Flying, Psychology, and Climate Change

Next year I will attend weddings in Montana and in Washington State. Both will require long round-trip airplane flights. Apart from such special events, I fly for pleasure (several domestic and one international flight so far this year) and I used to fly often for business. How do I reconcile my frequent flights with concerns about climate change?

Burning jet fuel produces carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Experts say that the total warming effects from jet travel are actually two to four times greater than just the CO2 emissions, because water vapor, oxides of nitrogen, and other emissions are climate pollutants, too. I have read that roughly 3 to 5 percent of anthropogenic climate change is due to air travel, a percentage that is likely to increase — especially now that crude oil is unusually cheap. But flying accounts for more than 5 percent of my own greenhouse gas emissions (depending on where and how often I fly).

At least one of my friends is poised to visit his 50th nation, and I know many people who have visited dozens of countries. My total over a lifetime is undoubtedly higher than the average person’s.

Americans have far larger per-person impacts on climate change than people in other nations, particularly poor nations. The world, particularly the U.S., cannot continue along its business-as-usual path without causing grave impacts on earth’s future as a habitable planet.

These considerations cause me to wonder about my future travels. I live with the uncomfortable truth that “I am a polluter,” as a bumper sticker of the 1970s said. In other words, I share some responsibility for climate change (past, present, and future), as well as some responsibility for ameliorating the problem.

For the time being my thoughts about flying are uncomfortable and paradoxical. I do not plan to stop traveling for pleasure trips, including visiting family and friends. Yet I realize that if everyone in the U.S., let alone everyone in the world, flew as often as I or many of my friends do, climate change would become marginally more severe.

As I think about air travel, the fact that 95 percent of climate change is caused by other factors seems significant. America has the capability to reduce emissions from coal generating plants, make automobiles more efficient, better insulate buildings, install more LED bulbs, increase the supply of renewable energy, and more. Wasted energy and accompanying greenhouse gas emissions, including methane leaks (which are too common), can and should be reduced.

Like lots of others I have taken a number of steps to reduce my carbon footprint. And like many people, I contribute time and money to address climate change. But reducing climate change depends on changing national and international policies and priorities; there is only so much that each of us can do as individuals. Whatever I do ought to be more than nothing; but how much more? As I think about plans for air travel, that seems a relevant if sometimes uncomfortable question to ask.

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