Why do most of us Swedes fly on holiday, despite the fact that we’re in the middle of an acute climate crisis?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but I’ve rarely dared to ask others the same question. Since I decided to give up flying ten years ago I’ve not known how to respond to people when they tell me about their flights. Usually I’ve ended up saying nothing at all, as I’ve not wanted to be a killjoy, but often regretted my silence afterwards. I’ve had many sleepless nights wondering about why I am more concerned about destroying the mood than climate collapse.
Last year I had had enough, and decided that my New Year’s resolution was to dare to be “socially inconvenient”, and start asking people questions about the climate when people tell me about their flights.
That turned out to be the best New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made (and probably the only one I’ve managed to keep). It has taught me so much about people’s thoughts about climate change, and above all – it has given me hope that a change is possible.
One of the first people I asked was my closest neighbour Magnus. He asked us to look after his cat while they went on holiday to Vietnam. Despite feeling pretty awkward about it (especially since he is also our landlord) I plucked up the courage to ask him if he’s worried about the climate, and if he knew how many emissions his flight would create.
After our conversation I felt so relieved as he did not get offended, although perhaps a bit surprised, and after a couple of similar meetings I realised that it actually is possible to talk about the climate. I decided to start a campaign, with the goal to make 100 000 Swedes take a Flight Free year. Ever since, I’ve barely talked about anything but flying and climate change, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the climate crisis has a very different for meaning for different people.
Media often creates the picture that we all know exactly what is about to happen, but that we don’t care about it. That is not my picture of reality. When I ask people if they are worried about climate change most people do say yes, but if I ask what they are worried about it is very clear that most people aren’t aware of how serious the situation is.
Hardly anyone knows that the IPCC has given us just ten years to cut the global emissions in half, if we are to have a chance to limit the temperature rise at a manageable level. Even fewer knows what will happen if we don’t succeed.
Many people still believe that climate change is something that will affect others, somewhere else, sometime in a distant future. Few realise that the climate crisis is happening here and now, and that it is themselves, and us all, that will be affected.
And no wonder, as hardly anyone is acting as if we were in the biggest crisis of humanity ever.
Had a third world war broken out, no one would have worried about what to do on their vacation. We would have sacrificed anything to gain back peace, every single newspaper and noticeboard would be about the war and we would talk of nothing else.
The climate crisis is just as severe as a world war, yet we rarely talk about it as an emergency in our everyday lives, and even less about how we are going to solve it. If someone talks about a flying vacation, they usually get appreciative comments. There is a very strong norm to fly and we are unconsciously helping each other to defend our flights this way. Even if you know that flying is not good for the climate, comments such as “one does the best one can” or “one has to get to the sun sometime” are confirmed and approved by people around you, which makes us keep flying.
And since everyone else keeps flying, it can’t be so bad, can it?
Many people feel that they fly so rarely, that it can’t do that much damage. And no wonder. Most of us know someone who flies much more than we do ourselves. You might have a neighbour that commutes to their house in Spain, and that makes your own annual flying holiday appear as a drop in the ocean.
But the fact is that the average Swede only flies abroad just over once a year, equivalent to the distance between Sweden and Spain. That is five times more than the average person flies globally, and through that single flight we emit over a ton of carbon dioxide: the amount to which we need to decrease our emissions in total. That means that our annual holiday uses up our entire carbon dioxide budget, and leaves no room for the things that we actually have to do, such as eat, and live somewhere.
When I tell people this, a lot of them feel shocked; very few are aware of what an enormous impact flying has on the climate. My neighbour Magnus went home and Googled it after our conversation, and to his surprise found that his trip to Vietnam created as many emissions as if he had driven one lap around the globe in his car.
But is it enough to know about this for people to decide to refrain from flying? For some it is. I know of several people who, after calculating their carbon footprint online, have decided to give up flying.
But for most of us, something more is needed. There is one thing that affects people way more than awareness about the climate impact from flying, namely if people around them decide to give up flying.
We humans are herd animals and like to act just like everyone else, especially those who are close to us, or who we look up to.
How would you react if everyone around you told you that they had decided to never fly again? That from then on they would do everything in their power to save the climate?
There is one great advantage to the tendency for us humans to go with the flow: if enough people start to act, change can happen very fast.
To stop flying is one of the most impactful things you as an individual can do for the climate - and it is not just the tonnes of carbon dioxide that you will personally save. It’s the associated impact of affecting people around you. The same applies to the reversed scenario – if you keep flying so will your friends.
As flying is one of the last things people are willing to give up, this is a decision that requires commitment. The knowledge that other people are willing to do the samegive it up makes people react, and reflect.
The conversation with my neighbour Magnus not only resulted in him signing up for the campaign, but he and his wife have decided not to fly again at all. He has also told me that he nowadays thinks about the climate in everything he does and is trying to encourage others to do the same.
He is far from the only one. Something is happening. I have spoken to many people who, during the past year, have gone from being frequent fliers to not wanting to ever fly again. They describe it as finally waking up. And once you’ve opened your eyes you can’t go back to sleep.
Once you have realised that humanity will not survive if we keep living the way we do, that every single flight leads us closer to a global disaster, and that parents around the world are already losing their children due to our lifestyle, there is no way back.
It is fascinating to see the tremendous amount of energy and fighting spirit that people can muster when converting their suppressed climate anxiety into action. It has made me realise that a change is possible, and I feel more hopeful than I have in a long time.
No one can save the climate on their own – but together we still have a chance. If we are to succeed, we who have realised the severity of the situation need to take the lead and show the way. We need to show what it takes with our actions, and we need to be brave enough to talk about it. Don't assume that people don't care - assume that everyone would be prepared to fight for the climate if they knew what is at stake.
We have been helping each other to deny the climate threat for ages – it is time we help each other to wake up!
We Stay on the Ground