Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Flying to Warmth
distributed 2/9/07 - ©2007

It is winter -- finally -- here in the northern reaches of the US. The bitter cold and deep snow which have swept across a large part of the country may be tempting many people to hop on a plane and go somewhere warm.

There's a problem though. If enough people take those vacation flights, the warm climate will soon come to us.

We -- that great collective "we" -- are flying more, and our travel has strong climate impacts. Whether we're going to a sunny beach, to the mountains to ski, to some anonymous convention center for a business meeting, or back home for a family visit, we are flying more, much more. Because of that increase in travel, aviation is reported to be the fastest growing cause of global warming. The amount of carbon dioxide emitted by air travel doubled between 1990 and 2004.

My scan of the news tells me that the Europeans have some awareness of the climate impacts of flying, and are debating what can be done about it. Some of the proposals include stiff carbon taxes, and restrictions on short flights. A British group of activists called "Plane Stupid" is staging dramatic protests at airports and travel agencies.

Here in the US, though, air travel is rarely discussed in our global warming conversations. The usual "what can I do?" lists tell people to change light bulbs, drive a fuel-efficient car and drive less, insulate the attic, and turn off the computer at night. It seems that we don't have the nerve to suggest that it would be good to skip an airline flight. The freedom to travel is high on our list of treasured rights, but canceling a flight would have a dramatic impact. Indeed, it might be the most significant thing you can do to cut your carbon footprint.

How bad is air travel? A rough rule of thumb equates the climate impact of driving and flying. The per-person emissions of carbon dioxide from flying are about the same as driving -- alone -- for the same distance in a mid-sized car. On a round trip from New York to San Francisco, whether you drive solo or fly on a crowded plane, you'll personally be responsible for the release of over two tons of CO2. That's a lot of carbon, and a lot of climate impact.

Somehow, it is easier for us to ignore the amount of greenhouse gasses when somebody else fuels the plane, and when it only takes five hours to get there, instead of five days on the road with 15 gas stops. Flying feels more benign than taking a long drive, but it is far and away the most environmentally destructive way to travel.

My rule of thumb, you see, isn't completely accurate. It does give the right figures for the amount of carbon dioxide, but that's only part of the story. Studies say that the CO2 and other gasses released into the high atmosphere -- including simple water vapor -- do more than two and a half times the climate damage of those given off at ground level. There's no other form of transportation that comes close to flying's level of impact.

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Six weeks ago, I wrote about the big snowstorm that hit the Rocky Mountain region, and which shut down the Denver airport for two days. The news reports about stranded, rerouted and inconvenienced travelers gave a vivid hint about how many people routinely jet from city to city.

Regionally, nationally, and globally, air travel is growing. Yesterday, The Denver Post business section reported that -- in spite of the holiday disruption of our regional air travel -- Denver International Airport handled a record 47.3 million passengers in 2006. That's an increase of 9.1 percent over the previous year, and is pushing very close to the 50 million passenger capacity of our 12 year old airport.

The business writer noted that this trend of rapid growth is "a boon for the airport, travelers, businesses and the community, but as DIA nears its capacity, airport managers are planning for an expansion."

There you see the reason why dealing with global warming is so difficult. Air travel -- whether for people or cargo -- is an environmental disaster, but it is an economic and practical "boon" for large chunks of the society.

Just a week ago, the International Panel on Climate Change issued a strong and urgent report about the reality of global warming. In response, politicians and commentators have spoken up about the need for dramatic action to stabilize the climate. But in the same week, the ever-larger numbers of air travelers is seen as a trend that is inevitable, unquestioned -- and great for business.

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When ethicists discuss issues around global warming, matters of justice often top the list. It is the rich and rapidly developing countries which are creating the problem, and the effects of climate change are most severely felt by the poor who have done little to cause it. The imbalance between costs and benefits is a moral travesty.

One-sixth of the world's population lives on a dollar a day, or less. A single cross-country flight, generating two tons of carbon dioxide per person, probably costs about as much as a year's income for these poorest of the poor. Air travel -- a convenience and privilege of the more affluent half of the world's people, and a means of transportation that didn't even exist a century ago -- is a perfect illustration of where change need to happen.

Will we, the folk who rack up lots of "frequent flier miles", accept any constraints on our travel so that there can be justice and healing for the planet? Will we teleconference, take the train, or just stay home on occasion? Or will we continue to demand the freedom to go any where we want in the most destructive way possible, and dump the costs of our freedom on the rest of the world?

Right now, in the US, those questions are not even being talked about. It is time to wrestle with the difficult matter of flying. How soon will your church raise that ethical question?


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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