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Monday, January 21, 2013

Fear of flying

Inner turmoil is useful if I let it drive me.
Not sure where that drive is going right now but at least the motor is running. 

by Dave Newport, LEED AP

Among my many neuroses is an inner angst about air travel. Definitely conflicted. Love to fly but have a fear of flying. 

It goes like this: I am platinum on Frontier out of Denver—because you have to fly to get anywhere from Denver. The train, while beautiful especially going west through the Rockies, is expensive and takes days. So occasionally I offset my airline GHG emissions through the Colorado Carbon Fund, and while CCF does good work, I feel little satisfaction. 

My neighbor, a noted environmentalist, is on a plane to somewhere on the planet every day. She’s platinum on 3 airlines, at least. She offsets her flights—and her Porsche Boxster...

Even though I buy them, I can’t help feeling that offsets are a little like paying somebody else to stop smoking for you.  Compared to doing nothing, I suppose they are worthwhile. And we buy a lot of them for my campus from CCF and Native Energy. We opt for so-called "local offsets" that have social equity and local economic development benefits as well as tons of carbon. We have bought projects like small wind for schools, solar thermal for low income homes, landfill gas to brick kiln production, coal bed methane on Native American lands, etc. Proud of all of these projects. Still conflicted.

It's also a little troubling that our focus on carbon offsets perpetuates the eco-centricity of our work. For instance, I am still looking for offsets that neutralize social injustice. 

Looking around Chicago O'Hare airport a few years ago, I had a brilliant idea. Like most places, the janitorial crews I observed were all people of color. Not a white person in the bunch, er, except the manager. What if we developed a "trading places" social justice offset that exchanged the white guy with one of the front line custodians? Let the white guy empty trashcans for a while. Boost one of the custodians to manager--with a raise. People could pay the salary offset and claim the 'social justice' offset credit. OK, probably no market for that; like most of my brilliant business ideas. 

Anyway, my point is carbon offsets fixate our gaze--and wallets--on mitigating environmental damages to the exclusion of social and fiscal impacts of unsustainable behavior. Likewise, they don't change peoples' behavior, they just neutralize it. Sometimes. Even our best efforts sometimes have unintended consequences or at least complications.

 For instance, part of my job is managing our bus service contract for 32,000 students. A most popular bus route is the one to the airport. Students can just flash their ID and ride for free the 50 min trip to the airport, not have to own or park a car, and enjoy front door service. So, ironically, our sustainable transportation program is lowering flying's price point--if you believe in elasticity of demand--and making it cheaper to emit carbon.

Along the way, we put more diesel busses on already polluted diesel corridors along which low income people live and experience COPD, respiratory ailments, and learning disabilities from all the diesel soot. Yes, if all the students drove a car to the airport it would be even more carbon released, but... we're talking damage control here (see the "Resilience" blog).

Not inspiring.

The ideas that air travel emissions are inconsequential or that biofuels are going to fix everything are nonsense. While airline GHG emissions are "only" three percent of global emissions, plenty of literature notes the significantly increased efficacy of GHG emissions when released at altitude. And, oh by the way, who suffers most from first-world GHG emissions? Answer: developing nations and the under-resourced people of color who live there. Check the mortality rate from climate change in Africa vs. developed nations. Wow. We are killing millions of Africans with carbon. And biofuels, if they are ever widespread, present the “food vs. fuel” dilemma among many other issues. Even energy efficiency feels insufficient too. I love the spoof bumper sticker on a few Boulder Priuses “My car is killing the planet slower than your car.” More damage control. Anyway...

The human race as been racing though history chewing up resources, breeding, depleting more resources, and continuing to breed and grow. Seemed like a plan. Nobody mentioned the planet was booby-trapped. Wasn't in the owners manual. Only recently have we learned that >380 or 450 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere may be irreversible for all practical purposes. The climate disruption triggered by the excess CO2 is beginning to unfold--and we may literally burn ourselves off the planet. Where was the warning label for that 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even when I was an undergrad 40 years ago?


We crawled out of the primordial broth and eventually became upright bi-pedal hunter/gatherers all the while thinking we could put a few bucks in our 401Ks, get the kids through college, and pass on the family china to the next generation. Turns out we may have stepped on the planet's carbon booby trap long before we even knew it was there. And even if we had seen the trap, where in human history is there any indication that we as a species had the capacity to band together and step back from the abyss?


The game has been rigged from the start.

So, what has this got to do about my fear of flying? Not much. I still fly. I struggle with my inner angst and neuroses (like they are going to go away). I feel conflicted and hypocritical. I am ticked off the deck is stacked. I hate how we forget about social impacts and fixate on saving bunnies and trees. And I have round trip Denver to Boston tickets on JetBlue for $178. How to deal with that? 

I try not to forget.

Inner turmoil is useful if I let it drive me. Not sure where that drive is going right now but at least the motor is running. Just don't want to get all gauzy happy. Don't want to forget about stuff that should be pissing me off.

Like my fear of flying.


1 comment:

  1. I know how to solve your problem about too many students flying b/c it's too cheap and convenient; just enroll students that are residents of Colorado. The skyride riderships numbers would drastically drop, as would our funds to run the university!