The English newspaper The Guardian recently carried an article on the environmental impact of aviation. The starting point of the argument presented by the author was this:
’Climate change has changed forever how we view flying. Suddenly, getting on a plane at the drop of a hat seems as morally defensible as clubbing seals.’
All of this is of course tied to the concept of the ‘carbon footprint’, which measures the impact of individuals or groups in terms of CO2 emissions. Websites such as this one allow you to calculate and offset your impact on global warming by acknowledging and then reducing your carbon footprint. In the explanatory narrative, flights are cited as the first potential source of an excessive negative environmental impact.
There is, it seems to me, a need for a more sophisticated analysis of how we should deal with global warming and greenhouse gases than the Guardian quote above might suggest. For many people rightly concerned about the environmental damage that is being inflicted upon the earth the answers seem to me to be a tad facile and sometimes dangerous. They are, very often, based on the idea that we should turn the clock back: travel less, decline to eat imported food, and so forth. But human progress cannot be so easily picked apart, and if we discard individual items of habit and conduct we may have an unexpected impact on others. The headlong rush for biofuels, for example, was badly thought through and is now a contributory cause of third world hunger.
International transport and travel has had a number of effects, beyond carbon emissions. It has put doubtful governments and regimes under the spotlight as visitors were able to observe what was going on at first hand; it has given markets and an income to third world growers of food that they could not get from resource-poor internal consumer markets; it has opened up access to diverse cultures and new influences; it has helped to create understanding and tolerance. Whether or not we could reverse all this, we certainly shouldn’t.
Actually, it has become increasingly clear that the ‘moral pressure’ approach to carbon emissions is ineffective. It may make travellers feel they are social pariahs, but it doesn’t stop them travelling. And it may even be that some of this talk is diverting us from the real solutions, which are mostly to be found in science and innovation. We must of course reduce greenhouse gases and other contributors to environmental damage, but this will be done most effectively through scientific research and common sense and prudent behaviour.
Lest I am misunderstood, I am not at all opposed to a vibrant environmentalist agenda, and I believe we have a strong obligation to be good stewards of this earth. I do not agree at all with those sceptics who still try to argue that humans actually don’t contribute to global warming, or who make similarly silly points. And I believe in the precautionary principle that says that even if we are uncertain about it, we must act on the assumption that global warming is taking place and that we are to blame. But I do believe that this important agenda must not be shot through with moral posturing and calls to return to a previous age. We can never do that, in this or in any other context. The way forward is always forward.