Some locals have given up personal air travel entirely to raise awareness about aviation's toll on the climate.

Image: Tavis Coburn

Just off the British coast, a stiff Atlantic gale ruddies a girl’s cheeks. It’s an otherwise idyllic day in August of 2019—water glistening, clouds dawdling amid the blue overhead—when the teenager squints toward the port, then starboard, sides of Malizia II, the racing yacht sailing toward a city usually reached by plane from this distance. “I feel a bit seasick,” she says, glancing at a CNN reporter, her braid flipped over her jacket.

Sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg wasn’t exactly buoyant when she began her two-week voyage to the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. And who could blame her? Among other spartan amenities, a paint bucket would serve as a toilet for her and the crew. (“Poo’s [sic] only please,” its exterior advised.)

South Seattle’s Sarah Shifley won’t have it quite as rough on her next overnight train journey to visit her sister in California, but like Thunberg, the 350 Seattle climate activist hopes her greener travel method will help shrink aviation’s contribution to global carbon dioxide emissions. Recently, this aspect of the planet’s catastrophic warming has inspired no-fly movements and flygskam, the Swedish concept now virally known as “flight shame.”

Where to Start 

  1. Remote in for distant meetings and conferences. Do you really need that swag bag, anyway?
  2. Purchase carbon offsets with your Maui tickets. Sites like Green-e vet renewable energy and reforestation programs while some airlines (JetBlue, United, Delta) provide direct access to offsets.

Flight shame? While we’ve been buying Priuses and composting like crazy, an uncomfortable environmental truth has literally flown over our heads: Our trips to Houston and Hong Kong have been undoing some of our eco-friendly progress; aviation comprises between 2 and 3 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. With flygskam, activists want to make travelers aware of that pollution and guilt them into flying less. Even royalty isn’t spared. In August, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle earned climate Twitter’s ire after they boarded four private flights in 11 days.

Swedish fliers have felt the shame—commercial passengers dipped 4 percent in 2019—and the U.S. might not be immune from the same phenomenon. “This issue presents a clear and present danger,” JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes has told investors.

In Seattle, a city historically amenable to both Scandinavian cultural exports and green living, it’s not surprising that flight evasion has taken root among the most climate conscious. Like some fellow members of 350 Seattle, Shifley has given up personal air travel entirely—no more flights to see a friend in Maine. “What we’ve become accustomed to, as far as the amount and the speed of our travel, isn’t something that is sustainable,” she says.

But with local tech companies plucking talent from across the globe, Seattle’s aviation emissions are just beginning to take off. While the city has crawled toward its 2050 goal of carbon-neutrality—between 2008 and 2016, total greenhouse gas emissions dropped 5 percent even as the population rose dramatically—its air-travel emissions climbed an estimated 27 percent during that same period, including 40 percent at Sea-Tac. Overall, aviation is Seattle’s second-biggest carbon culprit. And if that doesn’t make you want to pull a reusable tote over your head, this will: Regional demand for commercial flights will likely double by 2050. 

Flight shaming critics argue that aviation emissions aren’t high enough to justify mass behavioral change. Yet, Shifley points out, only a small portion of the world’s population ever travels by air, meaning frequent fliers bear far more responsibility for that pollution. Broader flight concerns also loom. A University of Washington study revealed that communities around Sea-Tac have been exposed to ultrafine aircraft-emitted particles that, when inhaled, can potentially lead to serious illnesses. And two fatal Boeing crashes—and the missteps behind them—have heightened travelers’ anxiety about aircraft safety.

Flight shaming, health risks, plane malfunctions—forget sweaty palms as we prepare for takeoff. These days, flight anxiety can begin with, Should we even book?

Grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft at Boeing Field on July 1, 2019.

Nives Dolšak and Aseem Prakash don’t want you to give up the world. The UW professors champion flight frugality but don’t subscribe to the no-fly movement, which some academics have joined. “We are not against flying. It’s important that people meet each other [across] cultures, experience the beauties of different cultures,” says Prakash, an India native who founded UW’s Center for Environmental Politics.

We just need to fly less, they stress. As climate experts, they feel it’s important to lead by example. With lectures and conferences beckoning them from across the globe, Prakash and Dolšak have urged organizers to accept their virtual participation. Dolšak, who hails from Slovenia, was once asked to co-chair a conference in Europe. When its administrators couldn’t guarantee presenters the option to remotely participate, she declined the invitation. “It’s not just simply not showing up and not meeting with colleagues anymore, but it is actively developing new approaches to professional networking,” Dolšak says.

When Dolšak and Prakash do travel by air, they atone for their carbon emissions. Carbon offsets, or payments to projects that compensate for greenhouse gas contributions, have prompted skepticism; tree-plantings enable polluters to continue their irresponsible behavior, detractors claim. But Dolšak and Prakash say that greenwashing is easier to avoid now that more organizations vet offsets.

Still, the best way to ground planes’ greenhouse gas emissions is to plan fewer flights and longer stays, encouraging the aviation industry to adopt greener practices—to “fly responsibly,” as Dutch airline KLM’s new marketing campaign puts it. Hey, if an airline can get on board, maybe you can too. 

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