OPINION: We could all use a bit of flight shame

After spending two weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean in a sailboat, Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg arrived in New York on Aug. 28 to attend the U.N. zero emissions summit, news reports said.

I, too, came from overseas that week — flying from London to the Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in just over 11 hours to start my year as an exchange student. 

My decision to fly rather than sail released 1.4 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, according to the myclimate emissions calculator. That’s more carbon dioxide than the average person in Guatemala emits in a year, according to the World Bank.

When most of us make decisions about flying, we think about two things: time and cost. But there’s another type of cost that we don’t usually take into account — the cost to the environment. 

Flying accounts for somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of global annual greenhouse gas emissions, according to Business Insider. With the climate in crisis, we can’t afford to ignore this impact.

Unlike Greta Thunberg, most of us don’t have access to a zero-emissions yacht, but Thunberg’s flight-free journeys have raised awareness of the harmful reality of flying. 

So much so that there’s a new word gaining traction in Sweden — “flygskam” — literally meaning “flight shame,” according to Germany’s international broadcaster, Deutsche Welle.

Flygskam is the shame that comes with the knowledge of how bad flying really is for the climate, and then doing it anyway. 

So far this year, with two foreign holidays and a year abroad under my belt, I personally have been responsible for emitting 5.6 tons of carbon dioxide. It’s hard not to feel ashamed of that.

Yet flying opens up the world — it’s allowed me to visit places I could never hope to otherwise. It’s allowed me to be here, at Pitzer College, more than 5,000 miles away from home. 

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Travel takes us outside of our regional or national bubbles. It gives us perspectives and exposes us to experiences other than our own. I truly believe travel makes the world a better place, one that’s more interconnected, understanding and tolerant. 

Pitzer agrees: One of its “core values,” according to its website, is “intercultural understanding.” Three bullet points down, however, is another goal: “environmental sustainability.”

It’s difficult to reconcile these two aims. On the one hand, the climate crisis is an international problem that needs an international solution — flying facilitates a global and intercultural perspective. On the other hand, flying is a significant cause of the climate crisis. 

Even the idea of flying to broaden the mind is a privileged position to take. But, my flights don’t just impact me; they impact every person in the world, and everyone in the world, no matter how small their carbon footprint, who will have to live with the consequences.

If we hope to slow down climate change, we have to cut down on flying. For many journeys, there are no viable alternatives to flying. A transatlantic crossing via yacht is not practical. 

For shorter distances, however, we can make a conscious effort to take trains and buses instead of planes. And flight shame can be a useful tool to achieve this. From January to April 2019, passenger numbers in Sweden dropped by 8 percent on domestic flights and 4 percent on international ones, according to DW. 

The anti-flying campaign Flight Free USA, which emerged out of a Swedish grassroots organization founded last year, asks people to pledge not to fly for a full year as part of their Flight Free 2020 campaign.

The grassroots actions of individuals, however, may not be enough to slow the growth of the airline industry, which, according to the International Air Transport Association, is expected to carry more than 8.2 billion passengers a year by 2037. 

It’s fair to say that I’m experiencing flygskam, but in all honesty, I’m not about to stop flying altogether. 

The low prices, the promise of fantastic destinations and the convenience and the time saved is just too tempting. What’s needed to tackle this problem is a structural change. 

The Chicago Convention, an agreement among 54 nations that permits international travel by plane, prevents jet fuel from being taxed on international flights. However, doing so would raise the cost of a ticket and bring it closer to reflecting the true cost of air travel — a cost for the planet as well as the passenger.

To reduce the number of flights domestically, there needs to be a real, viable alternative, both in practicality and cost. Swedes are able to fly less in part because traveling around Europe by train is easy (at least in comparison to the U.S. public transport system). 

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made reducing air travel a goal of her proposed Green New Deal. The idea is to invest in high-speed rail networks across the U.S. until domestic air travel becomes unnecessary. 

Even with grassroots pressure, there’s a long way to go before flying domestically becomes obsolete. In the meantime, a bit of flygskam could do us all good. 

Ellie Woodward-Webster is a Pitzer College exchange student who is a literature major on exchange from England. Her interests include travel, dancing and chocolate buttons.

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