Flying to a hotter planet

Peter Kalmus presents, in his yes! magazine article, a serious point of view on the issue of flying – and flying is an issue, or should be, for anyone who understands that globalwarming/climate change/carbon emission is a problem. Of particular interest is the method by which he came to the conclusion that, if he personally wanted to minimize his personal contribution to global warming, the first thing he should do is stop flying for any reason.

The method he used was to calculate a rough estimate of his own carbon footprint. How he did this is simply explained in his article, so there’s no need to repeat the details here. The point is his surprising conclusion. The several trips per year he took on commercial airplanes did far more to create global warming emissions than could be atributed to his daily driving, heating /cooling his house or a diet based on industrial farming.

airplane junkyard

Therefore, he abandoned flying, even though attending distant conferences might well hinder his career as a scientist and make it more difficult to visit some family members. It seems simple to imagine if you conclude that not flying is the right thing to do, then you follow through and do not fly. it’s not so easy to break the habit of flying when it is convenient, or when you might argue that it’s justified. Luckily, there was another surprise in store for him. He found that there were rewards to not flying, and still more rewards to other ways of lowering his carbon footprint.

It’s quite a contrast to the average Sierra Club approach to the same issue. It’s something I am aware of because, in addition to being a member of the Green Party, I’m also a member of the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club does a lot of good things but increasing awareness of the particularly damaging effects of flying – flying anywhere, for any purpose – is just not one of the things they do. Kalmus describes some of the uniquely damaging consequences in his article.

The one he does not mention, but which seems obvious to me, is that emissions from planes are dumped into the atmosphere 5 miles or so above sea level. That is, they start out 5 miles away from the possibility of being converted back into carbon and oxygen by any kind of plant. Emissions at ground level are at least miles closer to being recycled.

Instead of taking a position against flying, the Sierra Club generally encourages what we might call ecotourism. For instance, my own local Sierra Club group featured, in its twice-annual publication, a project in which several teenagers from Detroit were flown out to Yosemite National Park in California for a week of working with park rangers in various areas of this spectacular park.

Now, there are undoubtedly some great aspects to this sort of experience. I can guarantee that based on my own history. I was 19 years old when I went to work for a summer in Yosemite, and 20 when I returned to the midwest. The fact that I was working there gave me the chance to take in a wonderful environment both during my time off and also during work hours.

I’m 71 now, so that was over 50 years ago. Then, nobody was particularly concerned about global warming, although the greenhouse effect was certainly known in that distant era. Scientific American ran an article about it several years before I went to Yosemite.

Today, when we know enough about the greenhouse effect to be aware of both its beneficial (keeps the planet from freezing) and harmful consequences, we should realize it would be far less harmful to the environment to make such a trip by driving than by taking a plane to and from California. The reasons for this are set out clearly in Kalmus’ article, which is worth reading however many times it takes until the point of view sinks in.

The motto of the Sierra Club is, “Explore, Enjoy and Protect our Planet.” It is certainly time for the Sierra Club to exercise some critical thought about which methods of exploring the planet are not in fact protecting the planet. If we conclude. as Peter Kalmus did, that it’s a good idea to abandon flying entirely, we may find we are doing more acting locally while we are thinking globally. It’s an idea from the 1970s that has held up pretty well.


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