Reconciling travel obsession and climate hypocrisy

(This is a ~10 minute read. If you’re short on time, scroll down to My Travel Manifesto for some tips on reducing your climate impact from travel).

COVID numbers be damned, everyone is traveling this summer. It’s as though two years of cabin fever are sending people on a mad dash out the door to …somewhere. Anywhere.

I admit: I’m guilty of wanting to get back to traveling. I’ve been itchy and irritable, tired of my house, my neighborhood, my city. I’ve taken so many walks in my neighborhood in the past 2+ years, I know exactly where to expect the poppies to come up in the yard at the house down the street. I will also tell you that, as I begin to move around the world again, I’m excited to shift this blog back (mostly) to my original intent: sharing experiences and observations from around the world.

But I wonder: How much does my travel obsession contribute to the ongoing disruption of our global climate? As a climate scientist, can I ethically justify travel? Should I renounce air travel as some scientists, academics, and activists have done?

Pumping out carbon on my last transatlantic flight in 2019, we crossed over the Greenland ice sheet, where pools of sky-blue melt-water sit atop the ice, absorbing summer sunshine.

Or do I fly anyway, then punish myself and hold my head low in climate shame? I know what Greta Thunberg would say. I keenly feel the impact that my generation has had on this planet, even though we were all born into a civilization built on fossil fuel, without any practical way to renounce it.

‘Wait a second,’ you might ask, ‘Is air travel really all that bad?’ Actually, yes, it is. If you’re conscious of your personal carbon budget (i.e., how much carbon you, personally, add to the atmosphere each year), there are basically four things that really blow your budget out of the water: flying, driving, eating meat, and having babies. Few people ever really want to talk about that last one, but it’s true. And flying comes in a second. In fact, one transatlantic flight can negate four years of carefully recycling everything you throw out (reference: Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). Discouraging, right?

(Note: Before I go on here and get tagged as a misanthrope for mentioning that babies come with high carbon budget, I want to strongly emphasize that everyone should have the CHOICE to have as many babies as they wish. This is a fundamental human right and, for many, one of the things that gives life purpose and meaning. Everyone deserves to right to choose when and how many children they bring into the world, and everyone deserves the social support and medical assistance to fulfill their wishes. Of course, this also includes support and assistance for the choice not to have children, if they wish.)

Travel = Wonder + Newness

Because I never had children, air travel is by far my largest carbon contribution to global warming. But I love to travel! I have had the privilege and money and (occasionally) the time to do it (in part, because I don’t have kids). I can spend cold winter evenings dreaming of tropical places, then actually book a trip there with a credit card and a click of a button. I do not take this privilege for granted. So, while I am conscious of my impact on the environment and the impact on the places I visit, I also know that travel has played a major role in shaping my worldview and my life. My experiences work their way into my teaching and writing to such an extent that it is an indelible part of my work.

Recently I crawled my way over the piles of boxes in the garage to dig into my dusty luggage that had not been touched in three years. I was looking for a rain poncho. But upon opening the first bag, a map of the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, fell out onto the concrete floor of my garage. I was immediately transported to Ecuador’s most beautiful city, my home for six months in 2015. I also felt very aware of the friendships and connections I made while I was there – connections that are still a part of my life, and experiences that still inform how I approach my work.

My own experiences in Ecuador motivated me to organize a trip there for 17 UNC students in 2017. Having traveled so much myself, it’s easy to forget what it’s like that first time, or even the first several times, that you arrive in another country. Sharing Ecuador with my students was one of the most fulfilling teaching experiences of my life. I loved watching the excitement of seeing a new world unfold before their eyes, and then, ‘KFC!’ they shouted as we drove through Quito in the middle of the night. It fascinates me how we seek familiarity in moments of profound cultural shock.

These moments of opening and exploration and connection that travel brings are hard to recreate at home. There is something about being far out of your element that forces you to notice things in a way that you would not when you are in your hometown. Of course, this sense is not impossible to find in your hometown, but you have to work quite hard to cultivate it.

Travel = More fossil fuels (and other things)

So, lately I have wondered: is there a middle path I can take that falls between outright planetary destruction and renouncing all air travel forever? In her book, Under the Sky We Make, climate scientist Kimberly Nicholas writes about limiting her travel to special circumstances and family visits. Her book is basically where she works through her own reckoning with climate change, the role she plays in perpetuating it, and what to do next (not unlike this blog post!). Katharine Hayhoe, well-known climate communicator, scientist and author of the book Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, also attempts to limit flying as much as she can, but does make concessions when trying to avoid flights would be a very time consuming and expensive way to get to somewhere. Many scientists and others have tried to commit to flying less – or finding another way (e.g., see the website No Fly Climate Sci started by climate scientist and activist Peter Kalmus).

But there are no perfect guidelines for how to be an active participant in this world, how to build your career, how to maintain relationships, how to build global connections to solve problems, and, at the same time, live a life that does no further harm to the earth. As someone who understands all too well what is happening to the planet and what we need to reduce the damage, as someone who has a full awareness of what impact I have had personally, what do I do?

There are some members of the family who would be perfectly happy if I never traveled.

Digging deeper into the science

At the start of the COVID pandemic in March 2020, global carbon dioxide emissions dropped by 5.4%, or more. There was a brief moment when we wondered: will this save us from climate change? It was brief. It clearly showed the impact of all types of travel on our global emissions. But while emissions dropped, the overall rise of atmospheric greenhouse gases did not abate much as emissions returned to normal levels by the end of the year.

Side-note for science nerds: There is, not surprisingly, some complexity to Earth’s response to our global sick-out. Basically, the oceans were not absorbing as much carbon dioxide as they normally do. Additionally, there was a reduction in nitrous oxide pollutants. While that sounds like a good thing, these molecules actually play a role in reducing ozone in the lower atmosphere – another pollutant – which, when you break it apart, plays a role in destroying methane, a super-powerful mega-greenhouse gas. So, basically, reduced pollution limited our atmosphere’s ability to reduce a mega-greenhouse gas. I said it was complex, right? And, yes, pollution both warms us AND mitigates warming at the same time.

So, as easy as it might be to say we can solve climate change by having everyone stay home, we know this is not even a remote possibility (we can’t even ask people to wear masks anymore for public health). We also know now that it may not have the intended effect on the atmosphere. Nevertheless, if we shut down global transportation, the long term effect could be a reduction in warming. So some people, who keenly feel that responsibility for climate change, do make the choice to stay home.

Travel = Smaller World + Global Citizenship

There is another side to this. Some people will argue that travel can save the world. European travel guru Rick Steves advocates that the connections we make when we travel dissolve boundaries and help us learn to work together across cultures. Of course, you could also argue that he says that to keep his business going. But I think he has a point. Parts of the world have become quite insular, with nationalism rising here in the U.S. and abroad. When has it ever been more critical to strengthen these global connections than at a time when there is an existential threat to us all? We may be living in an era when some feel we need to strengthen borders, but climate change has no borders. As with a virus, climate change will find you eventually. Borders simply exacerbate inequitable impacts of climate change, which ultimately amplify the problem overall.

In this era of growing global division, nationalistic pride, and isolation, it seems to me that those of us with privilege have a responsibility to reach out across borders – to work to make the world smaller. Part of what fuels our rampant consumption is the capitalistic nature of our lives in the US (and in many other places – especially in the Global North), and the absence of understanding what it means to live in other parts of the world. What if people who never travel could experience what it means to live in another place? Travel becomes critical for promoting understanding. Those of us who have traveled need to keep extolling the value of that sense of global citizenship.

Also, when borders closed in 2020, people who depend on tourism for their livelihoods suffered. Ecotourism – true, sustainable, ecotourism – actually promotes conservation in some places as people learn that preserving the natural environment will bring in tourists who want to see places that are untainted by development.

A new vision of travel

So maybe this necessitates the need for a certain type of travel. We need to change our lives to sustain our civilization in response to a disrupted climate system, but maybe we don’t need to abandon travel. Still, we need to find ways to live more sustainably as a global community. Maybe we embrace slower, more immersive travel. We pay more for our flights. We support development of alternative forms of transportation (Hawaiian airlines is working on an ‘ocean skimmer’ electric plane!) We do business and conferences via Zoom when we can. We save up for those big trips, then we take the time to linger in these places far from home, supporting local economies, making human connections every chance we get.

You can call me a hypocrite. “Look at this climate scientist who says things are so bad, then she tries to justify her continued urge to travel!!” But I will argue that branding climate scientists and activists as hypocrites for not forsaking all carbon is a fallacy. It’s an over-simplification, the type that form the sharp spear points in the weapons closet of the climate change denialist. The fact is, we are all part of the carbon economy. There is no easy way out of it.

But there are ways to change it.

I think those who do not wish to take action against climate change are concerned that giving up our fossil fueled lifestyles will mean deprivation of the luxuries and amenities that have made us comfortable. It doesn’t have to be that way. We are infinitely creative as a species, and we can find other ways to live. It does, however, mean being conscious of our impact on people and on the planet, in everything we do.

It’s clear that we need some guidelines for sustainable travel. You can find examples across the web. I have compiled the list of guidelines below for myself based on my own experiences and reading. I consider this a ‘living’ document, as I fully intend to amend it as I go along and find new ways to make travel meaningful and give back to the communities that I visit on my travels. For now, this is how I intend to re-enter the post-pandemic, COVID-endemic world as a traveler.

My Travel Manifesto:

  • Use carbon offsets. It is not always easy to know whether your money is truly going to offset the carbon you’ve burned on your travels, so do your research. The so-called ‘carbon-offset industry’ is full of scams. I try to donate to local scientific research organizations, organizations that support education and empowerment of women, global organizations that hold some credibility. Check out 8 billion trees or the United Nations offset programs as options.
  • Support local tour operators and hoteliers. With the web, this is easier to do now than ever. Look to stay in smaller, locally run B&Bs or hotels. Those local lodgings can also assist you with local transportation, bus services, local tour guides, etc. Also consider a homestay. You might find a place through AirBnB (but then see if you can find a webpage for the same lodging and book outside of AirBnB, so the owner (and you!) don’t get stuck paying Airbnb fees.) Avoid mega-hotels and resorts when you can.
  • Support sustainable eco-tourism. Try to visit local private reserves and national parks that have set aside protected land. Don’t scoff when you find that they charge foreigners twice the entry fee. Think of this as an additional carbon offset fee. In some places, farmers will charge a fee to hike on their land. The money allows them to preserve the land in the natural state.
  • Volunteer, when possible. If you have the opportunity (and you’ve done your research to ensure that it’s not a scam), consider volunteering – at a school, building a trail, planting trees. As an example, consider the Yanapuma Foundation in Ecuador. They are a non-profit that also run a Spanish school and travel agency. They work to ensure that your money goes into communities that need it, and they can arrange homestays, volunteer experiences, etc.
  • Travel overland when you’ve reached your primary destination. Instead of a short-haul flight, plan to take a bus or a train when you can.
  • Reduce short work-related trips (to conferences, for example) as much as possible. At this stage of my career, and with the advent of modern web-conferencing software, I feel this is feasible for me. It does not replace the importance of establishing personal connections at an in-person conference. You are more likely to develop collaborations with someone if you have coffee after a poster session than if you sit in a zoom chat room, so I can understand that this is a difficult one if you’re trying to make yourself known.
  • Work to develop a sense of global stewardship and citizenship in you circle of influence (if you’re reading this blog, you are in my circle of influence!)

Let me know if you can think of other ‘guidelines’ I could add to this list. Yeah, I know it’s not perfect. I’m not perfect. I can live with that. I can live with knowing I am doing my best, and helping others find what their best is and living with that.

Next spring I will travel to Vietnam for five months on a Fulbright grant. I will spend that time immersing myself, getting to know the people and the culture, contributing where I can, and learning everything I can. Travel for that length of time reminds me of travel in the old days when people had to travel by ship and stay a long time. I will resist the urge want to see everything. And I will share my adventures here, so we can all learn from my experiences.

Some Resources

Article: Ethical Travel is Hard to Get Right: Here are 5 Questions You Need to Consider

Book: Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World, by Any Taranath

Book: Sustainable Travel: The essential guide to positive impact adventures, by Holly Tuppen

2 thoughts on “Reconciling travel obsession and climate hypocrisy

  1. Some very good points. I didn’t realize the impact of air travel but, on the other hand, it sure is convenient. Thanks for making me think.


  2. Pingback: A Model for the Future at Rancho Margot | Northern Colorado Climo Prof

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