To fly or not to fly? The climate question
(Credit: Caribb/flickr)

To fly or not to fly? The climate question

Be thoughtful about your travel. But be more thoughtful about your goal.

I am a retired Catholic. The Church hierarchy sometimes trades in the curious institution of special dispensation, the granting of a waiver to allow otherwise frowned-upon conduct. The most famous incident of special dispensation in popular culture took place in The Godfather III.


In the otherwise-unfortunate movie, an aging Michael Corleone is granted special dispensation for his family's three-movie legacy of drugs, prostitution, gambling, and leaving severed horses' heads in peoples' beds. All he had to do is write a seven-figure check to the Archdiocese of New York and the score was evened with a forgiving-but-cash-strapped Almighty.

Lately there's been much angst and breast-beating among climate scientists and activists about the use of air travel to do one's work. "Flight shaming" has become something of a cause in recent years: Imposing guilt on oneself or others for the carbon footprint of flying.

There's nothing wrong with a little introspection on this: Industry estimates credit passenger air travel with between 2 percent and 3 percent of all greenhouse gas impact.

However, I'd like to propose a more honorable form of special dispensation for anyone who wears a hair shirt due to taking a cheap seat on Southwest. Relax and enjoy the flight, along with a record 31.6 million other Americans this weekend. They apparently didn't get the memo. Instead, channel your angst onto the airlines, which have been slow to fit their carbon footprint into the overhead bin.

Climate communicators, the world desperately needs to hear from you, and more often than not, you'll need to go to them. There's no personal shame in using the best-available form of long-haul transit. If it's hypocrisy, it's a trivial one at best – far less insincere than the people who would negate your moral authority because you didn't travel to New York or Madrid by stagecoach or Roman trireme.

Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who became an instant climate celebrity this year, famously traveled to the U.N.'s Climate Week by crossing the Atlantic by sailboat. The two-week trip garnered some headlines. She's currently on the return trip, which has predictably generated less press, as she sails toward Lisbon and an appearance at climate talks in Madrid in early December.

Her media lightning having already been captured in a bottle, Greta's next long stretch at sea will have little symbolic or media value. The four weeks she spent at sea crossing the Atlantic twice would next be best spent rallying the troops or otherwise raising her quiet, dignified brand of hell.

Some climate scientists have found their happy medium. A website called NoFlyClimateSci is a gathering spot for scientists and their fellow non-travelers to contemplate their flying habits. A scientist like Georgia Tech's Kim Cobb, who has become something of a rockstar climate communicator, now schedules academic presentations remotely, but doesn't invoke an ascetic self-ban on air travel. It would make it pretty hard to make connections between Atlanta and the South Pacific corals she studies.

The scientists' partial no-fly zone may strike the right chord: Fly less, but only if it doesn't compromise your vital work. Should a Nobel Prize or Presidential Medal of Freedom await you (not likely for now), don't phone it in. If a potential million-person rally take place on the National Mall, don't make it a million person conference call.

Be thoughtful about your travel. But be more thoughtful about your goal.

Food, feed and fuel: global seaweed industry could reduce land needed for farming by 110m hectares, study finds

Scientists identify parts of ocean suitable for seaweed cultivation and suggest it could constitute 10% of human diet to reduce impact of agriculture.

Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

When will we hit peak fossil fuels? Maybe we already have

Kingsmill Bond, energy analyst and author, describes the circumstances that hastened the transition of the electricity sector—plus four reasons he’s optimistic about our planet’s future.

Google empowered climate crisis deniers
Steve Rhodes/Flickr

Google let Daily Wire advertise to climate crisis deniers, research shows

Exclusive: Data shared by the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows that Ben Shapiro’s news site paid for climate crisis denial search term ads.

greenwashing in fashion
UK in Italy/Flickr

'Vegan,' 'sustainable': How to spot greenwashing in fashion

Virtuous proclamations and campaigns from clothing brands can often amount to greenwashing, or in some cases, “clearwashing,” where the information doesn’t tell consumers much.
heavy metals in baby food
pixydust8605/Flickr

How do heavy metals like lead get in baby food?

The problem begins at the farm where plants draw toxins from the soil. There’s no washing them away.

A copper mine could advance green energy but scar sacred land

Tribal groups are fighting an Arizona project whose backers say increasing the supply of copper, crucial to batteries, would reduce fossil-fuel use.

As the Colorado River shrinks, Washington prepares to spread the pain

The seven states that rely on the river for water are not expected to reach a deal on cuts. It appears the Biden administration will have to impose reductions.
From our Newsroom
oil and gas wells pollution

What happens if the largest owner of oil and gas wells in the US goes bankrupt?

Diversified Energy’s liabilities exceed its assets, according to a new report, sparking concerns about whether taxpayers will wind up paying to plug its 70,000 wells.

Paul Ehrlich

Paul Ehrlich: A journey through science and politics

In his new book, the famous scientist reflects on an unparalleled career on our fascinating, ever-changing planet.

oil and gas california environmental justice

Will California’s new oil and gas laws protect people from toxic pollution?

California will soon have the largest oil drilling setbacks in the U.S. Experts say other states can learn from this move.

popular stories 2022

Our 5 most popular reads from 2022

A corpse, woodworking dangers, plastic titans ... revisit the stories that stuck with our readers this past year.

Pittsburgh environmental

What I learned reporting on environmental health in Pittsburgh in 2022

For a lot of people, 2022 felt like the first “normal” year since 2020. It didn’t for me.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.