Travel and climate change: conflicting truths

The Hamilton Pool Preserve in Texas. Photo by Dave Wilson.

I’ve been doing more reading about both travel and its impact on climate change. I don’t know how to reconcile what’s ultimately necessary for our survival with what’s good, and beautiful, and connects us.

I don’t have any scintillating synthesis. I just have quotes and pictures. And a wish that there were an easy answer.

“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Saint Augustine

“Just one return flight from London to New York produces a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe.”
— ETA, Air Travel’s Impact on Climate Change

“While we may not want to admit it, Americans lead fairly sheltered lives, and as a result, generally have a poor understanding of what is really happening in the rest of the world. ‘I think it’s really hard to fully comprehend what your own country has, both the good and the bad, without getting outside of your comfort zone on a deeper, more meaningful level,’ says Meet, Plan, Go! Austin co-host Keith Hajovsky. “Taking a gap year or a career break is a great way to accomplish this.”

Likewise, San Diego host Elaine Masters believes that there would be far less intolerance, violence, prejudice, and hatred in the world if more people got to experience the ways in which other people live in it. ‘There is really no better education available, in my opinion, than seeing the world,’ says Masters.”
— Katie Aune, Why a Gap Year Should Come to America

Lison, Portugal. Photo by Filipa Chatillon.

“And, no doubt, many of us have adopted new habits—trying to use public transportation, buying local foodsrejecting bottled water. But the “savings” from such practices are wiped out by a habit that many of us not only refuse to kick, but also increasingly embrace: flying, the single most ecologically costly act of individual consumption.”
— Joseph Nevins, Kicking the Habit: Air Travel in the Time of Climate Change

The Isle of Skye, Scotland. Photo by Tim Wilcock.

“By making a disproportionate contribution to climate destabilization and associated forms of environmental degradation—biodiversity loss, rising sea levels, and desertification, for instance—air travelers exacerbate the precarious existence of the most vulnerable. In doing so, they contribute to unjust hierarchies (e.g. racism and imperialism) that reflect a world of profound inequality.”
— Joseph Nevins, Kicking the Habit: Air Travel in the Time of Climate Change

“I so wholeheartedly believe it’s important to travel even if it’s just to the next town, city, or state over. Look up, look around you, note the small details, find inspiration through meeting new people, marvel at new landscapes, be in awe of a new culture’s traditions. Just do something that can blow the doors wide open to your approach, opinion, perception, or idea of something. When you have access to new activities, languages, foods, what have you that aren’t available where you currently live, you’d be a fool not to take advantage of those things.”
— Kimi Sugiyama, Why Travel At All 

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo by Jack Brauer.

“Sometimes, I read National Geographic and travel magazines and then I remember how full of color and culture our world is. Cue overwhelming and insatiable wanderlust. While it physically hurts my heart to know that there is so much to experience currently out of reach, it is comforting to know that I’m working towards a career that can take me all over the world. I hold onto this vision while trucking though day to day life.”
— The Militant Baker, Insatiable Wanderlust

“The dirty secret about air travel is that there is no green alternative to flying, other than staying home. (The exceptions are short-haul flights that could be replaced with train travel, and governments would be wise to try to invest in high-speed rail, as even the Obama Administration is slowly doing—but Europe’s far superior train system hasn’t prevented the rapid growth of air travel on the continent.”
— Bryan Walsh, When Does a Flight Become “Binge Flying”?

17 thoughts on “Travel and climate change: conflicting truths

  1. You have some beautiful pictures and I love your views on things. Reading your posts makes you wonder things that were not previously possible. Please take a look at my blog and follow if you like

  2. I remember that on the last flight I was on (Houston to London) offered an extra fee to help reverse some of the carbon footprint–I don’t remember how; maybe a tree planting program or something? More of that sort of thing could be a baby step toward solving the problem. I know that the first time I traveled and lived abroad really furthered the development of an open mind, acceptance of other ways of life, and curiosity about the world. I’ve grown up amidst provincial attitudes, often bigoted, of people who have never left the state. Enough fear of the unknown has led to the election of politicians who advocate insular, aggressive, and harmful international policies.

    • Carbon offsets are a good idea, but unfortunately, from what I’ve read they’re not very useful, and can even make the problem worse by encouraging more people to travel.

      “Buying offsets is a nice idea, just like giving money to a soup kitchen is a nice idea, but that doesn’t end world hunger,” said Anja Kollmuss, a staff scientist for the Stockholm Environment Institute who is based at a branch at Tufts University.

      “Buying offsets won’t solve the problem because flying around the way we do is simply unsustainable,” said Ms. Kollmuss, who has researched airline offsets.


      I think that the benefits of travel you experienced are really important too, though. I’ve only been out of the US twice, and I really want to experience other cultures and learn more about the world. Right now, I’m not in a financial situation to travel anyway (unless I were to do something like teaching English in Asia, which I’ve thought about…), but I feel really torn about the whole thing.

      • Thanks so much for that information. I admit that sadly, I haven’t read much about carbon offsets.

        After reading your article, I too am torn, but perhaps being from extremely conservative Texas gives me a certain bias.

        I too want so badly to travel the world and learn about other countries. I am waiting until my child is ten (minimum age) to participate in a program where you go to other countries and do things like help build homes, teach English, or even care for children in orphanages.

        So I don’t know…but thanks for the great blog and for making me think.

  3. This doesn’t necessarily address the really lovely and though-provoking points you’ve made, but there still are other interesting and moderately sustainable methods of travel. When we were moving from New England to Old England, we strongly considered bunking on a cargo ship. Sea travel is not for everybody, and it’s not particularly sustainable, but it is certainly better than air travel.

    And when you get somewhere you’d like to be (Europe?) then an oft-cited figure states that rail travel is one-tenth the environmental cost of air travel.

    Of course, this presupposes that you can get to/travel around places that offer these travel options, so I recognize that there are Travel Privileges in place as well. Also, the rising costs of alternative travel are a big factor – it used to be reasonable to travel in cargo ships or by rail, but now rails are disappearing and most people can only afford air fare. I understand that, but I would like to offer hope for your future environmental travel plans!

    • Thanks for the hope-offering! I’ve actually been thinking about travel by both rail and ship, and planning to write a post about those options soon. I read somewhere that ships actually have a cooling effect on the atmosphere because they release aerosols, and I want to do more research to find out if that’s true.

      Alternative travel tends to take longer, which is another issue, especially considering how little vacation time most USians get…but I was also reading somewhere that if we worked fewer hours, it would have a positive effect on the environment.

      So…lots and lots of thoughts! Which will hopefully coalesce into a post soon.

  4. Pingback: Why climate justice matters to me | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  5. Pingback: 10 more ways to make a living in a green economy | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  6. Pingback: For our souls and communities: why we need a work culture of regular sabbaticals | Tutus And Tiny Hats

  7. Pingback: The Need for Sustainable Travel | Trip Logic

  8. Pingback: Sunday links, 9/21/14: it’s finally fall | Tutus And Tiny Hats

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s