I am bad for the planet. What’s worse, I don’t see encouraging prospects for change.
I try to do right in small ways. My wife and I live in a small home. We recycle faithfully. We reuse zip-top bags several times. We believe in solar technology and wind-generated electricity.
But we are bad. We fly.
We fly to Arizona and Costa Rica and Edinburgh, Scotland, and Geneva, Switzerland. Our kids live overseas. We miss them. About once a year, we go see them. And we don’t paddle.
A recent story in the New York Times put into precise perspective just what our footprint on the planet is.
“One seat on a flight from New York to Los Angeles effectively adds months worth of human-generated carbon emissions to the atmosphere,” wrote the Times’ Andy Newman in a well-reported June 3 story.
Want to break that down into something you can visualize?
“Each additional metric ton of carbon dioxide — your share of the emissions on a cross-country flight one-way from New York to Los Angeles — shrinks the (Arctic’s) summer sea ice cover by 3 square meters, or 32 square feet,” according to a 2016 paper published in the journal Science, Newman reported.
It’s more than 3,700 miles from Minneapolis to Edinburgh — one way. I’ve made that round-trip flight a couple of times so far. I really want to go see my daughter and son-in-law there, and to see my son and daughter-in-law in Switzerland. But I don’t like knowing my seat on those jets is gnawing away at the sea ice.
I have stood on that ice at the North Pole, reporting on the Steger International Polar Expedition in 1986. It was an amazing and historic dogsled journey. I have written about the polar ice explorations of Lonnie Dupre from Grand Marais, who has made three journeys over the ice to the North Pole.
It is no longer possible to travel to the North Pole by dog team or skis. The sea ice cover that once floated atop an ocean two miles deep has shrunk because of the world’s warming climate.
Once, reporting on a dogsled journey by Ely climate activist Will Steger around Canada’s Baffin Island, I stood next to Jaco, an elderly Inuit man who had shuttled me up a frozen river by snowmobile. I looked up at the glaciers hanging over the valley where we stood. I asked his granddaughter to ask her grandfather if the glaciers had once been larger than they appeared when I was there. She spoke to him in Inuktitut. He answered her in Inuktitut. His granddaughter looked at me and said, “Way bigger.”
Those shrinking glaciers on Baffin Island, Antarctica and in Alaska — all of those are partly my fault, too. We are all, to the varying degrees that we fly, drive or otherwise consume fossil fuels, complicit in warming the Earth’s atmosphere.
How about a cruise instead of jet travel? Think again. “Even the most efficient cruise ships emit three to four times more carbon dioxide per passenger-mile than a jet,” according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, the Times’ Newman writes.
Am I willing to forgo flying to Europe or the U.K. to see my kids? Probably not. But I can at least consider my impact on the world when I make those decisions — and perhaps choose to make fewer of those trips. Or find a way to offset that carbon footprint.
It’s a bit ironic: I want to do my part to leave the world a better place for my kids. But simply by hopping on a plane to go see them, I’m undermining my own hopes, 32 square feet at a time.