Is Shaming People for Flying Effective?

Plane sitting on the runway
Public Domain.


Greta Thunberg's sailboat journey has triggered a heated debate over how to encourage people to take climate action.

Greta Thunberg is in the midst of her trans-Atlantic journey by sailboat, making headlines for refusing to fly and trying to travel with nearly zero carbon emissions. The journey has provoked strong reactions online, particularly on Twitter, with climate crisis deniers and even some environmentalists criticizing Thunberg's efforts.

While it makes sense that deniers would feel threatened by the sailboat journey and everything that Thunberg stands for, the negative reactions from environmentalists are a bit more confusing. The reason, however, stems from a debate over whether or not shaming people into avoiding flying, or flygskam, as it's called in Swedish, is an effective way to help the climate crisis. It's an interesting and important question that CBC Radio host Matt Galloway put to climate scientists earlier this week in an interview you can listen to here.

Katharine Hayhoe, a Canadian climate scientist who teaches at Texas Tech University, does not think that shame is ever an effective tool. She described being shamed once by someone who said she was "sinning" every time she turned on her car.

"My visceral reaction to somebody saying that to me was: 'Oh, so when I take my child to the doctor, you're saying I'm sinning? When I go to work to support my family, I'm sinning?' [It] made me want to just go out and find a Hummer and drive circles around that person."

While Hayhoe is clear that we have to "break the hold" that fossil fuels have on our society, and that it's important to educate people as to how their personal actions affect the planet, there are better ways to handle it than making someone feel terrible for getting on an airplane. Some perspective is valuable; it's not just planes that are bad.

"We need to understand the fact that many of our actions do produce heat-trapping gases. Food waste is a huge source. If it were its own country, it would be number three after the U.S. and China. Eating lower down the food chain, reducing our intake of meat, especially red meat and pork, is really important."

Similarly, looking at how we travel and understanding that our choices do make a difference is key, but so is realizing that we need to advocate for change on levels beyond the personal level. Our focus should be on the companies, the big emitters that continue to expand fossil fuel production and invest heavily in PR to confuse the issue. Pressuring political leaders to take action is especially important, with federal elections coming up this year in Canada next year in the U.S.

I struggle with this question, too. I live in Canada, where it's next to impossible to get anywhere without taking a car or an airplane. If I lived in Europe, I'd probably be all over the Flight-Free 2020 challenge because viable alternatives actually exist.

But I am not actually convinced that an outright personal ban on flying is the solution. Think of the 'reducetarian' approach to food. Rather than urging people to go vegetarian or vegan, it's more effective to encourage people to eat less meat and dairy overall. I wrote a couple years ago, in the context of food,

"With the average American eating 275 pounds of meat per year, getting an individual to reduce his or her meat consumption by only 10 percent would see a reduction in nearly 30 pounds annually. Now imagine if a quarter of the U.S. population did this! It could make a huge difference."

Now apply this logic to flying. What if, rather than shaming people for wanting to go places, we encouraged better and smarter uses of flight technology? The conversation could revolve less around going 'flight-free' altogether and more around taking fewer flights and investing in bio- and algae-based fuels. It may sound like a watered-down reaction at a time when immediate and decisive action is crucial, but it's more realistic. If more people flew less, we'd be further ahead than if a handful of people swore off flying altogether.

The best idea I've read for incentivizing this would be to tax frequent fliers or anyone who flies more than once per year. Suddenly flight prices would go up drastically to act as a deterrent. Another step is to remove fuel subsidies and put them toward alternative forms of transportation; it's absurd that trains and buses are more expensive than flights, and if those costs were brought down while flights cost more, there would be a natural shift away from flying.

While even Thunberg's journey isn't as carbon-free as it looks – crew members are being flown across the Atlantic to sail the boat home – her message remains powerful and important: We can change our way of life, and it must change in order to cope with the climate crisis. Her alternative form of transportation is inspiring and impressive, and there's no reason why we cannot seek these alternatives in our own lives.