Sometime around 1890, in Perth, Scotland, my ancestors made the difficult, possibly desperate, definitely courageous decision to send half of their children to America. Away would go three adult sons – a blacksmith, a tailor and a soon-to-be farmer – and two sisters. The youngest, Helen, just 16 years old, was suffering from what was thought to be consumption.
They hoped to find a better life in America, and that young Helen would be cured of her illness by the healthful sea air. Thankfully, by the time she arrived in America, she was indeed cured. She loved the ocean voyage, while her siblings lay abed, suffering severe seasickness.
Arriving on the shores of North America, they traveled by ship through the St. Lawrence Seaway until they arrived in Duluth, Minnesota. They took up residence in Hunter’s Park, known by its inhabitants as Oatmeal Hill because of the large number of Scottish folk who settled there.
The family lived in Duluth for some years before spreading out across the state to start their own lives – marriages, births and deaths. New life took hold in this new place and news was shared via letters, taking a month or more to travel back and forth between America and Scotland. I have some of those letters.
So why am I thinking of my great-grandmother, Helen Elder, at this time?
The Carbon Footprint of Travel
It’s vacation time and I’m hearing from a lot of folks who are planning to fly to visit family members who live in other states or other countries.
Unfortunately, flying is one of the more climate-destructive things that middle and upper-class Americans and Europeans do. I’ve flown numerous times in the past. Most people I know have flown somewhere. So I’m not speaking as a purist here. My hands are not any cleaner than yours, but going forward, I’m going to try to do better.
Because regardless of the reasons – or excuses – we give for why we fly, it doesn’t change the fact that flying is bad for the atmosphere and the climate, and no amount of carbon offsetting will undo the damage. We’ve more than doubled our air travel between 2000 and 2015 and that’s the wrong direction.
The Climate Impact
Aircraft burn huge amounts of fossil fuel, much of it high in the atmosphere where it has different impacts than near the ground. Aircraft emissions warm the atmosphere 1.9 times more than carbon dioxide alone. Here’s what airplanes are emitting:
- CO2: One round trip flight from New York to London generates as much CO2 as 3 months of driving a small car.
- Nitrogen oxides and ozone: Increased ozone in the upper atmosphere warms the planet more than ozone at lower altitudes.
- Contrails: The thin cloud trails left behind by airplanes also have a warming effect, especially at night.
- Sulfate and soot: These two emissions have opposing effects – warming and cooling. Their accumulation in the upper atmosphere enhances cloud formations.
- Water vapor: Yes, water is a greenhouse gas! Water vapor released in the lower atmosphere comes down as rain within a week or two, but water released in the upper atmosphere builds up.
Progress – On the Way, Not Here Yet
The air travel industry is working on reducing emissions from planes. It’s also looking at alternative fuels. But this is still in the future; a future we may not have. In the game of life, we’re already in overtime. The Earth is telling us loud and clear, via feedback loops of massive hurricanes, violent storms, heat waves, droughts, fires, that enough is enough. We need to take this feedback seriously. We need to take (in)action right now.
And that’s why I’m thinking of Helen.
Love in a Time of Climate Change
When she got on that ship some 130 years ago, Helen left all she loved behind, expecting that she would never see her mother and father and siblings again. And she never did. How hard that must have been for everyone. I’m sure many tears were shed and hearts broken, at least for awhile.
That’s the story of most American families who arrived here over the course of several hundred years: Love and loss, sacrifice and hope.
But we don’t make those sacrifices today. We fly to visit our loved ones and in doing so we contribute to a loss so much larger than we are willing to admit: the loss of clean air, a livable climate, and ultimately, our children’s future.
In a time of climate change, we need to stop discretionary flying until we have vastly better technology to enable low-carbon, long-distance travel. It’s as simple as that.
In a time of climate change, we need to reframe the decision not to fly as one of the ways we show our love for our children and grandchildren. We love them enough to do everything we can to give them a future.
In a time of climate change, we treasure so highly the beautiful places around the world that we don’t destroy them by flying there. In the process, we may discover by staying closer to home, that there are treasures enough right here.
I am not saying this is easy. I’m not saying we will be perfect, or that I will be perfect. What I’m saying is I’m going to try – I’m going to commit.
In a time of climate change, we need to relearn what our ancestors knew: that love comes with loss and hope comes with sacrifice. And we’re lucky, those of us living in the world today. We can count our blessings. Unlike our ancestors, we can pick up the phone and call.