Flight trails crossing paths

By Andrew Garman

President Joe Biden’s recent announcement for the U.S. to rejoin other nations in taking the climate emergency seriously  led FOX News commentator Sean Hannity to accuse Biden’s climate envoy, John Kerry, of ‘heartless hypocrisy.”

The TV host called out the cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline project while Kerry continues to travel regularly using a private jet, a significant contributor to gas emissions.  Hannity challenged Kerry to lead by example, by ordering that his own private jet be grounded, and the rest of government to follow suit.

Perhaps the challenge was hypothetical – especially since Hannity as private jets and helicopters of his own. But the comments point to very real credibility risks the new administration must manage in pursuing its agenda of environmental justice.

Recent research found that more than a third of total growth in carbon emissions is coming from the richest 5% of people, and 15% of total cumulative emissions are from the richest 1%.  For this group, the single biggest source of carbon emissions – by a wide margin – is air travel

Of course, flying isn’t just an issue for the very wealthy. Reducing air travel is among the most effective ways anyone who flies can significantly reduce their carbon footprint.  Not surprisingly, research also suggests it will be much easier to encourage people to these actions if climate authorities lead by example.

As a healthcare researcher deeply concerned about climate change, air travel is an issue that hits home. Traveling to conferences had long been a routine part of my work, but the realities of my own hypocrisy were growing ever more apparent.

Many scientific communities have begun questioning whether the benefits flying to in-person events justify the magnitude of their environmental impact. Although the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that these communities can endure and even thrive without in-person conferences, some are still hoping for a return to the old days.

There have been attempts to rationalize conference travel by purchasing carbon offsets – agreements to remove the carbon equivalent of what flights pumped into the atmosphere. Although this approach sounds straightforward, in reality many carbon offsets fall far short of their promised goals. Even if these programs are strengthened, they are still collectively too small in scale to address air travel as a whole.

Science may eventually bring us air travel that is truly environmentally friendly. Until that time, I plan to stay out of the sky.

From the White House to every community in America, each person can ask the hard questions about whether their next airplane flight justifies its environmental costs.

BIO Andrew N. Garman is Professor of Health Systems Management at Rush University in Chicago, IL, a Public Voices Fellow of the Op Ed Project, and author of the forthcoming book, Healing our Future: Leadership for a Changing Health System(Berrett-Koehler).