Prove your humanity

Flying accounts for just two percent of global carbon emissions, but it’s growing — and there’s no greener jet fuel on the horizon. So the climate scientist and author, Peter Kalmus, broke up with airplanes.

In 2010, Kalmus realized he’d flown 50,000 miles, mostly for his work. In 2012 he founded the website No Fly Climate Sci, where he and other scientists could talk publicly about scaling back their air miles. That year he gave up flying completely. Kalmus spoke with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple about his decision.

Listen to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: Why did you decide finally to stop flying?

Peter Kalmus: I realized that three-quarters of my own carbon emissions were from flying, and that was a revelation. I had no idea that flying was that carbon intensive in my own life. I thought this number of meetings and conferences is excessive. My collaborators already know what I’m working on. It’s essentially the same 15-minute talk they saw four months ago at the last collaboration meeting, with a few tweaks on it.

Sitting on that plane that last time in 2012, it didn’t feel worth it. I had two very small children at the time, and I was thinking about them and their future. It really felt like I was stealing from them. 

KH: So what do you do instead? 

PK: I’m fortunate to live in Los Angeles. I take the train or I drive. We recently got an electric car — it’s actually a Tesla. It’s just as easy to go on long trips as with a conventional gas car. I actually prefer the train, though, because I can get tons of work done. It just hasn’t been a problem.

Remote collaboration is easier than ever, so you can work on papers remotely. For me, maybe two or three conferences a year is enough — so conferences in San Francisco and San Diego. I went to one all the way to the east coast of the United States once, and after I got back from that, I felt like that was too far to go.

I’m actually going to a meeting in April in Washington, D.C., and I’ll try to make as many meetings as possible with other people that I want to see on the East Coast, because for me, that’s a pretty rare thing to go that far on the ground. 

KH: One criticism I’ve heard, particularly about scientists not flying, is that you’re probably pretty well-established in your career, but not everybody is in that position yet. 

PK: Well, actually, it wasn’t quite like that, because the same year I stopped flying, in 2012, was the year I switched to earth science. So it was a little bit like becoming a graduate student all over again in a new field.

It’s just that for me, this whole ‘flying less’ conversation makes sense to those of us who recognize that climate change is literally a planetary emergency. There’s a huge amount of evidence that makes it very, very clear to me. I don’t have any ambiguity about taking that stance.

As atmospheric CO2 friction mounts, and as climate impacts get more severe and happen more frequently, more and more people will come around to the same sense that this is indeed a planetary emergency. In that context, flying less makes a lot of sense, and when I weighed that against my career, the choice was really clear. Like, yeah, this might slow down my career a little bit, but it’s in the context of this planetary emergency. It was absolutely the right choice for me. 

KH: Recently, I’ve seen a lot of climate articles that talk about consumer choices like not eating meat or not flying, not being the solution to this climate crisis. That national policy changes on energy and transportation or international agreements to reduce carbon are the only pathways that matter. What do you say to that?

PK: I think that’s an excellent point, and I actually strongly agree with it.

The reason I haven’t flown since 2012 is because it feels wrong to me personally. To me, burning fossil fuel, it seems clear, is actually a deadly thing to do, and humans are dying because of it — non-humans are dying because of it. Ecosystems are dying because of it, and the damage is effectively irreversible. So to me, I don’t like contributing to that personally.

The only way we can get the massive systems change is if a large enough fraction of the population realizes that taking action on climate has to be a top priority.

I completely agree, though, that the only thing that’s going to get us out of this mess is going to be systems change. I think that doing something that requires a sacrifice, like flying less, makes a strong symbolic statement that this is in fact an emergency, and that leads to cultural shift.

The only way we can get the massive systems change we need is if a large enough fraction of the population realizes that taking action on climate has to be a top priority. I’ve found from my own experience, and a lot of other climate activists have found this as well, that the old cliche, actions speak louder than words, is absolutely true. The power of these so-called individual changes is that they lead to the cultural shift, and the growing awareness of climate emergency that leads to the systems change that we need to actually reduce global emissions. 

KH: The “About” page of the No Fly Climate Sci site says that one of the reasons you started it was so that  people who are making the choice not to fly don’t feel so alone. Can you say more about that? 

PK: At the time that I started the site, the movement was really small. There weren’t a lot of people, especially academics or scientists, that were flying less. So there was this sense of almost like gaslighting, you know, that our colleagues didn’t really understand what we were doing.

The social norm for academics is to fly a lot, and that’s perfectly normal, and that’s a good thing for your career. So to push against that can feel sort of lonely and alienating. I think it’s very nice to have a sense of community, and now I think, we definitely don’t feel alone anymore.

But in the beginning, it was nice to see the voices that were out there who were doing this, and why they were doing it, and what challenges they were facing, and how they overcame those challenges. If you read some of the stories on the website, a lot of them are very inspiring, and there are some surprising co-benefits that people find when they actually start flying less.

KH: What are some of those for you?

PK: I didn’t find going to airports, and being on planes, and that whole experience of standing in security lines pleasant. So I don’t have to deal with that anymore.

A big one for me was just seeing my family more, and being a participant in my community more simply by traveling less. When you travel over the ground, you’re a lot more careful about which trips you actually agree to go on, because it takes longer.

We’re moving from individuals telling their stories of flying less to more of the idea of let’s change…universities and academic organizations.

The last one is that I used to have the problem when I was flying a lot of getting a really bad cold after a flight. Maybe it has something to do with the jet lag, or being on the plane, or not getting enough sleep. A lot of times I would come back from a trip and I’d have a really nasty cold for a week or two. So I’m glad not to have that anymore. 

KH: There are hundreds of scientists and other academics on the No Fly Climate Sci website, all with their own stories of why they don’t fly or fly less. What kind of an impact do you think it’s making?

PK: Well, it’s part of this larger movement, which is more accelerated in Europe. A lot of people that tell their stories on the website are actually European. I think there are a lot of academics who don’t even realize the climate impact of flying, so it helps spread that level of awareness.

We’re starting to reach, I think, a critical mass where we’re putting pressure on our respective professional organizations to support flying less. We’re moving from individuals telling their stories of flying less to more of the idea of let’s change the institutions, especially universities and academic organizations, and start to change at that level, which brings things more into the public eye.

Our institutions always tend to kind of lag behind. Once they really start to recognize that this is an emergency, and start to act on it, then I think that will further accelerate the cultural shift.