The coronavirus has pumped the brakes on air travel. But before that, flying was responsible for about 5% of man-made global warming. So if and when the demand for air travel goes back to its pre-COVID trajectory, it could account for a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. That budget is what would keep temperatures from rising more than 1 and a half degrees Celsius by 2050. That’s why there’s been a growing movement for people to fly less.
But, we live in a connected globalized world, with family members living in different states or on different continents. So, how is the impact that flying has on the climate changing the way we think about travel?
Our stories are made to be heard. Please listen if you are able.
This story is part of a series about the emotional toll of climate change. Click here to listen to full episodes.
I was born in Michigan and when my family first moved to Egypt it was really hard for me. I asked my parents every day how long it would be until we moved back. I missed my extended family — they were my whole world. I was only 8. And, my dad told me he had a similar experience when he was a kid:
"The first time I was ever on an airplane I was 12 years old. We went from Cairo to New York. Back then air travel was really, really different. This was 1969, and it was summertime. And they put us on the plane and they said when you get to the other side you’ll find your mom and dad there. We came from Cairo, a big city, we ended up in New York, another big city. And it was very very exciting."
I didn’t choose to move and I always wondered what my life would have been like if we’d stayed in Michigan. My obsession with that question made me think I would have been the kind of person who would have never left the place I grew up.
For my dad it was different. His family went back home to Cairo after living in New York for a couple years, but they didn’t stay there long. They went to Detroit in 1973 to visit their mom who was doing her PhD there. They thought they would just be there for the summer, but that's not what wound up happening. My grandma was offered a position at the university and my grandfather joined them in Detroit. My dad’s parents never moved back to Cairo.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the term “third culture kid” but it stuck with me. To me, it was a feeling of being in between two places -- not fully part of either, but a combination of both, making something new.
When I was growing up, I went back to Michigan almost every summer to visit family. That “in-between” felt literal. Being shuttled back and forth from one place I called home to another, on an airplane almost 40 thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean. And, when I talked to my dad I found out that it wasn't by accident.
"I think I made a point of making that happen because of this kind of desire, unfulfilled desire that I always had of not being able to go back that we didn't go back for a long, you know, long stretches."
So I grew up with this idea that I could live in both places. I went to college in Boston, a couple years after I graduated I moved back to Egypt, almost on a whim.
My grandma used to say Egypt is like a sponge. It soaks up different cultures. And it’s done that for thousands of years. You can see the layers of human history that were built on top of each other. And even now, being there, it can feel like you’re at the center of the world. For me, living there meant getting to know people from all over the place. It broadened my view of the world and made me care more about what happens to the people in it.
"I mean, this is a planet that we all share. Air travel is a key to making this planet smaller, and making people feel a part of the entire planet and the whole globe and realizing that what you do in one place has an impact on everybody else everywhere else."
It’s a catch-22. One of the things that unites us and allows us to see what’s happening in other parts of the world is also a major contributor to rising temperatures. And that will devastate our planet’s ecosystems.
When environmental activist Greta Thunberg took a stance against flying and sailed to New York for a climate summit, she wasn’t calling for everyone to do the same thing. When she was asked what she hoped to achieve, she said, "If I were to choose one thing I would say increased awareness among people in general and — so that people start realizing that we are in an emergency."
Now, with the coronavirus, that feels so much more real — we’re in an emergency and we’ve proven that we can make sacrifices. We can isolate ourselves and not travel.
But for how long? And at what cost?
I didn’t choose for my family to be spread out across thousands of miles. I inherited it. And there are so many people like me.
I’m in California now, and my sister is getting married this summer in Michigan. I want to be there. It’s not about the ceremony or the party. I want to be there in person before she starts a new life and family so that she knows that I will always be there no matter what happens — even a pandemic.
But, when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus, flying is considered one of the riskiest things to do. So I have to decide, can I follow guidelines to properly mitigate the risks? Wear a mask, stay distant, wash my hands?
When the threat of this pandemic is behind us, we will still be facing a climate emergency. So what are the guidelines that I should follow to mitigate that risk.
I don’t know the answer to that question. I do know that reducing my carbon footprint without seeing major industry-wide change isn’t going to be enough. So, the question is, what will that look like? Electric planes? Remote work? Zoom Christmas? (That sounds awful.)
When I first started this story, I wasn’t sure whether I would go to my sister’s wedding. But last weekend, I decided I’m going to try. The more I thought about it, the more I felt like if I don’t go, I’ll lose something that makes our relationship special. Despite years of being separated by long distances, my family isn’t good at keeping in touch that often. We’ve gotten better since the pandemic — but before that, it was about showing up for the important things. And it’s the unexpected moments that have made our relationships meaningful — my sister makes me laugh harder than anyone I know.
So, if I mask up, and get on a plane, does that make me a bad person? I don’t think so. It’s not my individual responsibility to change the way we travel. But I do think it needs to happen. And I’ll be faced with more difficult choices about where I want to be in the world. And I’ll adjust, just like I have with the coronavirus restrictions.