Should I stop flying?

Summary: I like riding in airplanes and to me, it’s normal.  And I’m under social pressure to fly.  But when I confront the science of climate change, air travel seems immoral.  Should I stop?  Will I stop?

I’m writing this because it’s been on my mind and:

  1. Posts & articles are typically about “this thing I did” not “something I’m considering.”  I want to show that making decisions is messy.
  2. If I decide to stop flying, which may seem drastic, this will show I was considering it…
  3. … and if I keep flying, this will show I considered it – which could make me look thoughtful, or more likely, weak and unprincipled.


The climate situation is dire.  I can’t overstate this.  Read coverage of the most recent (Oct 2018) IPCC report and/or Joseph Romm’s book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know.  Humanity is on pace to destroy the world.  And the worst polluters are well-off Americans like me.  Because we do high-carbon luxury things that most of the world can’t afford.  Flying is one of the most-polluting activities.

Individual vs. collective action?  Yes.  A common refrain after the recent IPCC report was, changing your lightbulbs won’t help, you need to install politicians who will regulate emissions.  While individual action is not sufficient on its own, it helps.  It normalizes changes to how we live that will be needed to curb climate change, including some that are sacrificial, like reducing air travel.  Normalizing this behavior makes it more likely to be adopted widely and paves the way for acceptance of regulation that would cause it.

As I explored what I could do to help reduce climate change, I found the normalizing examples of two previously-high-flying individuals writing about why they gave up flying for this reason:

And individual action matters most for the biggest polluters, say, affluent Americans.  Yes, someone who lives a modest, low-impact life is better off focusing on collective action rather than on marginally increasing their recycling.  But the affluent will need to change behaviors: “The rich, in other words, are the ones that should be getting hassled about their choices. For most working schmoes, this kind of moralizing of lifestyle is as pointless as it is off-putting.”  It’s the affluent who have the most to give up by reducing flying, and thus who can make the biggest difference; most people in the world don’t fly, and indeed, even most Americans don’t fly in a given year.

What it means for me

In a typical year, I fly a few times recreationally:

  • A trip to Florida beaches with my side of the family
  • A trip to North Carolina beaches with my in-laws
  • Some other trip

I also fly domestically a couple of times per year for work.

I’m lucky to live close to the aforementioned families so would not sacrifice seeing them.  I would miss the oceans, especially when the beach provides a wintertime getaway from snowy Michigan.  We have freshwater beaches here, though it’s not the same.  These are very happy trips and traditions that go back decades.  My kids wouldn’t get to experience the variety of places I did as a child and young adult.

I’d save a bunch of money not flying.  These aren’t cheap tickets and vacationing as a family means buying four of them.  If we instead vacationed by car to Cleveland, Indianapolis, Chicago, or Toronto, I could have a nice (albeit colder) vacation and still come out ahead financially.

I’d miss seeing new places.  I’ve always enjoyed traveling.  But while seeing the world via plane is normal to me, it’s not for most of the world, and it’s only been a possibility for anyone starting in the last century.  People had happy lives before the advent of flying, when only slower travel was possible.  And now we have the internet, which lets us learn about and see far-flung places and video-chat with friends and colleagues around the country and the world.   On this last note, I’m hopeful that virtual reality will provide a decent way to scratch the itch to “visit” foreign places.

Will I do it?

The social pressure is the biggest factor.  If I lived alone, I think I’d start now.  Peter Kalmus (linked above) writes, “I experienced a lot of social pressure to fly, so it took me three years to quit.”  Boycotting our families’ traditional vacations would alienate my loved ones and I’m reluctant to bring it up.

And I don’t know what my employer would think.  Maybe I’d start out with “no more leisure flying” given that my work flights are infrequent.

On the other hand, how could I not?  It’s especially poignant that in my children’s lifetimes, sea level rise from climate change will destroy the very places we fly to, the beaches of Southwest Florida and the Carolina coast.  More broadly, when climate change will displace millions of people, cause an unprecedented refugee crises, species extinctions, food shortages, render large parts of the world unlivable, and threatens our very existence as a species, how can I justify flying?

Perhaps the lens to see it through is that air travel is – was? – a blip in how humans lived.  Air travel will tail off and eventually stop, whether because of incorporating the externalities of pollution into the cost, climate-protection regulation, or simply just because we eventually run out of fuel (it will get prohibitively expensive as we do).  There doesn’t appear to be a technological solution to “green” flying – we can’t electrify planes like we can cars.

Given that, we can stop flying now and help preserve a livable world, or we can squeeze in a few more decades of flying as the world burns.  But either way, flying will eventually be reduced, and my grandkids won’t fly like I do [I wish I could link directly to the line “I lived a full life”, but anyway, better to read it in order].

To be continued

I have flights planned in the coming year to Florida, North Carolina, and a visit to Yellowstone, plus a work flight TBD.  Perhaps this will be my farewell tour to these places I love but probably should say goodbye to – for their sakes.

4 replies on “Should I stop flying?”

Thanks for sharing your thinking about this, and being open to sharing even before you’ve figured it out. Since you are thinking about this, here are some of the questions I came up with while reading.

Can you or your employer throw money at the problem in the form of carbon offsets? Do those even help?

What about driving to North Carolina and Florida – a challenge with kids, yeah, but a surmountable one. Is that better or worse than flying? Is it flying or travel that is the real problem? Given enough time, would a boat-ride to Europe produce less CO2 than a plane-ride?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions, but if you find some please share.

Thanks for the comments and sorry for the ridiculously delay in responding!

Offsets: I don’t think they truly offset. ProPublica had a good long piece exploring offsets: There’s no substitute for not emitting the greenhouse gas. That said, I’ll explore my employer’s willingness to do both: start offsetting and reduce flying.

Driving instead: Driving as a family is way more efficient than flying. For our trips to Ocean Isle Beach, NC it would be 1.42 tons of CO2-equivalent for five round-trip flights, vs. 0.51 tons to drive round trip. [source:] A huge difference. I’m considering it, I’m wary of 12 hours in the car with a two-year-old but the older he gets the easier driving becomes.

Is travel itself the real problem: yes. I think with wind resistance being proportional to velocity squared, faster travel is inherently less efficient and thus requires the tremendous energy in fossil fuels.

For instance, a small, slow electric airplane is possible, but not an electric 747. The first one works because it’s small and slow. A four-seater electric airplane that goes the speed of a fast train (140 mph) is interesting and has uses but it’s not a substitute for passenger flight.

I have not looked into boats to Europe but I know cruise ships are ecologically-disastrous.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *