I’m waiting for tomorrow’s climate strike with great anticipation. My generation has failed the planet. A younger generation is demanding the action that their parents and grandparents were too ignorant, too fearful, too complacent, too wedded to lives of wealth and convenience, to take. I can only pray that they succeed.
Too be sure, all of us have contributed to the problem by asking more of the Earth than the planet can deliver. According to The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells, “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.” This fact is enough to tell me that the way I have conducted my life, and indeed, the way all of us in the energy-intensive first world have conducted our lives, has been a disaster for life on Earth, both now and in the future.
So how do we turn things around? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, no single path, that will return the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to anything that might be considered safe. We must find multiple solutions on multiple scales. We must demand that governments muster the collective will necessary for broad, binding changes. An end to fossil fuel subsidies? A carbon tax? A requirement for renewable energy? All this, and more. And yet, we must also shoulder the burden for change as individuals.
Consumer choices – what we consume, how much we consume, what we invest in and what we demand in return for those investments – all have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The easy choice is to stick with the familiar and convenient, but “business as usual” is exactly the problem. Do we dare to live our lives in new ways?
Consider air travel. Let me quote from “Contrails threaten climate” (Science, “News in Brief”, 5 July 2019, p. 11), “Carbon emissions from aviation are a well-known contributor to climate warming. But another byproduct of planes – the white contrails they paint across the sky – has an even bigger effect.
The obvious solution? Don’t fly. At very least, give up non-essential flying. But there’s the rub. The availability of relatively cheap, fast, air travel has created a culture in which separations over long distance are considered only minor inconveniences, rather than life-changing events. Do your parents in Boston want you to come home for the holidays, or to attend your cousin’s wedding, or your uncle’s retirement party? No problem. Hop on a jet and you’re there. Two days later hop on another jet and you’re back at school. You might not even miss a single class. And yet the damage has been done.
A bit of math. One website claims that the average American family drives its car about 15,000 miles a year. Give or take a few thousand miles, it’s probably right. However, a round-trip jet flight from Portland to Boston covers over 5,000 miles even by the most direct route and flying burns far more fossil fuel per mile than driving a car does. Add in the multiplying effect of contrails mentioned above, and suddenly the carbon footprint of a weekend trip to Boston outstrips that of an entire family’s car travel for a year. So, as we strike tomorrow, let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we dare to live our lives in new ways? Because only a “yes” can save us.
Flying is just one of life’s many planet-ruining conveniences, but it offers a clear target for living differently. For more encouragement on giving up non-essential air travel, see Climate Scientists Say No to Flying (Science 17 May 2019, p. 621) and No Fly Climate Sci.