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Yes, I Get on Planes to Fight Climate Change

The ethical complexities of living in a moment when advocating for climate action often demands high-carbon work lives.

Alex Steffen
Nov 7, 2016 · 6 min read

This all began with a tweetnado about whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio is a hypocrite: He claims to want climate action, some folks tweeted, but he’s constantly jetting around the world. While his personal emissions might not be that important in the giant scales of climate systems, did his professional carbon footprint undermine the message he’s delivering? The argument is still raging now.

I am not a movie star, but I do often travel for my work. I fly to fight climate change. This is not something I have simple feelings about, so I want to explain what (I think) are the issues involved and share how I see them.

Some people are deeply concerned with climate impacts of travel itself. Flying is very CO2-intensive; CO2 is warming the planet, which is terrible: therefor flying is terrible, so every opportunity to reduce flying should be seized. To not do so, some of them argue, is to become moral hypocrites.

Others are concerned with perception of hypocrisy: if climate leaders fly, others will not take them (or their message of cutting CO2) seriously. To these folks, it’s not the emissions themselves that are the true problem, it’s the failure to model the low-carbon lives climate advocates encourage us all to lead.

Still others feel that having well-known climate leaders travel at all is superfluous, or maybe even harmful to local efforts. Why do we need anyone traveling, they ask? The old ideas of substituting telepresence (or delegated trained local messengers) for a traveling speaker inevitably come up.

All I can do is share my own experiences as a man who’s traveled more to speak to and meet with others working on the planetary crisis than all but a few thousand others. Here’s how I see what I do.

First, I kinda hate flying. I would gladly give up most professional travel forever IF I thought there was a better to do that work. I suspect many others with large travel footprints feel the same.

All else aside, flying thousands of miles to speak on a stage or in a board room means spewing CO2 whose impacts will last millennia. I hate that. I hate knowing that I do that. I hate flying over a melting Greenland knowing that I’m melting it as I soar by.

All of us who work trying to change our thinking about the planet and how we live together on it are trapped in uncomfortable compromises.

Second, one of the harsh realities of our day is that we must decarbonize at breakneck speed. Another is that since everything we do emits CO2, we can only decarbonize by spending our carbon budget down. We must use our “remaining” carbon budget to eliminate our carbon emissions. We must burn fossil fuels to make the changes that will get us to zero carbon.

That means lifestyle change is not enough — or even very meaningful — without systems change to create zero CO2 cities, energy, agriculture, transport, and so on.

Some people not emitting as much CO2 as they did is not even vaguely the same thing as creating systems where everyone emits very little CO2. They’re different kinds of actions, and are only imperfectly connected. We absolutely need new systems; whether widespread voluntary consumer behavior change is part of getting them is a matter of contention. We don’t know.

We do know that changing those systems demands building a vast number of new things.

Building all those new things demands thinking new things, so we can envision what we need to build. (We can’t build what we can’t imagine.)

The process of changing how we think is cultural, social and usually experiential.

Live events are critical because they create spaces where people have experiences together that can be influential, even life-changing. People coming together, in-person, is one of the best ways we have of opening people’s minds to new ideas.

Some rooms are — simply by dint of the power or cultural influence of people there — more important to the work of changing systems than others. Changing the people in those rooms has an out-sized impact in changing the world. That’s not elitism, that’s a recognition of the reality that power and influence are unequally distributed in human societies — now more than ever.

Some people are better than others at creating the experiences that lead to changed thinking. I’m good; some are outstandingly talented. Putting talented people in front of influential audiences increases the likelihood of creating a mind-changing experience.

Added to this is the power of celebrity. Some people, in some rooms, create energy that simply would not exist otherwise. They have stage presence. Indeed, their presence can draw people who otherwise would not have attended, and even make the event itself newsworthy and a platform for communicating new visions and perspectives to a wider audience.

Finally, getting people together in the same place forges relationships. If the experience they share is particularly powerful, these meetings can create on-going friendships and alliances that help get good work done long after the event has ended. Rubbing elbows builds movements.

None of this is yet replicable from a distance. I wish it were!

The question then becomes, Is the experience produced “worth” the carbon “spent”? After years of pondering that question, I think the answer is “Quite often.”

Many, many people have told me that events I took part in changed their minds, their institution’s strategy, even the course of their lives.

If even one of them becomes an effective climate action advocate at a systems level, my lifetime’s travel is irrelevant in CO2 footprint terms: their actions will save many times the emissions I’ve caused in a lifetime of traveling. The world has lower emissions than it would have had. I flew to cut global emissions, in effect.

Again, I’m good at my work, but there are people who are much better than me at this: they’re better speakers, more famous, more able to gather buzz and resources. Those people should travel MORE, not less, if it helps them be effective.

One final point: It is extremely hard to mentally grasp the kind of challenges the planetary crisis presents to us.

Those challenges are so large in scale our brains freeze. The timeframes we have left in which to act are so short, all effective actions are now systems discontinuities for which no one is prepared. The scope of diversity in cultures, local systems, histories, interconnections involved often makes easy-sounding solutions foolish, even harmful.

The idea that we can retreat to simple answers, slow changes, small steps is so, so comforting. It’s also totally wrong.

We’ve left that planet behind. The planet we live on now demands we work through tougher, more complex, more morally complicated decisions. We live on a planet where nothing is pure and simple any more.

Is my work enough? Writing, speaking, lending my perspectives on projects? No, it’s not. It will never be. I will die having not done enough.

But does my work matter enough to agree to get on the next plane, to know a forest was cut down for my next book, to do constant harm while I work constantly to do good?

People say it does. I trust them, that this work matters enough to live with my failures and my paradoxes, to do my work in an imperfect world, without the privilege of feeling some sense of righteous superiority while I do it.

I’m just a man, who agrees to fly over the melting world and do my best to save it.

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