conferencing. For example, meetings could be designed around connected regional hubs or even be entirely virtual."

This plane took me to Haida Gwaii

This plane took me to Haida Gwaii/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

I do love seeing new places. I do feel that the serendipitous stuff that happens, where you meet new people and see new things, are what make flying to conferences worthwhile. In my daily life I have choices, to give up my car and bike everywhere, to eat less red meat, to turn down the thermostat. If I want to do three lectures in Portugal, the only option I have is to phone it in, and it is not the same thing, for them or for me.

Michael Mann has been taking a lot of flak lately for suggesting that flight shaming is really a deflection...

...aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals. Individual action is important and something we should all champion. But appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live is politically dangerous: it plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians.

He suggests that we should be concentrating on "the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions. We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care."

Lloyd talking

© Hugo Cunha via twitter

I am flying to Portugal to try to convince a couple of hundred people that we need to decarbonize our buildings and our transportation (which means less flying) and that we have to use less of everything (including airplanes). I get the contradiction and even the hypocrisy, but I am not ashamed; it's my job. I think I am good at it and that I make a difference doing it.