A Scientist Combats Climate Change (A Bit)

Eric Holthaus quit flying to reduce his carbon footprint:

This week marks one year since I last flew on an airplane. To the likely dismay of Fox News, which called me a “sniveling beta male,” my decision didn’t result in a dramatic tailspin of self-loathing or suicide, the ultimate carbon footprint reducer. Quite the contrary: It’s been an amazing year.

My decision was prompted by a science report that brought me to tears. It wasn’t that the consensus statement was particularly new or noteworthy—we all know by now that climate change is one of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a civilization—but that, for the first time, I realized that my daily actions were powerful enough to make a meaningful change.

Folks, we are in trouble if a scientist just now realizes that his daily actions are powerful enough to impact climate change. And chooses to quit flying instead of digging deep enough to discover that if he really wants to make an impact he should also have quit meat.

He comes to many of the right conclusions:

What the math behind climate science is asking for is nothing less than a revolution. Anderson thinks scientists like him should lead by example. “I think we have to start to actually act accordingly with our own analysis. That lends credibility to our work.” This holds true for nonscientist advocates, too, he believes. “Al Gore’s probably got an emission footprint similar to a small African country, and he’s wandering about the planet telling other people that they should reduce their carbon emissions.”

Still, Anderson admits that it’s a big ask to broaden the efforts from a few passionate scientists to broader society. But without that, the chances of maintaining a stable climate are slim. Still, Anderson remains about as optimistic as his research permits him to be.

“I think we will fail, but I don’t know we will fail. There’s a very big difference between those two.” Anderson continued, “It’s likely we will die trying. But if we don’t try, then we will definitely not succeed. I work in this area because I still think there’s a thin thread of hope.”

Well, maybe less than a thread if a dude can write an article about how we need a revolution, how personal choices have an impact, notes what incredible climate hogs Americans tend to be, and somehow misses the most carbon intensive choice he makes every day that he reaches for a bacon burger.

We all need to make changes. And, sure, reducing air travel can make a difference (you should have seen my wife’s face when I told her I thought we should fly only once a year, and explore the area around DC instead of immediately hopping on planes whenever we wanted to go somewhere).

But the most important and impactful first step in this personal revolution, apparently missed by both these scientists, is simple: stop eating meat. (Do that, and you might even be able to fly a little!)

And if everyone did the same, and scientists who wrote articles about climate change followed the numbers wherever they went, then we might have a little more than a “thread of hope.”

Carbon Math

You may think that all that driving you do, or air conditioning your house, is your biggest contribution you make to global warming. But how about all those air miles?

For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates about 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.

So if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create. “For many people in New York City, who don’t drive much and live in apartments, this is probably going to be by far the largest part of their carbon footprint,” says Anja Kollmuss, a Zurich-based environmental consultant.

It is for me. And for people like Al Gore or Richard Branson who crisscross the world, often by private jet, proclaiming their devotion to the environment.

Though air travel emissions now account for only about 5 percent of warming, that fraction is projected to rise significantly, since the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency. (Also, emissions from most other sectors are falling.)

Tax carbon at $20 a ton, which is roughly the tax that many economists believe would be required to have an impact on human behavior adequate to slow warming, and suddenly you will understand how big a climate change driver air travel is. And you will also think more carefully about how often, and how far, you fly.

Another alternative is to sell carbon offsets along with air travel tickets.