Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Climate change and air travel

I have heard this argument from Megan McArdle before:
The question answers itself, doesn’t it? Giving up air travel and overnight delivery is much more personally costly for the public intellectuals who write about this stuff than giving up a big SUV. If you live in one of the five or six major cities that contain virtually everyone who writes about climate change, having a small car (or no car), is a pretty easy adjustment to imagine. On the other hand, try to imagine giving up far-flung vacations, conferences, etc. -- especially since travel to interesting locales is one of the hidden perks of not-very-well remunerated positions at universities, public policy groups, nongovernmental organizations, and yes, news organizations.
But I tend to credit it as having at least a little bit of truth.  It would personally cause me a great deal of grief if it were to become a social norm, given how far away from my family that I live.  But it is true that air travel is a very tough source of carbon emissions to remove, given the need for high energy density fuel.

But I think that this fits in well with how nice it would be to improve train travel, which is a very carbon-friendly mode of transportation.


  1. "If you live in one of the five or six major cities that contain virtually everyone who writes about climate change, having a small car (or no car), is a pretty easy adjustment to imagine."

    Isn't one of those cities LA? If so, I'm not quite sure the argument holds.

  2. New York
    San Francisco
    Maybe Washington, DC

    I guess it is possible I am under rating the climate change focus in the LA area. But I think that is her list.

    1. I'd say Californians in general have a relatively strong focus on climate change.

  3. True, but what is the LA/SF split?

    I am not defending McArdle; she is being a bit provincial. But the idea that air travel is associated with economic class and being close to a robust international airport seems a reasonable step in the inference. I'd be shocked if something that was as expensive as a trans-Atlantic plane flights is a lower class good.

    I also point out that she said small car (woth possibly no car). I don't have any evidence that you need an SUV to enjoy LA but I can certainly think of apparent counter-examples.

    1. Lots of the country around here is damn near vertical so for some people an SUV is damned useful.

      As for the opinion/decision-making class being hypocritically attached to air travel, does the word sequester mean anything to you?

    2. See, the LA SUV thing is precisely what makes me worried about the long term trajectory of reducing carbon. SUVs are useful in some part of Los Angeles. But are they NECESSARY? Are they worth doubling or tripling the emissions from a car?

      In each case where an actual policy is proposed, there seems to be a reason why this is a bad idea.

      I am also not trying to argue that McArdle was the first person to have this insight, merely that it is topical now that the Justice Department is blocking a merger of two airlines because it might raise prices. In an industry that had a good year which resulted in a 0.1% profit. Given the differential climate impact of the airlines, might higher prices not encourage people to find alternatives?

      I don't know. But it seems odd that the specific actions on climate change are always different than the general principles that are espoused.