By Olivia Hanks
Like many people I know, I have felt vaguely guilty about flying for several years now, on an intellectual level. I knew it was bad for the environment, but I was living away from the UK for a while, which at the time seemed to serve as a sort of justification.
Recently, though, my response to this issue has become much more emotional, more gut-level. The widely used aphorism about needing three planets to support your lifestyle has slid into focus: we are stealing. Stealing resources from the poor, stealing the future from the unborn. The view implied by our government and our individual actions – that it’s all worth it for the sake of those £25 tickets to Croatia – is sickening if you think about it for long.
So we don’t, mostly. Earlier this month, Norwich Airport published its master-plan for the next 30 years, which envisages trebling passenger numbers, extending the runway, and adding new destinations, including domestic ones. Of course, the airport is a business, and wants financial success – it can hardly be expected to propose closing itself down. But it is a business part-owned by Norwich City Council and Norfolk County Council, backed by financial and political support from them, in an industry heavily subsidised by the UK government. It is right and necessary that we ask questions about the costs and benefits to society of such a company.
Instead, the plan elicited glowing praise from local leaders as well as the Eastern Daily Press, which seems to have copied and pasted the airport’s press release, bullet points and all. When someone mentions climate change, everyone gets a bit embarrassed, as though they’ve realised it was a mistake to invite you to the dinner party and they should have known you’d only make a scene. Green Party city councillor Sandra Bögelein (a colleague of mine) is probably used to such reactions by now. At a recent council meeting, she asked the council’s cabinet how their support for expanding Norwich Airport was compatible with action on climate change; the response merely commended the airport for its “sound and responsible response” to government estimates of aviation growth.
The view implied by our government and our individual actions – that it’s all worth it for the sake of those £25 tickets to Croatia – is sickening if you think about it for long.
Replicated nationally and internationally, this attitude, which takes continuing aviation growth as the starting point for all policy, makes it all but impossible that the world will stay within the two-degree temperature increase deemed ‘safe’. This long-favoured ‘predict and provide’ model of transport planning represents a desperate failure of leadership. Such gross abdication of responsibility is evident at every level, from the international failure to tax aviation or include it in emissions reduction targets (last year’s UN aviation agreement, the first of its kind, imposed neither a cap nor a charge on emissions), to the UK government’s assertion that aviation emissions can only be tackled internationally, to the local council’s claim that aviation growth is “a national and possibly international issue rather than something to specifically associate with Norwich Airport”, right down to the individual.
And here we get to the tricky bit. We can, and must, argue against airport expansion and for proper international action on aviation emissions. But it is also our sense of entitlement around international travel that is frying the planet. And a lot of us know it, sort of. Yet flights to and from the UK have increased by 27% since 2010.
So why are individuals still putting their heads in the sand? Possibly many are unaware of the extent of the damage done by flying (up to 20 times worse than train travel, depending on your source), or just how much of a person’s ‘fair’ carbon allowance is used in a single flight (these guys say it’s at least a year’s worth for a return transatlantic flight). The higher impact on radiative forcing from non-CO2 emissions in the upper atmosphere is rarely discussed, despite it having been acknowledged since 1999 that the effect of emissions from aviation is roughly twice what it would be at ground level.
More than anything, though, our flying habit comes back to cognitive dissonance – the discomfort of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at once, which is often ‘resolved’ by ignoring or attempting to dismiss inconvenient truths.
However, there is strong evidence that when it comes to climate change and other environmental crises, simply giving people more information does not prompt them to change their behaviour: the barriers lie elsewhere. Partly, there is the feeling that individual actions cannot make a difference – not helped by articles like this one by Martin Lukacs for the Guardian, which spoils its central point about neoliberalism’s deliberate destruction of social bonds by drawing a false opposition between collective and individual action, trivialising personal responsibility by caricaturing it as “grow some carrots and jump on a bike”. Whether it’s leafleting for a party that opposes airport expansion, lying on a runway or making a personal decision not to fly, we have to believe that our actions can make a difference, however small. When that faith is lost, we are lost.
More than anything, though, our flying habit comes back to cognitive dissonance – the discomfort of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s mind at once, which is often ‘resolved’ by ignoring or attempting to dismiss inconvenient truths. And aviation emissions are perhaps the most inconvenient of all the truths about climate change, because there is nothing we can do to reduce them enough except fly less. That dissonance leads people to mock those like Plane Stupid who are engaged in direct action, in order to avoid confronting the nagging suspicion that it’s the activists who are right.
we have to believe that our actions can make a difference, however small. When that faith is lost, we are lost.
It’s tempting to criticise people who ostensibly accept the reality of climate change while continuing their European weekend breaks and long-haul holiday flights – but there is also evidence that trying to make people feel guilty is not an effective driver of behaviour change. That’s why we need to have the aviation conversation, and have it in a way that includes people who fly. A conversation that starts in the kitchen or the pub gradually finds its way into the press and the council chamber, so that the issue of airport expansion becomes a real debate, rather than merely a psychologically fascinating case study in sticking your fingers in your ears while shouting JOBS AND GROWTH. That conversation might be uncomfortable for many, but it needs to be based on intellectual honesty – a quality bafflingly, catastrophically absent from the global attitude to aviation today.
Featured image: NASA, Global Climate Change
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