16 May 2013
Why I’m marking passing 400 ppm by getting back on an aeroplane
In November 2006, I sat at the back of the Barn Cinema, Dartington, and watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth‘. It had such an impact on me that by the time it ended, I had decided that I couldn’t just leave the cinema without marking the event by making some kind of change in my life. I decided that evening not to fly again, and I haven’t flown since. I have played an active part in supporting the growth of an international movement in 40 countries since then, participating in countless workshops, and discussing Transition internationally through Skype and pre-recorded talks, most of which I begin with how much carbon I have saved by not travelling in person. However, I recently watched the film ‘Chasing Ice’, and it had, if anything, a more visceral impact than ‘An Inconvenient Truth’. My resolution at the end of watching it, re-enforced by the recent passing, for the first time, of 400 ppm of C02 in the atmosphere, was that it was time to get back on a plane, and I want to use this post to tell you why.
When I was born, the atmospheric concentration of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere was 325.36 ppm. I was 19 when it passed 350 ppm for the first time, the level which climate scientists such as James Hansen argue is the highest concentration possible if we are to “preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted”. When, in 2004, the first seeds of Transition were sown when I sat with my students in a classroom at Kinsale Further Education College to watch The End of Suburbia, we were at 376.15 ppm. On the day this blog first began with its first post, we were at 378.29 ppm.
When I watched ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it was 380.18 parts per million (ppm). On the day Transition Network was formally established we had reached 386.40 ppm. On the day I left Venice last September, following the Degrowth conference (which I had travelled to by train), seeing Venice from the sea as this extraordinary jewel just inches above sea level, concentrations had reached 391.06ppm. When I sat down to watch ‘Chasing Ice’ it was 395.55 ppm.
A couple of weeks ago we passed, for the first time, 400 ppm. It’s just a number, but it had a deep impact on me, a sobering line in the sand, a deeply troubling realityslap across the face. As Joe Romm at Climate Progress puts it:
Certainly as we hit 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in human existence, with not even a plan to avoid 600 ppm, 800 ppm, and then 1000 — not even a national discussion or an outcry by the so-called intelligentsia – it is worth asking, why? Is there something inherent in homo “sapiens” that makes us oblivious to the obvious?
This means that current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are far higher than they have been for the last 4.5 millions years at least. The graph below shows how concentrations have fluctuated over the past 800,000 years. By way of context, 30,000 years ago, Cro-Magnon man was flourishing, hunting and gathering and painting cave walls. The Guardian have created a great infographic that tells the story of 400 ppm and what it means in a very understandable way. As Damien Carrington in The Guardian puts “the last time so much greenhouse gas was in the air was several million years ago, when the Arctic was ice-free, savannah spread across the Sahara desert and sea level was up to 40 metres higher than today”.
In spite of all the efforts of the green movement, Transition initiatives, a slew of international conferences and meaningless agreements, the rise has continued inexorably. It shows little sign of slowing, the International Energy Agency warning last year that the world is on track for at least a 6 degree rise in temperatures by 2100.
I know anecdotally that my giving up flying has inspired quite a few people to do the same, but has it had any impact at all on the rising levels of emissions? Clearly not. But has it been the right thing, thus far, to have done? Absolutely. A fascinating paper by Joakim Sandberg, called My emissions make no difference explored this question. He writes:
My suggestion is that we have a collective obligation to change our ways, and this collective obligation may be partly separate from the obligations of individuals. While my own flying makes no difference, it should be noted, climate change could be averted if we all changed our ways. But then it seems plausible to say that we act wrongly as a collective, even though no individual driver or flyer may be doing anything wrong. This view could be further explained by saying that moral questions can be asked on at least two different levels, with implicit reference to different sorts of agents. It is one thing to ask “What should I do?” but quite a different thing to ask “What should we do?” and the answers may not always converge.
The fact is that at a time in history when we desperately need to cut emissions sharply, we all have a responsibility to re-evaluate behaviour we undertake that normalises, for those around us, ways of acting that generate high levels of emissions. As Sandberg puts it, “while it may not typically be wrong of me to drive or fly, then, it may be wrong of us to do so and we must therefore seek ways of coordinating our environmental efforts more effectively”. I will still not fly for holidays or family reasons, to conferences, for pretty much any reasons. However I have decided, through discussions with those I work with, that passing 400 ppm, the extent of the climate crisis, means that it is time to get back on a plane, in cases where the benefits can be seen as outweighing the impacts.
Around 25% of the world’s emissions come from the US, the world’s greatest emitter of carbon dioxide. I recently had a moving conversation with someone in the US, who works for an organisation who fund groups acting on climate change, and who is very well connected politically in the US. She told me, with strong emotion in her voice, that it was her sense from talking to people she knows in the UN and other organisations, that there seems to be a consensus to give it another 18 months, 2 years at most, and then the funding and political effort will shift from mitigation and into adaptation and defence.
I’ll say that again. The funding and political effort will shift from mitigation and into adaptation and defence. Or to put it another way, that they will give up. The consensus will shift to the assumption being that it is now too late. Officially. The imminent White House briefing about the state of the Arctic ice and its implications probably won’t help either, given the gravity and seeming irreversibility of that situation.
I refuse to accept that the lurch to 500ppm, 600ppm, 800ppm is an inevitability. I refuse to accept, as Nigel Lawson tried to argue in his debate with the remarkably patient Kevin Anderson on Jeremy Vine’s radio show recently, that doing anything about climate change would impact on economic growth so we shouldn’t bother. I refuse to agree with Peter Lilley that the only way to preserve our economy is to allow unfettered gas fracking anywhere the gas industry decides it wants to drill because “there are simply no affordable renewable technologies available to replace fossil fuels”. I refuse to accept that we can’t do any better than what we have now, and that communities have only a passive role to play in doing something about this with the real work being done by governments and business. I refuse to give up while there’s still a chance.
So when an explicitly personal invitation came in to speak to a gathering of the largest philanthropic funders at their gathering in the US, and the opportunity to present them with Transition’s model of bottom-up, community-led action and to explain how Transition is increasingly focusing on the creation of a new economy, owned by the people, for the benefit of the people, the climate and the future, I had to think twice. That’s quite an extraordinary opportunity to try and influence the mindset of people who have the power and capacity to significantly support communities, and other crucial actors, who need to act to make the real and rapid shift so needed. I have thought long and hard about it.
I have come to a place, also through discussions with other people here at Transition Network and in discussion with our friends at Transition US and Post Carbon Institute, of feeling that it is worth having a go and getting on a plane and making the journey, in the (possibly naive) hope that it might sow some seeds of a new direction in the minds of some of the US’s foremost funders, give Transition in the US a boost, raise its profile, do what I can to try and support what’s already happening there. I would expect to return home wrung out like a sponge. This doesn’t open the door to now flying here, there and everywhere. This is a very particular invitation that has been looked at entirely on its own merits.
What do I know? Many of the movements, ideas, people and projects that have inspired me over the last 20 years have come from the US. There are wonderful things happening there, inspirational projects, great movements, incredible networks. But if Transition can bring something energising, some insights from this 7-year global experiment, some kind of renewed optimism that change is possible, something, anything, then it feels worth doing, before the window of possibility closes.
What haunts me every day, and no doubt will for the rest of my days, is what I will reply to my grandchildren when they ask me what I did during the time when climate change could have been brought under some sort of control, when the necessary changes could have been put in place to create a low-carbon, resilient and thriving culture that nurtured healthy human cultures. Was I as effective as I could have been? Did I do everything I could have? Having reflected on this for some time, it feels churlish to decline an opportunity that could potentially have a far greater positive impact than the negative impact of the flight.
So sometime in late September, it looks very much as though I will make that journey. Quite what I’ll do when I’m there has yet to be agreed (although we will of course let you know). Whether it will have any meaningful impact is even less certain. But it needs to be done, so I’m doing it.
The CO2 concentration statistics come from the Earth System Research Laboratory’s website, from measurements taken at the Mauna Loa research station.
16 May 10:14am
Great post – thanks for the clarity. But don’t come back home ‘wrung out like sponge’ – manage your time & energy sustainably, so you’d do it again if necessary : )
16 May 11:41am
16 May 12:05pm
Rob, I believe you are doing the right thing.
I gave up flying some years ago, for reasons of conscience, after being a jet-setting musician for two decades. Now I turn down all performances which are not reachable by train (I don’t care if the journey takes 48 hours; in that time you can go a long way by train from North Yorkshire where I live!).
But I really believe that your carefully thought-out decision is correct.
Thank you for the hugely inspiring work that you do.
16 May 12:27pm
I completely support your decisoon Rob. Careful, thoughtful and quietly passionate argument made, as always.
16 May 12:43pm
And take a holiday in N America while you are there!! I recommend the 3 day train journey across Canada…
16 May 12:44pm
ps I’m glad you are going to the meeting, it’s good to be flexible.
16 May 12:51pm
Hi Rob. Well, you better hope we reach 400ppm after all by September then! 😉 http://touch.latimes.com/#section/-1/article/p2p-75893048/
Seriously, you have my blessing. Impact is important. Go for it!
16 May 12:51pm
Rob – I was one of those you inspired to reslove not fly again. I agree with your stance and that your attendance is worth the impact on the climate et al. I would like to make a donation to your carbon off-setting – should I send you a cheque?
Haddenham in Transition
16 May 1:12pm
The Dalai lama said something like “know the rules so you can break them effectively if needed”.
Rules are not just those cast out by government, but also those we make up for ourselves. Very tricky and at times paradoxical, but such is life.
16 May 1:42pm
I respect your decision and agree with it. I am certain that you will not be indulging in frivolous flying in future.
16 May 2:20pm
spoken from hearth! good decision!
16 May 2:24pm
Desperate remedies are indeed needed, Rob.
16 May 2:28pm
Rob, You are a great inspiration and it will be really valuable for you to be there in person. Other than someone offering you a sail boat excursion across the Atlantic, I don’t know how else to get you there. How about a sign up of all of us Transition Town groups (we’re brand new at Transition Fairfax VA) on your website who will commit to cancelling trips that members might otherwise have taken so we can all play a role in getting you there!
16 May 3:02pm
If you have a spare few weeks (maybe if you need to lock yourself away to write another book) then how about taking a cargo freighter across? It’s effectively zero carbon transport because a cargo ship can only take 12 passengers so it is most definitely there to take the freight, not the passengers.
16 May 4:06pm
I know that you are very busy and no doubt will need to get back home ASAP, but I do hope that you will consider traveling around North America to visit some of the Transition initiatives, see what is going on, and give some encouragement. While the US passenger train system (Amtrak) is a pale shadow of its former glory or any European system, it does connect much of the rim of the country and to Canada. Having made the investments to come to the US it would be a shame not to take advantage of opportunities to see what is happening–or could happen–first hand.
Please consider this an invitation from the initiatives in the Houston region. 🙂
16 May 4:57pm
Your voice needs to be hear to inspire others.
I am so grateful to have learnt much of value from your postings and books Rob.
I myself feel unable to judge your decision and pray you are safe on the journey out and home again.
I do not fly, I travel by train and car mostly.
I am concerned about the carbon impact and the despair I feel at not being able to change many of my own old patterns that are pretty much carbon based and interconnected to inherited life styles.
16 May 9:09pm
Go well Rob- fly you high, there is work to be done.
16 May 9:21pm
17 May 1:23am
This is an extremely worthwhile exception. Transitioners in US and interested skeptics will get a much needed boost from your visit. We look forward to it. I hope that in addition you will visit one of the transition hubs where transitioners can meet you and be inspired. Pls publish your itinerary ahead of time so we can make it. Thank you for all that you do!
17 May 1:33am
Might want to read this first:
17 May 5:05am
GO ROB GO! The environment/sustainability movement has been shooting itself in the foot on this issue while the rest of the world just KEEPS ON FLYING, so I am very glad to hear about Rob’s decision, and here is why!
‘Very few people working in environment and sustainability have renounced flying completely.
Arguably those who have may have hamstrung their message and work with their admirable commitment to walk their talk. There is no getting away from the fact that there is a contradiction inherent in people who are espousing climate change mitigation to be flying around the globe.
Yet if Al Gore had decided not to travel anywhere or use a computer, or make a movie, climate change may not have made it into the consciousness of people beyond the environment movement so quickly and effectively…
While we get all uptight about flying, probably because it’s more visible, research by Gartner a few years back showed that the global IT industry has a similar C02 impact to the aviation industry:
The global information and communications technology (ICT) industry accounts for approximately 2 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, a figure equivalent to aviation…
Are we all also willing to switch off, shut down, disconnect? I’m betting no – and I’m not.’
Have a look at just five of the ways I’ve identified in this article where we are wasting energy unnecessarily, and yet we wring our hands about the necessity and/or pleasure of (mindful, occasional) air travel and the ability of people whose messages, learnings and work CAN change this to physically connect with people. And yes it does make a difference – that’s why you don’t go to weddings by Skype.
No doubt there will be many who will dispute Rob’s decision and my comments here, but I’d rather Rob Hopkins be flying for his work than football players, models and celebrities – and he should be allowed to do so without any ‘green guilt’.
17 May 7:47am
Thanks everyone for the comments. It was really not an easy decision so your feedback is very valuable. A few answers to questions raised. Yes, the idea will be to visit some Transition initiatives, but the exact itinerary isn’t decided yet. While the idea of travelling there in a freighter ship has a lot going for it, it is rather ruled out by my suffering chronic seasickness. Re. David’s offer of financial support of offset the carbon, I think the work you are doing in Transition is offset enough, but I thank you for your offer. Thanks also to everyone who said that my decision not to fly influenced them to do the same. That was very touching to hear. Thanks…
17 May 4:40pm
I don’t think there’s even a question here.
I don’t think “too bad the world fried, but at least I didn’t fly so it wasn’t my fault” is the sort of thing that anybody’s grandchildren would very much want to hear. On the other hand, “look at the wonderful local economies and ecosystems we managed to build, so when we pulled the plug on the global fossil-fuel binge, most people were still OK” is the sort of thing that they would probably respect.
Let’s get it in perspective — for every greeny who agonises over whether to fly or not, there are a thousand people who don’t give it a second thought. Getting those people planting green beans with their neighbours instead of nipping off to Ibiza is what it’s about.
Transition is all about face-to-face networking, in my opinion. Nowadays, information can be shared very quickly and effectively on the Internet; but what about sharing things that can’t be transformed into bits?
Also, be aware that the Internet hides a multitude of failures in communication. A case in point…
When you addressed the conference in Bilbao in November by Skype (the seasickness helps to explain why you chose not to hop on the ferry — though I hope you do come over some time by train!) you were coming through, after considerable delay, over a dodgy internet connection, in simultaneous translation by non-native English speakers. To be honest even I had trouble understanding you, much less the non-English-speaking audience!
Given that your remarks were hardly specific to Bilbao, why not send a pre-recorded video with Spanish subtitles, I wonder? Just a thought.
Enjoy your trip to the States!
17 May 8:27pm
Thank you. Makes perfect sense to me. 😀
17 May 10:11pm
I think this is a sad day for Transition. As an initiator of a young initiative in the US. I see this as highly unhelpful. The ends never justify the means. Throwing money (this is all ‘funders’ have to offer) will never create a change of heart. Seeing a movement leader cave on a strong and patternable gesture (not flying) will only add to cynicsm and apathy. It’s comprable to seeing Mr. Gore flying about in that movie. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
18 May 12:15am
It’s time for quantum shifts! The US welcomes you and the leadership mind and heart that you carry. Thanks for being resilient, Rob!
18 May 2:27pm
I have been reading Molly Scott Cato’s blogs recently after her being faced with the same challenge after many years of refusing to travel by plane. She ended up compromising, flying to Brazil and coming back on a cargo boat. Her blog has been fascinating to see what she learnt – including discovering that it only takes about 12 hours to turn a super tanker around! http://gaianeconomics.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/inside-world-trade-system-personal.html
18 May 6:29pm
Btw, why does it take 24 hours + for comments to appear. Would it not be possible to trust Transition register users – at least until they commit an offence?
18 May 6:30pm
Aha! Now I understand. I was not logging in under my registered name! – sorry, ignore the previous message.
22 May 1:13pm
How strange, 4 days later and my comment still hasn’t appeared. Was it THAT controversial? Submitted under my full name.
22 May 1:17pm
Hi Paul. How odd, there are no unmoderated comments in the queue… perhaps you might resend?
26 May 8:06am
Time for new measures! Yes agreed. Perhaps this includes some high level coordinated strategy with Transition and non transition groups?
26 May 9:11am
I’d like to echo Trish Know comment
It’s time for quantum shifts! The… (Universe?)… welcomes you and the leadership mind and heart that you carry.
Thanks for being resilient, Rob!
Thanks for showing us we can be resilient too 😀
with love and with huge respect and appreciation for the beautiful life you lead
26 May 12:37pm
@shane: you hit the point!
30 May 11:44pm
Rob, I applaud your decision. I have spent hours and days on buses and trains to get around the U.S., but rarely will get on a plane for a good reason. (Seeing my mother before she died was the first.)
I want to invite you – since you’ll be here anyway – to pay a visit to the Compassionate Earth Walk. We’ll be walking along the Keystone XL route, advocating for more than stopping the pipeline – for changing the entire way we live. (Many more words on the website.) In September we’ll be somewhere in Nebraska.
And if that doesn’t work, would you care to say a few words of support so we can count you as one of our endorsers?
Best wishes with the philanthropists!
1 Jun 12:20pm
Why should the general public take any notice at all of your green advice, when you can’t even take it yourself?
I see no difference between you and Al Gore…lots of sanctimonious drivel about how you want us to live….but when it comes to your own behaviour you can always find a reason why your circumstances are ‘special’ or ‘different’ or earth-saving’
How do you spell ‘hypocrite’ in your language?
7 Jun 7:41am
Attempting to reduce demand for products/flights by not buying them can never have any real effect. Demand is always infinite.
If you choose not to take flights, out of concern about climate change or sustainability, you’re not having any impact. If a few people stop flying, airlines will reduce their prices, and amp up their marketing, and more people will take flights. And because they are doing it at lower prices, the airline needs to make more flights to make the profit it was before. More flights, more carbon emissions. And if the industry hit financial trouble as a result of lowered demand, it would get bailed out by governments. You can’t win with this strategy.
To really have an impact on global climate, you’ll need to stop every aeroplane and every fossil-fuel burning machine from operating ever again. And stopping every fossil-fuel burning machine is nowhere near the impossible goal it may sound. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely achievable. And it’s not only desirable, but essential if life on this planet is to survive.
7 Jun 7:59am
Just a reflective comment on Sharon’s posting regarding the IT industry. Not really a fair comparison to air transport:
1. IT is used by a much larger number of people.
2. IT is used for so many more things than essential holidays and unessential business meetings.
3.IT runs 24/7 one flight round the world is equivalent to more than my entire yearly carbon emissions.
The articles is useful but statistics to be viewed with care.
7 Jun 2:20pm
Kim Hill: to stop every airplane and every fossil-fuel burning machine – that’s a plan I’d like to discuss. Seriously. It’s clear that people aren’t going there voluntarily – even though I’m making one more attempt to move attitudes (the Compassionate Earth Walk this summer). After that, I don’t know.
7 Jun 3:34pm
Dear Rob, I’ve been following you and recommending the Transition ethos since 2008, when I was in Totnes and got a sense of what was happening there. We have a muller’s group here in Nova Scotia, and also live in Washington, DC, where we truly see the challenge. I support your presence in the U.S. because what you share in the post above needs to be said, with clarity and presence, in a room with warm bodies, face-to-face. Be direct, as I know you will be. Subtleties are lost on these people, who are looking for a way to be off the hook.
7 Jun 9:36pm
Kim Hill & Shodo Spring: It sounds like you are saying that people cannot choose to stop flying; but can be forced to stop flying. Only government can ethically force people to do, or to not do things. To take this step is a political decision. I was under the impression that Transition was an apolitical movement based on local, community volunteer and small business efforts, and not based on trying to get government to force lifestyle changes.
11 Jun 10:39am
Of course you should make this trip Rob & I wish you all the luck in the world. I find it hard to understand the logic of those who say you shouldn’t or that it’s hypocritical but then any well-thought out reasoning will not change the minds of those who refuse to consider what’s being said.
I believe that the inspiration to act which you will give to people in the US will ‘offset’ any carbon from the trip – many-fold. People will not stop flying en masse while they can afford to do so until there is the social change we all desperately need. We should ALL support ALL who work their socks off trying to sort out this crazy planet-trashing mess we are in. The Climate 9 had a different approach (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=zjMbKlN8EHM) but I support them too. The world needs everyone to do what they can to wake the world up and to inspire others to change.
On that note, I have just watched the Chasing Ice trailer you mentioned (https://www.transitionculture.org/2013/01/16/film-review-chasing-ice/). Moving stuff but not as moving as the woman interviewed at the end. It has to be watched and remembered. I don’t know who she is but I want to know what she does next!
12 Jun 3:21am
Neil – I’m not advocating for forcing governments or people to do anything, but instead physically dismantling the infrastructure that creates planes and fossil fuels in the first place. Nothing can be sustainable until everything that is unsustainable has been eliminated, so this should be the first priority of anyone who is concerned about sustainability (and life on Earth). I work with Deep Green Resistance, a movement that is working to dismantle all systems and structures that stand in the way of our efforts to create resilient communities.