If you believe in climate change, is it wrong to drive or fly?
January 28, 2008 6:47 AM   Subscribe

If you believe climate change is real, bad, and man-made: does that mean it's wrong to take a flight or drive a car? Are there any reasonable excuses?
posted by MetaMonkey to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
For your survival anything is excusable.
posted by bigmusic at 6:50 AM on January 28, 2008

Personally-speaking I am skeptical about the mentality that suggests "if we all just do one little thing, it will make a big difference". The result of this mindset is that plenty of us buy energy-saving lightbulbs, perhaps put our trash in the recycling, and then do nothing more to protect the environment.

Taking this thought to its cynical conclusion, one might argue that industrialists and governments have knowingly propagated the "one little thing" message to divert us away from the big changes that need to be made. It strikes me that, were governments and industries forced to adopt radical energy-saving proposals, as well as radical CO2 reduction policies, they would find the solutions for us, and they would amount to a whole lot more than buying a few green lightbulbs.

For example, getting rid of international flight seems unfeasible, but it's not out of the question for domestic flights to be made far more expensive, with the profits being poured into creating next-gen aircraft and fuels that will be far more efficient. Instead, we have a situation (especially in Europe) where plane travel can be cheaper than rail, and indeed so cheap that it practically feels free to the customer. That can't be right.

There have been numerous attempts at bringing out electric cars yet they don't get the support they need, and SUVs continue to sell. This is another illogical proposition that is being propped up by industries and governments. Why is it more "wrong" of us as individuals to buy these cars than it is for the auto manufacturers to sell them?

The reasonable excuse, in my mind, would be to state that you will actively support environmental change - via financial aid or activism - until there are viable, environmentally-friendly alternatives. But you cannot expect that the world will change simply by stopping driving or stopping flying.
posted by skylar at 7:04 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

The correct number of flights is obviously greater than zero. Travel is great, so it's worth damaging the environment a bit to do it. There are obviously some flights (like, I don't know, shipping organs for transplant) that are so valuable they're worth damaging the environment for. Maybe in your mind, going home for Christmas is valuable enough too.

There are two options to decide who gets to travel. First, we appoint some sort of committee to review everyone's request for transportation. They'll be responsible for assigning each year's quota of permissible flights.

If that makes you uncomfortable, you'll be happy to know there's a much better solution. Impose a big old tax on jet fuel (and any other kind of fuel). As the price goes up, people who don't really need to get to that meeting in Miami will have to do without. Maybe you'll settle for a phone call instead of xmas lunch with the family. But the organs will keep going through, albeit at a higher price.

But why should we be paying a higher price for travel? The answer is because we're currently being massively undercharged for our travel. We pay oil companies a big premium above what it costs to get the oil out of the ground, because they own a scarce resource. But we're still not paying the true cost of our fuel, because nobody charges us for the damage we do when we burn it.

Nobody "owns" the environment, in the sense of being able to charge us when we wreck it.

So governments need to act AS IF they owned the environment and make us pay for what we're doing. Pick a price, and adjust it over time, but for god's sake make fuel more expensive.
posted by godawful at 7:05 AM on January 28, 2008

uhh, if people can't fly, they will drive. across the country. and that produces more emissions then 1 flight.
posted by lohmannn at 7:10 AM on January 28, 2008

I guess the obvious objection to what I've just written is that by raising the cost of travel (making it a luxury good instead of a commodity) we mainly hurt poor people.

But remember, we can do whatever we like with the money we get from the new fuel tax. We can put it towards a positive end (like cutting income tax for the poor). Meanwhile, we all get a cleaner environment. It's a sort of win-lose-and then win again situation.
posted by godawful at 7:11 AM on January 28, 2008

Lohmann - you're right, we'd have to tax all kinds of fuel that's hurting the environment, and we'd have to do the math and set the tax levels to produce the right combination of incentives.
posted by godawful at 7:15 AM on January 28, 2008

I thought about this for a long time, and came to the conclusion that it is wrong to drive or fly needlessly or when there are reasonable alternatives. This may strike you as a lily-livered compromise; I often think the same. Then again, it's easy to make a blanket decision, because it saves you from having to think about it after that - if you decide it's always wrong to drive, you don't have to weigh traveling to visit a family member against your convictions. Recognition of the gray area condemns you to revisiting this decision, day in and day out.

Some things I have decided are in the bounds of reasonable car or air travel include visiting sick family members, work travel to remote areas, and trips to national parks and other areas of natural beauty. The last, I have difficulty justifying - I certainly don't need to go to these places to live, and getting there by car sullies the very thing I go to appreciate. But I feel it adds so much to my life that I can't give it up. I ameliorate my guilt by carpooling to get there.
posted by yomimono at 7:15 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

lohmannn writes, "uhh, if people can't fly, they will drive. across the country. and that produces more emissions then 1 flight."

According to this site: "Flight one is one of the most fuel-guzzling forms of passenger transportation. Airlines compensate for their high fuel bills by packing passengers into their aircraft, but, per mile, powering a jet uses almost as much energy, and emits almost as much climate-changing carbon dioxide, as each passenger would use driving alone in an average car."
posted by knave at 7:23 AM on January 28, 2008

Does that mean it's wrong to take a flight or drive a car?
No. It means it's wrong to take a flight or drive a car without considering the impact of that flight or drive on the environment.

Are there any reasonable excuses?
Yes. If you need to get somewhere, but there are no reasonable alternatives, better to take the flight instead of missing your father's funeral or getting fired for missing an important meeting. Of course, limiting everyone to extreme situations like this is unreasonable. People want to, and need to, get away, and not everything can be done within walking or biking distance of home. Just be reasonable -- if you can bike, do it. If you can carpool, do it. If you can buy a more fuel-efficient car, do it.

There are plenty of real, bad, and man-made things destroying our environment. But most of us recognize that we're living in the world as it is, not as we wish it were. It would be nice if we didn't have to rely on big polluting machines to get around, but we do. It would be nice if my computer wasn't being powered by massive fossil fuel power plants, but it is. It would be nice if we didn't have to rely on wastefully packaged and (inter)nationally transported products to live our lives, but we do. Your best bet: be aware of the impact your decisions have, try to be reasonable in your consumption, and work for change if you think it needs to happen.
posted by punishinglemur at 7:23 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

When I got out of college I was convinced that cars were evil and I didn't want to have anything to do with them. I moved back with my parents in Long Island and rode my bike everywhere. It was a horrible place to ride a bike. I had a pretty miserable time.

I've done other sort of self-sacrificial things like that.

I think back on those times and think about how miserable it made me and how, in the great scheme of things, it made absolutely no difference to the planet. How my energy would have been better spent making some money to invest in green technology. Or working towards towards greening politics. Or just doing nothing, and not being miserable. Being a miserable environmentalist is not going to help much.

I think it's a delicate line though. Burning oil is evil in many, many ways, not only the environment.

The problem is that if you stop burning oil for whatever reason, there are going to be many, many people to come and burn that oil for you. So I think the change has to come on the global level (and soon) if we are to survive. Your time would probably be better spent lobbying your politicians to increase fuel economy standards on light trucks, for instance. Even if you had to drive to their office.
posted by sully75 at 7:23 AM on January 28, 2008

I like Bruce Sterling's response to this question:
"Reducing emissions" is a wrongheaded way to approach it. If
"reducing emissions" is the goal, then the best technique available is
to drop dead. The second-best technique is to go around killing a lot
of people. Nobody's got a lighter eco-footprint than a dead and
buried guy. He's not walking around leaving footprints: the Earth is
piled on top of him.

We're past the point where reduction helps much; we will have to
invent and deploy active means of remediation of the damage. But from
another, deeper perspective: we shouldn't involve outselves in lines
of development where the ultimate victory condition is emulating dead
people. There's no appeal in that. It's bad for us. That kind of
inherent mournfulness is just not a good way to be human. We're not
footprint-generating organisms whose presence on the planet is
inherently toxic and hurtful. We need better handprints, not lighter
footprints. We need better stuff, not less stuff. We need to think it
through and take effective action, not curl up in a corner stricken
with guilt and breathe shallowly.

posted by Happy Dave at 7:29 AM on January 28, 2008 [10 favorites]

The key to helping the environment is to reduce your footprint whenever possible. Use that car when you need to drive many miles, but if you're just going into town to meet friends for coffee, walk a mile or two and it'll take you only slightly longer once you account for the time it takes to find parking.

If you can, move closer to work so that your commute is less, or even walkable (I know, not possible in many parts of the country). Alternately, if a lot of what you do is by computer, see if you can work even one day a week from home. That alone cuts commuting emissions by 20%.

Plan trips so that you do all your errands in a single loop rather than going out multiple times for multiple stores.

Finally, if car and jet travel are unavoidable, reduce fuel consumption in the home. If you rent, you're limited to what your landlord will do, and otherwise just heavy curtains on the windows to block the cold. If you own, there's a lot more you can do to transform your home into a energy-efficient technological wonder. There are often tax breaks for this as well!
posted by explosion at 7:32 AM on January 28, 2008

I come down on the side of just making fuel more expensive, and letting the market work. The problem isn't that individuals choose to drive or fly; it's that our society has been built in such a way that driving and flying are necessary to normal, everyday life. We live far from where we work, our grandparents winter in Florida, we plan (and take!) regular vacations thousands of miles away. We've built our environment and our expectations that way because gas has been and remains artificially cheap. We're going to have to do some rebuilding to make it possible to live other ways, and that won't happen without a change in incentives.
posted by jon1270 at 7:42 AM on January 28, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you can calculate, in your own terms, a more realistic cost for your travels, and find a way to offset that cost, then I see no reason why you shouldn't fly or drive. "A more realistic cost" is a cost that does not subsidize the expense of the journey through exploiting the earth's natural resources. "A way to offset that cost" may mean buying carbon offsets, spending time personally developing green technologies, volunteering at a soup kitchen, donating to charities, running for local office on a green platform, or any other activity you see fit.

There is evidence both for and against skylar's first point above. "One little thing" may absolve people of their responsibility, or it may cause environmental activity to increase.
posted by Eringatang at 7:56 AM on January 28, 2008

It's a multi faceted answer.

First, you can consider the separation of global warming and carbon dioxide creation. While climate change seems fairly clear, what is not clear is that carbon dioxide is THE causative agent. Correlation is not causation. Some thought must be given to solar cycles, ocean currents, methane, etc.

Second, if you do view carbon dioxide as a problem, the question is how to address it. You can try to avoid making it or deal with the impact. Like the point above by Sterling, you can address remediation efforts.

Third, you have to accept that human beings themselves have an impact on the environment. If this is unacceptable to you, the only logical conclusion is get rid of the people. Assuming you are not for mass suicide, you need to come to grips with how much impact on society you are comfortable with. That is a moral question. Is it justifiable to use a carbon producing jet plane to see a dying relative? Move a donor heart to a recipient? Going on vacation? How do you draw the line in this slippery slope.
posted by Argyle at 8:16 AM on January 28, 2008

It strikes me that, were governments and industries forced to adopt radical energy-saving proposals, as well as radical CO2 reduction policies, they would find the solutions for us, and they would amount to a whole lot more than buying a few green lightbulbs.

Skylar, it's not clear to me why you're cynical enough to think governments will use "everyone making their own little contribution" to avoid taking action, yet apparently not cynical enough to suspect that in the absence of individual actions, governments would be perfectly happy to let the planet go to hell a few decades after the politicians of the day are dead and out of office. I don't think this is a good argument against changing to energy-efficient lightbulbs (etc).
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 8:35 AM on January 28, 2008

the environment can absorb a fair amount of abuse. we can't eliminate our impact on the environment, but we could theoretically reduce it to a manageable level. theoretically.

also, you are part of a worldwide economic system that largely depends on the use of fossil fuels. you, as an individual, are powerless to change it. it is the culmination of hundreds of years of societal evolution. the only way to substantially change it is through large-scale political intervention. until china controls the globe, that kind of power doesn't exist.

flying and driving are always bad. there are no exceptions. the procurement of materials to build and fuel them and pave roads; the destruction of open space, bad urban planning and social decay; personal risk from operating them; climate change... there's no benefit to driving, especially, that outweighs the drawbacks.

however, you are pretty much stuck. you will fly and/or drive sometimes. the best you can do is to be diligent about only doing these things when necessary. win back your karma by agitating for mass-transit, and urban planning that favours human power. you are not a hypocrite if you work for fundamental changes in the way society works, while at the same time participating in said society, and you can offset the damage you do by working to improve conditions in the future.

you will not be able to change the global oil-based economic machine, but you will be able to make a significant reduction in your share, and your community's share of the impact. for example, i mentioned in another mefi answer that our local landfill has begun collecting methane and generating clean power from it. there's enough power to heat 6000 homes (this is a city of ~300,000 people), and it has reduced our regional greenhouse-gas output by 30%. real change IS possible. you can "pay for" your use of fossil-fuelled transportation by not using those means when it's not necessary. ride your bike or walk, if you can.

so no, there's no "excuse" for driving or flying, but there are positive steps you can take to minimize your impact and create a little bit of wiggle room - if only in your own conscience - which will allow you to drive or fly when absolutely necessary.
posted by klanawa at 8:48 AM on January 28, 2008

The Bottomless Well might be an interesting read for you. It's certainly not the answer, but it does approach the issue from a different angle.

It focuses on technological solutions to energy issues, rather than (IMHO, laughable) footprint reduction-based solutions. Don't let the fact that one of the authors (Huber) is a "conservative" rankle you; he's conservative in the in the libertarian, free market sense, not in the evangelical, gay-hating sense. The other author is a distinguished physicist and engineer. Even if this isn't of one's normal philosophical/political bent, it's worth checking out.
posted by Nelsormensch at 9:09 AM on January 28, 2008

knave -- you just proved my point. ALMOST as much. which means the longer the flight, the greater the fuel savings over driving. now i agree that flying from say...pittsburgh to columbus is a waste of fuel and causes more CO2 then driving (3 hour drive). but flying represents a co2 savings vs driving for long distances. and this does not include the increased traffic, and therefore emmissions, that would result if everyone who currently flys, starting driving.
posted by lohmannn at 9:51 AM on January 28, 2008

does that mean it's wrong to take a flight or drive a car?

It does if you're not trying to cut down.

To be a better human being, you could try to live closer to where you need to go and to do more at home. People move to outlandish places on the assumption that they can gas-guzzle their way in and out of it at will every day, and then they use their outlandish living arrangements to justify driving and flying everywhere. ("Take public transportation? But I live on the moon. There are no trains on the moon. I need to use a Saturn V every day.") If you could live closer to work, live closer to your family, and take vacations closer to home, you should do so. If you love your family so much that you have to fly home to see them all the time, maybe you shouldn't live so far from them. If you could live on a bus, train, subway, or bicycle route to work and use that instead of a car every day, you should do so. If you could telecommute some days, you should do so. The next time you're looking for a place to move, maybe looking for a new job, if you don't put things like this at the top of your priorities, you are in the wrong.
posted by pracowity at 10:01 AM on January 28, 2008 [2 favorites]

From a personal perspective, I'd rather you drove everywhere in a Hummer than have 2.3 children. No matter what solutions we come up with, your multiplying descendants are going to have a far greater environmental impact long-term than the most profligate but childless lifestyle.

(Of course, also cutting down on emissions is a very good idea, no matter what... just making sure you're seeing the big picture.)
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 11:41 AM on January 28, 2008

does that mean it's wrong to take a flight or drive a car?

How about if the car is an ambulance? :-)

Seriously, these types of choices simply can't be reduced to moral absolutes. There are "goods" and "bads" to various alternatives -- and as we consider them we get closer and closer to chatfilter.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:01 PM on January 28, 2008

I asked this question recently.
Here's how I think of it: as a civilisation we need to halt the increase of carbon emissions, despite the fact that global economy and population are both growing, and then start to reduce them. After 2050, magical technologies (fusion, cheap, industrial-scale carbon sequestration) will, hopefully, allow us to start reducing the amount we emit until by 2100 we're at a level where the atmosphere can start repairing itself. Until then, you need to make sure that you emit as little carbon as possible. Pulling more figures out of my arse, I think the global carbon allowance should probably be about 1 metric tonne per year, which can then be traded around a bit. If you are living in America, chances are that you are emitting twenty times that each year. So can you take a flight? Well, a long haul flight emits roughly half a tonne of CO2. or half your yearly allowance. The return takes up your other half, so: no, you can't. Short haul flights? A bit more manageable, but it'll probably require you to make savings elsewhere in your carbon budget. Vegetarianism perhaps?
posted by greytape at 3:03 AM on January 29, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers everyone, turns out its a little more complex that I'd thought!
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:04 AM on January 31, 2008

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