We Should Shame Frequent Fliers

We Should Shame Frequent Fliers

Pre-pandemic travel habits were destroying the earth. They must never be allowed to return.


Americans are itching to pack up and set off. Enduring Covid-19 lockdowns and quarantines has been arduous for many would-be globetrotters. After all, it has starved their Facebook pages of content and denied them opportunities to boast about where they’ve just been and where they’re heading next.

Sure, Covid-19 may have killed some people’s loved ones, but spare a thought for the Instagram influencers without a means to convey their worldliness.

It is no surprise, then, that even though the pandemic hasn’t ended, the easing of travel restrictions has long-suffering American tourists jumping back into cramped airplanes to alight in distant destinations. The numbers testify to this: Easter weekend saw an 800 percent increase in air travel over the same time last year.

But what is good for the American tourist is terrible for the planet. At the height of the pandemic, the grounding of air travel in 2020 led to a 60 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from aviation. One round-trip flight across the Atlantic emits about as much carbon dioxide as heating an average American home with natural gas for a year. And Americans are disproportionately to blame. Prior to the pandemic year, the United States, with just over 4 percent of the world’s population, was responsible for 24 percent of all emissions from passenger flights. And within the US, just 12 percent of adults take 68 percent of the flights. With planes once again ferrying Americans to ostensibly exotic locales, tourists are back to mucking up the planet in the middle of a climate disaster.

One way to prevent this is to stigmatize needless air travel. Several climate activists, including Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, have decided to forgo flying as a selfish activity that worsens the very crisis they’re trying to avert. In Sweden, the hypocrisy of traveling frequently by air while also claiming to care about the planet has birthed the flygskam (flight shame) movement, which uses peer pressure to embarrass those who gratuitously board planes.

America needs its own flight shame movement. A recent survey shows that 88 percent of Americans intend to travel in the next six months. Despite the ravages of Covid-19, only 33 percent say that the coronavirus will significantly impact their travel decisions—the lowest number since the pandemic began. While the elite tourist should be the primary target, even those who aren’t racking up frequent flier miles should avoid unnecessary air travel.

To justify their jaunts, American tourists will go on and on about the opportunity to experience new cultures, meet new people, and contribute to the local economy of waiters, cab drivers, and tour guides. But none of these benefits cancel out the impact that the emissions from their flights are having on the environment. There are better ways to help people in other countries. It is no small irony that even as the cavalier American tourist can burn jet fuel to dash off to this place or that, US borders remain shut to the refugees who have walked thousands of miles from homes and habitats destroyed by climate change.

Once upon a time, when people traveled infrequently and stayed at places for long periods of time, it made more sense to think of tourism as a moral good, as something that could actually accomplish its stated goals of meeting people and learning about new cultures without unduly harming the earth. In those days, nobody zipped off to Vail for a weekend of skiing or to Paris for a four-day birthday trip, the sort of travel that’s common among today’s wealthy cosmopolites. As climate change foments weather disasters and threatens to make one in three plant and animal species extinct, the planet can no longer accommodate such indulgent sightseeing.

All of this is a reason either to consider experiencing other places and cultures remotely or to use alternative, if slower, means of travel. In Sweden and elsewhere, people have turned to trains, even for overnight journeys. Thunberg’s much-touted boat trip across the Atlantic to the United States was undertaken to demonstrate the feasibility of such alternatives.

Pre-pandemic travel habits must never be allowed to return. American tourists who fly on a whim and imagine that their recycling efforts and use of cloth bags make up for the huge costs they impose on the climate should be taken to task. Saving the planet requires that we stop gaping and gawking at travel blogs and vacation selfies. Instead, everyone who cares about the environment should shame those who clamber onto an airplane every chance they get.

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