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Planes, Trains, and Carbon Shame

I consider myself the last person to eco-boss my friends around.  I don’t like  it when greener-than thou people chide me for eating meat, purchasing vegetables in non-recyclable plastic, or using paper towels. Also, my personal reason for not flying does not have an ecological motive: I have always loathed it and switched to trains before global warming made it a moral issue.

For people like my daughters, who are at the height of their careers, business travel is a necessity; giving up airplanes is probably too much to ask at that stage of life. We retirees, however, have both time and (as I hope to convince you) options.

In Europe, the huge carbon footprints that airplanes produce have created a whole new vocabulary of shame. “In the Netherlands they say vliegschaamte,” explains John Vogel in his article on “Why I Only Take One Holiday Flight a Year” . “ The Swedes say flygskam; and the Germans Flugscham. The words all mean ‘fly shame,’ or the guilt that travelers experience when they fly off somewhere knowing they are contributing to climate change.”

“We were going away three or four times a year just because we always did,” says Sarah Jones, a marketing executive from Reading in the UK. “It was stupid. The climate thing was the last straw. We just thought, ‘this is crazy’, so now we go abroad a maximum of once a year and really look forward to it.”

Europeans are thus putting a lot of thought into catching an airplane at all.

In America, frequent leisure flying is beginning to produce similar feelings. “Is Travel Ethical in a Time of Climate Change,” worries Andy Newman; “If seeing the world helps ruin it,” does indulging in air travel make you “a bad person? … going someplace far away, we now know, is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change. One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere. And yet we fly more and more.”

Here are some Letters to the Editor of the New York Times in response to Newman’s article:

Eliana M. Blum of New Orleans sees giving up air travel as a straight forward moral issue: “Unfortunately, right now there is no room for blurry areas when it comes to climate change. Those who are not actively helping the cause are in the wrong. Travel may be a difficult sacrifice, but it is a habit that must be broken. One family’s vacation is costing another coastal family their home. There is no world where that can be justified.”

Mark Bessoudo in London sees the point just as clearly, but is not ready to give up his flights: “In his ‘Confessions,’ St. Augustine prayed to be delivered from his lustful desires. ‘Grant me chastity and continence,’ he pleads with God, ‘but not yet.’ To put this into modern terms, most environmentally minded people (me included) are living as if to say, ‘I want to reduce my carbon footprint, but not yet’.”

Lynn Englum, in Samoa to study climate-effected countries, admits to moral waffling: “Newman’s article touched a nerve as I grapple with my own carbon footprint, traveling around the globe to visit the places that are vanishing and/or heavily affected by climate change. I’m currently in the Pacific visiting island countries, and my only real option is via planes because boat travel would take months to hit the places on my list. Mr. Newman mentions that some might be thinking, ‘go see them before they disappear!,’ but that can be viewed as ‘evil’; In some ways that’s exactly what I’m doing for the primary purpose of bringing awareness about these vanishing places, but also to take this journey for everyone who can’t and, as Mr. Newman points out, shouldn’t.” 

So, what are our options?

Flight Abstinence

In Britain and Europe, which seem more eco-ethically conscious than we are,  No-Fly Pioneers  are active:  “The no-fly movement is a small but growing community of people who are drastically reducing the number of flights they take, or giving up air travel altogether. Many campaigners say they feel flying is about to receive the same attention as shunning plastic or eating less meat because of its 2% contribution to global carbon emissions, predicted to grow to as much as 16% by 2050…. Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year and suggested a tax should be imposed on further journeys. Berry hasn’t flown since 2005. Most flying is carried out by a small proportion of the population.”

Offsets

The Sonoma Climate Challenge argues that “If you need to fly, carbon offsets are a way to balance out your impact. Carbon offsets are small contributions to projects that lower carbon emissions like installing solar panels or planting trees. It’s easy—you contribute to a project and receive credit for a certain amount of carbon emissions reduced. It doesn’t cost much and helps to offset your impact when air travel is an important part of your plans.” 

Trains  

 The United Kingdom and Europe have far superior train systems to ours, but you can get around America by rail if you have the time. For me, trains as a substitute for flights took hold the week after 9/11, when my granddaughter was due to be born in Colorado and all planes in the United States were grounded. I took the Wolverine from Michigan to Chicago, where Amtrak had added 14 cars to the California Zephyr for the emergency.

I was able to reserve a sleeping compartment, which came with free dinner and breakfast in the elegant dining car, with delicious food and delightful conversation. I got on in Chicago at 3PM, and reached Denver at 8:30 the next morning.

Yes, the sleeper cost me as much as the plane, and the Amtrak sometimes runs late. On the return trip, for example, we missed my connection so I got put up (free) in a scuzzy hotel; having learned my lesson, on subsequent visits I treated myself to a nice hotel and overnight in Chicago on my return journeys. After this experience I often took to the Cardinal and the Capitol Limited trips to Washington and the Lake Shore Limited to New York City (see Catching the Midnight Sleeper.)  

Given that train travel is leisurely and enjoyable, is its carbon footprint really less than an airplane’s? First, it is important to note that airplane emissions have a significant impact on global warming. The United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change   reports that planes not only spew fossil fuel emissions but also produce vaporsvapors in the form of contrails and cirrus clouds that trigger climate warming.

 There is no question that passenger and freight transport incur a lower climate impact than airplane travel. The UN report concludes that “the transport specific climate impact is lowest for rail and bus travel and highest for air travel. Both (air and car) travel are about three times higher than the impact from bus and rail travel.” In fact,  train emissions are so low that they even have a climate cooling effect.

Although the UN report says that improvements in air travel are on the way, including modifications of aircraft and engine technology, fuel, operational practices, and regulatory and economic measures, environmental scientists do not think that these changes can be in place  before global warming passes the tipping point 

It is easier and quicker to make rail travel more eco-friendly. Older deisel engines, for example, are already being replaced by more energy efficient and carbon-friendly models. My Detroit-Chicago train, the Wolverine, has switched to new engines which are also  being installed for 75 other long-distance routes. Amtrak President Richard Anderson notes that “These new locomotives will offer increased reliability, more hauling power, improved safety features and lower emissions.”   In addition, many routes are being electrified, making it clear that the United States is swiftly retrofitting our rail passenger fleet to lower carbon emissions.

Given that Europeans have already achieved the technology to make rail travel far less ecologically costly than  flying, there is no reason why it cannot be done here, too.

Ocean Liners!

“Wait a minute,” a twitterer remarked, “how are you going to take a train across the ocean?”

I am coming up on the August anniversary of the all-time most exciting adventure of my life, an ocean voyage on one of the Holland-America student ships ($400 round trip) that used to ply back and forth across the Atlantic all summer long. The Johan van Oldenbarnevelt

carried 1500 American Field Service students, all sixteen years old, and 250 older folks, college age and upwards. A Professor from Bard college asked me to give one of the many small classes offered free to everyone on board, ranging from the history and languages of the countries we would visit to philosophical topics like my little course on Existentialism.

We single adults, like the students, shared (sex segregated) quarters with  bunk beds in each room, though there were staterooms for couples and older folk. 

With technological fixes to make it eco-friendly, why shouldn’t inexpensive ocean travel be revived? You could add the four or five day crossing to your travel plans and have a great opportunity to practice your languages, engage in interesting discussions, take in the vast majesty of the ocean, and make new friends, some of whom will become travel companions abroad and othersm  as in my case – I met my husband Henry on that grand old ship – dearly loved partners for your entire life.