Wednesday, November 13, 2019

To fly or not? Fashion, peer pressure and societal impacts

Sou | 12:29 AM Go to the first of 34 comments. Add a comment
I don't think I've previously written about flight shame or flight shaming or whatever you want to call it and I see it occupies the minds of many people. So here are some random thoughts on the subject.

There are a lot of issues bound up in this. I'm not advocating anything one way or another. What an individual does to reduce their personal carbon footprint is their own decision. It's worth saying that multiple personal decisions can eventually add up to societal change. Also worth noting there is a lot of peer pressure involved, with some people arguing that flying is hypocritical or anti-social or whatever. This pressure can become a force for societal change as happened with smoking tobacco, sun-bathing, littering, recycling and other behaviours and attitudes over the years.

A common attack from people who don't want to stop global warming (deniers and disinformers) is if a person flies, drives a car (whether EV, hybrid or ICE), has a laptop, phone or lives in a house then it shows they don't believe climate change is real. In fact, if you take their argument to the extreme, if you're still alive and kicking you must think climate science is a hoax. Despite the ridiculousness of these sorts of attacks, they can influence behaviour. (Contrary to what deniers claim, most people want to stop global warming so we don't have to give up our lives, travel, communication, housing, food and water.)

Greta Thunberg made a big point about not flying to the USA and was given the opportunity to sail. Now that one of her key destinations has shifted from Chile to Spain, she has been asking for help to get back to Europe without flying. I haven't heard whether she's been successful (anyone?). [Update - Ms Thunberg has just now advised she has been successful!]

There are people (scientists and others) who have declared they've given up flying altogether, or are no longer flying for personal reasons only (while still flying for job-related reasons). The advantage to them is they can reduce their personal carbon footprint. Maybe if enough people join them, the total number of commercial passenger flights might drop and with it emissions. The downside is they might not get to see their families, or not as often, and almost certainly they'd not get to explore the wider world. People who give up flying altogether will (presumably) not allow themselves to consider a job that involves air travel so they will have fewer job and career options.

Another downside is that other people will not be able to meet them, talk with them, except by phone or internet hookup, unless those other people themselves travel. Anyone not on the same land mass will not get a chance to meet a non-flier face to face unless they themselves fly or sail or take a ship. (The last one, AFAIK, would generate more carbon emissions than a flight.)

Decision criteria - to travel or not?

There are a number of considerations when deciding whether to travel or not and, if so, whether to travel by car, air, train, bus, sailing vessel, powered vessel. I've listed some below, some general, some perhaps more relevant to scientists:
  • Will the world as a whole be better off or worse off or unchanged?
  • Will the knowledge base of the world be improved or diminished or unchanged?
  • How will it affect decisions that need to be made, or events? (E.g. if you don't attend an important meeting.)
  • How will it affect your job options or career prospects? (E.g. representing your organisation, gathering knowledge, networking, an expected obligation of your job etc.)
  • If you don't travel does that mean there'll be one less person flying or will someone take your place? (e.g. Someone else will give the conference presentation you were going to give, attend the meeting etc.)
  • Is there a feasible alternative to in-person attendance, such as telephone or video-conferencing?
  • Is time, cost or comfort a constraint? Traveling from one end of a continent to another (or crossing continents) by train or bus can take a lot more time, cost more (or less) and be more, or less, comfortable than air travel. What impact will time and cost have on work and family life? If you have a physical disability or ailment of any kind, will that determine your mode of travel or limit your choices?
  • If the destination is separated from you by sea, will you consider sailing or is it better to not travel at all?
If the answers to the above questions are that avoiding the trip will have an adverse effect on one or more of the above then a decision to avoid could be regarded as symbolic. It may be the person avoiding travel is doing it as a matter of principle and/or highly influenced by their peer group or by a person or group they admire. I say this because it is unlikely that a decision about flying on a commercial airline will make any difference to overall emissions in the short term (say, up to five years or maybe a decade out). Flights aren't cancelled because one person doesn't fly. If no-one flies or if there's a substantial reduction in passengers, that will reduce the number of planes in the air. 

Shouting out!

For a "no-fly" decision to make an impact on emissions it probably needs to be publicised. A person would need to shout their resolve to the world. A person of some note would have more influence although if enough people get together and let the world know they've given up flying, that would also have an impact. (This would undoubtedly and ironically draw "virtue signalling" catcalls from the same deniers who say unless you give up everything in life it means climate science is a hoax.)

What I'm thinking is, if the no-fly reason is to reduce the world's carbon emissions (rather than just being a personal "feel-good" decision), the aim is presumably to influence a large enough number of people that it does in fact reduce carbon emissions by reducing the overall number of flights.

I've seen it argued that it's frequent flyers who need to stop and that occasional flyers aren't the ones causing harm. I haven't run the numbers. Years ago probably most passengers traveled for business. I don't know if that's still so. Regardless, the difficulty is if only frequent flyers stop traveling, it would have a big (and adverse) impact on business, politics, scientific research and knowledge-sharing. (Most frequent flyers fly for work. Few people would choose the pain of flying weekly or monthly for pleasure despite the rewards of reaching the destination.) It may also add to xenophobia with fewer cultural exchanges (diplomats and tourists) between far flung nations. Would the downside be greater than the upside? I can't answer that.

Rather than people no longer traveling beyond their village or railway line, is it worth investing more in developing fossil-fuel free planes or is the world going to change so much that people will no longer visit other land masses? Maybe there'll be technological advances such as sophisticated holography (or Star Trek teleportation), so air travel isn't needed.

I don't have any answer to all this. Just thought I'd put together a few of the ideas swirling around in my head.

There's one more notion that I hesitate to put down because it might be seen as a criticism. It's that most people who announce they have "given up flying" appear to be those for whom flying is a non-essential. Distance travel is not a job requirement and their families live on the same continent. I do, on the other hand, think any action that will result in the development of fossil-fuel free modes of long distance travel across land and sea is necessary, so good for them for keeping up the pressure.


  1. We are told by the anti-AGW mob that there is no point in a single country such as Australia reducing its fossil fuel use. If the amount of CO2 output is only a small percent of the world’s total output, they argue that any or a complete reduction in fossil fuel use would have relatively little effect and be pointless.
    The anti-AGW mob should apply the same principle to an individual’s use of fossil-fuelled energy. That is, why should an individual give up their use of fossil-fuelled energy sources as the overall impact on total CO2 output by a single person would be vanishingly small?
    Furthermore, the anti-AGW mob’s self-righteous use of Virtue Shaming is disengaged from reality. Individuals are born into a system that is not of their making The reality is we live and function in an economy which doesn’t provide a lot of alternatives to fossil-fuelled energy sources.
    And, it is disingenuous to virtue shame those who accept AGW by labelling them as hypocrites unless they return to a Neolithic lifestyle. This is a strawman view that deliberately exaggerates and extends a call for a reduction in fossil-fuel use to a total and instant ban on using any fossil fuel at all.

  2. I call them the Hypocrisy Police - and them the most hypocritical of all; they certainly will not take anyone who goes all stone age more seriously for it. More likely that will be grounds to mock them. No-one should have to go stone age for our leaders and policy makers to take seriously a problem they already know - from decades of consistent top level expert advice - is very serious.

    Apparently if you care about your emissions you are a hypocrite and morally reprehensible, but if you don't care you are free of any responsibility for your emissions and are morally superior for it. But it is an extraordinarily successful obstructionist meme that presses buttons and switches off listening and reason abilities in the vulnerable. Enticing enough for Mr Angus Taylor to take his ill advised poke at Clover Moore and Sydney City Council.

  3. I tend to agree with both of you. The "no-fly" people are quite vocal, more so than the "we've got solar panels", and "we've bought an EV" and "we've no longer got a lawn (saving water)" people and "we've sold our car" people. More too than the "we've given up (whatever type of) food" people. (I'll probably write about that at some stage as well.) The talk is more about not flying rather than the amount (or nature) of flying they're no longer doing, or whether they've shifted to, say, diesel (train or car) instead of aviation fuel. So it's mostly less about people making a real difference and more about signalling a change to carbon-free travel is needed (which it is).

    As for Angus Taylor, he tried to take down Clover Moore but I didn't see him boasting that he and his staff no longer fly anywhere. That's probably because Australia is a big country and separated from other nations by sea, so if he and his staff are to do their jobs they have little choice but to fly.

  4. On the comparison with "why should a country reduce emissions" - yes, that sticks out like a sore thumb. That comparison would be wrong however. The correct comparison is for countries to shift to clean energy and for the travel and transport sectors to also shift to clean energy. The aim is to reduce emissions by shifting the sources of energy to carbon-free ones. It's not to stop people living or interacting with each other. We are keen to have civilisation continue, not cause it to break down.

  5. I stopped flying in the mid-90's. But eventually had to make one flight (there and back) for surgery at the Mayo about 4 years ago. There was no way I could drive it with a thousand stitches in my back. Haven't flown since, do not intend to. And I quite driving in the early 2000's, so that helped lower my footprint.

    But it didn't do any good. For the occasional flyer, not flying doesn't have any real impact, only for frequent flyers. Same with driving. There were fewer trips to anywhere, but no, I didn't stay home for 13 years (went back to driving after that). Still had to commute to the store, etc. I still do not drive much.

    Individuals aren't the real problem with carbon footprints, unless you're a heavy user of fossil fuels in "all that you do" (and eat). The real targets for reduced greenhouse gas emissions are far larger entities like corporations, the military, agriculture, etc.

    Lifestyles have a much larger impact, what you buy, what you eat, or where you go. Tourism is terrible for the environment with a huge carbon footprint. Living small, simple, inexpensive, i.e., "minimal" will be the best you can do. Raise some of your own food (did that too).

    I don't look at people as being willing to change much until it is actually forced upon them, they'd have done it already if that were the case. Same with corporations and big consumption / big footprint users. They're not going to change much until it's forced upon them (or they'd all have done it already). Only a very small segment of business and industry has made a real effort, the rest is just greenwashed PR and doesn't really mean squat.

    A lot of flying is probably totally unnecessary these days. Those are the kinds of trips that can be quickly cut out - if people and business were willing to do this (unlikely for now). Digital communications can replace quite a lot of face-to-face meetings, but not all.

    The real question is cultural - why do the present populations of the world refuse to change the habits, practices and consumption? There are numerous reasons, none which have been "solved". Among those reasons is they do not want to change, so therefore, they don't. Same with corporations. It's highly profitable to pollute the world, but not doing this becomes more expensive and troublesome.

    Change won't happen on a volunteer basis. It will have to be enforced, ultimately. We're still a long way away from that. ~Survival Acres~

    1. I'm not sure about occasional flyers not making an impact. It might not make an impact on a person's own carbon footprint but taken en masse it might make a difference to the number of flights. What proportion of travel is purely for pleasure, entertainment, tourism or for personal purposes? It could be rather a lot.

      If travel was restricted to essential travel for business, diplomacy, health, education, trade or politics etc, would there be fewer planes in the sky?

      What would be the impact on some nations if their tourism industry is shut down? Would their people starve, be ostracised, be forgotten?

      It's complicated.

  6. We could start here for reducing emissions:


    But probably won't....

    ~Survival Acres~

    1. Yes. I don't know what will happen in the future. You are probably right that ultimately there will be a lot more restrictions - on travel, waste, packaging, food production and all sorts of things.

      If only we'd started in earnest when the warnings first came out, or at least back in the 1960s when the US President was informed about the dangers.

  7. I could have flown 400 Km one way today or driven to see a specialist instead we will consult over the phone system.
    Just saved 800 Kilometers of travel.
    It is not difficult to opt for this solution.

  8. I agree with you Sou, that it is wrong to restrict people's flying or other CO2 intensive activities. What CO2 people choose to emit should be a matter of personal conscience.

    Celebrity supporters of Extinction Rebellion took a similar view. They claim it is the toxic system which forces them to emit CO2, they don't feel responsible for their enormous personal carbon footprints.

    Now that we have agreed not to restrict flying or driving, if we could only all agree to make financial contributions towards our low carbon future voluntary, we wouldn't have a lot to argue about.

    1. "if we could only all agree to make financial contributions towards our low carbon future voluntary" For consistency, point to where you have protested about us all being forced through taxation to make financial contributions to fossil fuel industry subsidies.

    2. A lot of deniers suffer confirmation bias, which means they misread things (I'm being generous).

      They are also often selective in regard to what they are willing to have funded by taxation or mandatory levy.

    3. Fossil fuel subsidies are a bit of a unicorn. They get some tax breaks, but they're not exactly the same as subsidies. There was some talk of paying fossil fuel plants which could maintain a few months fuel reserve some kind of capacity payment, but this wasn't a fossil fuel subsidy as such - it would have been available to renewable operators who could provide a few months battery backup.

    4. Of course there are also capacity market contracts, a UK subsidy paid to diesel generator owners to provide power to the grid when renewables fail to deliver. I'm not keen on that fossil fuel subsidy.

    5. No Eric, I don't want a few weasel words. Point to an article on WUWT (or elsewhere) where you protest against fossil fuel subsidies. They have been going on for decades so - if you are a genuine believer in free choice - you must have railed against them. If that article does not exist, the obvious conclusion is that you are - as usual - shilling for the fossil fuel industry.

    6. What fossil fuel subsidies Andy?

    7. Eric everything here so far has been in general terms. We are talking about the general principle of freedom of choice - a principle you were pretending to champion when I took you up on it. So there is no reason to look at specific subsidy.

      The inference is obvious: you were just looking for excuses to promote a pro-fossil fuel industry line. You are a shill Eric, you always have been. With every Eric Worral post we get some pro fossil fuel industry line.

    8. Andy I’m just looking for an example of an actual fossil fuel subsidy,. Calling presumed externalities a subsidy as Sou’s link does is pretty flimsy, most people understand “subsidy” to mean a government cash payment of taxpayers money..

      For example; if you count externalities this way you could call slave labour in the Congolese cobalt mines a ‘subsidy” for high yield lithium batteries. At least some of the demand for that cobalt is driven by the electric car industry.

    9. You don't need an actual example. I don't want to be compelled through taxation to give money to the fossil fuel industry in the form of subsidies. If you were a genuine champion of freedom of choice you'd agree with me. But you don't because you are a phoney: so, instead, now you are scrabbling around for excuses to backtrack on the implication of your original posts.

    10. The reason I want an example Andy is I don’t believe there are significant subsidies. If there were, the IMF report quoted by Sou would not have to tinker with the commonly understood definition of a subsidy to include costs resulting from harm caused by air pollution in their definition of a “subsidy”.

    11. How about my country - the UK - giving hundreds of millions of pounds in cheap loans to oil companies while our health service's hospitals are burdened with massive debt repayments on their privately financed loans because the UK government "couldn't" find the money to lend them?

    12. The difference between interest rates the government charges and market rate is probably worth a few 10s of millions of pounds.

      The problem is the heavily taxed North Sea fields are depleted. The UK has substantial onshore reserves, like that huge gas deposit in Gatwick, but opposition to fracking has mostly put them beyond reach.

      Fossil fuel companies were walking away - its much easier to buy a few Rolls Royces for African warlords than deal with UK bureaucracy. But for political reasons the UK wants them to stay.

      I agree it’s all a little pathetic.

    13. What on earth are you talking about. Just for example, the UK govt gave 100s of millions of pounds in loans to Petrobras. That's nothing to do with the North Sea, or gas deposits in Gatwick. Its not just "a little pathetic", its appalling. But it is the sort of thing you let go by because you see your job as an apologist for the fossil fuel industry.

    14. Gee, a large taxpayer financed loan to a corrupt Brazilian company. I doubt any of that money actually hit the oilfield. How much of that money got "recycled" back to decision makers in the UK? Very interesting that large loans were paid to a company which was known to be corrupt.

      I was involved in UK politics for a time, and was also involved in business. I have no illusions about the integrity of UK institutions.

  9. Kind of general Sou. Tell me an actual subsidy payment received by fossil fuel companies.

  10. Sou, Greta has found a hitch on a catamaran:


    1. Thanks, saw that. She'll be getting a taste for sailing with all this cross-ocean travel :)

  11. Eric Worrall has gone from 'show me a subsidy' to 'show me a direct payment by government to fossil fuel'. Really?
    Let's note a few of these non-payments that he thinks aren't subsidies.
    Coal miners in Queensland have to put up partial payments towards known rehabilitation costs of their operation (that are much smaller than those known costs). The difference is clearly a subsidy.
    Peabody subsidiaries (among others) had their partial payments waived because Peabody parent was so large. The parent is now in bankruptcy protection. No make up payments have been sought from any subsidiary.
    Brown coal miners in Victoria have statutory obligations much lower than the cost of the rehabilitation they must assure.
    Many of them, too, have had even these underpayments waived.
    All coal burning in Australia produces significant and well measured harms from which the burners are relieved from legal liability to sufferers. These harms include death and illness of persons; crop and livestock damage; and so on.
    The entirely bogus pretence that having your liabilities waived or reduced is not a subsidy can be carried to an extreme. Suppose being a coal miner or coal burner carried a tax credit. Would this not be a subsidy, while an equivalent direct subvention would be? Suppose being a coal miner or coal burner carried a tax credit to one's shareholders. Would this not be a subsidy, because the shareholder gets it rather than the company? Would this not be a subsidy, while an equivalent direct payment to the shareholders would be?
    Worrall's argument is hopeless.

    1. Skeptics consider most of these assumed externalities to be fake accounting, to try to make renewables look good.

      Renewables also have externalities, such as the fuel poverty caused by higher electricity bills, which leads to significant numbers of deaths in places like the UK.

      Until the direct costs of renewables come down you're going to have an uphill battle convincing people to load these costs onto their energy bills - as Labor discovered at the last election. For the record even I thought Shorten had it in the bag.

    2. Your "fuel poverty" isn't from renewables. Renewables are cheap and getting cheaper by the day. New renewables are cheaper than new coal and have been for some time.

      The high cost is because of distribution, outmoded coal and gas.

    3. The cost comes from the need to maintain 24/7 power, especially in the early evening when demand surges, even during multi-day or multi-month wind droughts. For example the UK has an arrangement with diesel generator owners to step in and pump very expensive power into the grid when renewables fail, and they do fail frequently enough to require such expensive arrangements.

      Very few countries have the pumped storage capacity to smooth renewable intermittency over days or weeks of reduced output, and other options for grid scale storage are impractically expensive.

  12. 'Skeptics consider'. What does Eric consider?
    'Fake accounting'. What's fake about coal burning killing thousands in Australia every year? What's fake about the non-payment of the partial contributions to mine site rehabilitation? What's fake about huge ground and river water take for mining that isn't paid for at the rates residents or farmers must pay - or at all?

  13. -- Aviation produces between 2% and 3% of carbon emissions.
    -- Aviation is obviously valuable. It is relatively expensive, and yet it has grown and gets considerable use.
    -- It makes little sense to target aviation specifically as an activity to avoid. In aggregate, this is high cost (in terms of not doing the things that aviation is good at) for little benefit (a small fraction of the greenhouse gas budget).
    -- A proper carbon tax would sort it all out. Aviation would take its place with all the other producers of greenhouse gasses, letting the market allocate emissions and reductions reasonably efficiency in terms of cost vs. benefit.


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