I Am Part of the Climate-Change Problem. That’s Why I Wrote About It. – The New York Times
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I have written thousands of articles for The New York Times. Only one, so far, has cast me as a planet-destroying villain.
This adventure began when my editor on the Metro desk here at The Times took a new job running the Travel section and invited me to write an article for her sometime.
Thanks, I said, but the only travel story I want to do is one questioning the moral defensibility of long-distance leisure travel in the age of climate change.
“You’re on,” replied the editor, Amy Virshup, to my surprise.
Now I had to write it. And I knew there was no way to do that without addressing my own complicity.
First, though, I had to figure out how guilty I was: a way to quantify the global damage caused by one person’s travel.
It turns out that in 2016, two climatologists published an article suggesting a direct, linear relationship between carbon emissions and the melting of the Arctic’s summer ice cover.
Their finding: Every metric ton of carbon dioxide or its equivalent shrinks the ice cover by three square meters, or 32 square feet. Picture the entire Arctic sea ice cover getting a tiny bit thinner, and 32 square feet of it disappearing at the edges.
“This number is sufficiently intuitive to allow one to grasp the contribution of personal CO2 emissions to the loss of Arctic sea ice,” the researchers wrote dryly.
Indeed. I plugged in numbers from a carbon-footprint calculator and … no, that couldn’t be right. But I kept doing the math and kept getting the same answer: My family’s one-week winter-break trip to Florida would shrink the ice cover by 90 square feet.
By this point, we had already decided to go to Greece for summer vacation, a far more destructive journey. I felt compelled to mention this, too, at the end of the article. I could not think of anything to say about it other than that we planned to buy carbon offsets to counteract the effects of our flights, and hope for the best.
The article was published on June 3. A lot of readers were furious when they got to the end.
“You are literally performing the cop-out that your article purports to critique,” someone wrote on Twitter.
“You’ve broken my heart,” someone else wrote, “knowing full well the consequences and yet still choosing personal gratification over the hope that your ‘sacrifice’ will help as every small action adds up.”
Other readers, conversely, were irked that I was focusing on individual travel at all. They said I was letting big corporations and governments off the hook for their refusal to make huge across-the-board changes to stop global warming.
In any case, I have kept my word. Last week, I went to the website of a nonprofit called Cool Effect that sells offsets and gave it $168 to support a project to install biogas digesters in households in China and Vietnam.
A biogas digester is basically a vat with a pipe attached to it. You put manure — cow, pig, human, whatever — and water in it. As the manure decomposes, it releases methane, a greenhouse gas far more destructive than carbon dioxide. The pipe connects to your cookstove, and you cook with the methane — burning it off pollutes much less than just releasing it, and much less than burning coal or wood.
According to Cool Effect’s math, my donation will prevent the emission of the equivalent of 30 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Our seats on the flights to Greece would emit 10 metric tons.
By some calculations, then, our vacation would be a net win for the planet.
But of course it’s not so simple. There’s considerable disagreement about the effectiveness of carbon offsets, and whether they really bring about conservation measures that would not have happened without the purchase of the offset.
Some critics point out that buying plane tickets at all keeps airports expanding and the aviation industry growing.
I asked Peter Miller, a director at the Natural Resources Defense Council who also serves on the board of the country’s biggest carbon-offset registry, if I had bought my way to a clean conscience.
“It does make an incremental contribution in the right direction,” he said. “But there is the rest of your life and your family’s life that is still responsible for helping cause climate change.”
As dispensations go, I’ll take it.
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