Dear Sara,

Last year, my partner and I began planning to travel across the country for a wedding of his old friend. Our plan was we’d take two weeks, take Amtrak, maybe splurge on the sleeper car. But now the date of the wedding approaches, and we have less money and time than we expected. Also a factor: An older relative of mine who also lives across the country is ill and needs a visit one month before said wedding. I haven’t been on a plane in three years, and I was hoping to keep it that way. We bought plane tickets to visit the relative. My partner has ruled out the train for himself for the wedding: He can’t afford the absurd cost ($1,000) of the sleeper car, and four days total upright in a chair is too much discomfort. Amtrak looks so bogus in this context that I’m inclined to agree with him: Taking the train doesn’t make sense in any way other than the environmental. But I’m having major guilt and stress as I consider flying across the country twice in two months. Should I skip it? Should I shut up and fly? How would you mitigate the harm? – Earthbound and Torn

Dear Earthbound and Torn,

One Christmas season a few years ago, I took Amtrak all the way from Durham, North Carolina, to Boston – where my parents live – and back again. In many ways, it was a relaxing trip. I didn’t have to squeeze my shampoo into a three-ounce bottle, stand in a long security line, or remove my shoes in public. Instead, I got to spend time with friends and family in Washington, D.C., where I stopped for the night on both my northbound and southbound journeys.

Still, the price of the train ticket was no cheaper than a flight to Boston, so I didn’t save money. And the roundtrip journey took four days, including two overnights in D.C. That’s a burden, given that the standard flying time for a direct flight between Raleigh-Durham and Boston is only two hours.

But I chose to travel the slow way because, like you, I felt guilty about my personal carbon footprint. For readers who are new to the idea, a “carbon footprint” is a way of framing our individual complicity in the problem of climate change. By totaling the amount of meat we eat, the miles we drive, the distance we fly, and so on, we can measure how much heat-trapping pollution each of us is responsible for causing. If you play around with a carbon footprint calculator like this one, you’ll see that flying is among the most climate-polluting activities you can undertake. In fact, your share of the carbon pollution from a single round-trip flight across the U.S. exceeds the amount that the average person in India produces during an entire year, according to one calculator.

Three bad options

Earthbound and Torn, your first option is to fly, but there’s no getting around it: Jets release gases that heat the planet, contributing to a problem that has already made extreme events – like the extraordinary flooding in the Carolinas during Hurricane Florence last fall and the recent destruction caused by California wildfires – more likely.

Amtrak trains are less polluting than planes, but as you suspect, they can be uncomfortable on a cross-country trip. As one regular Amtrak rider writes, absent the sleeper car, a long train journey will make you want “to rip your eyes out and (fling) them into the passing landscape.”

The problem is that your third option – to cancel your trips – comes at a high cost. To tell an ailing relative, “No, I will not come to you when you need me,” and to tell your partner, “No, I will not stand with you as you celebrate love with an old friend,” is tantamount to saying that you are not a full participant in your community.

You must choose the least-bad of three unpleasant options. No wonder you feel guilty and stressed.

That’s why I gently suggest that we all try reframing the problem. Instead of placing the blame for climate change on individual choices, let’s examine the context in which those choices get made.

That context, in the U.S., is one of heavy investment in interstate highways and airports, but not in high-speed rail or inter-city buses.

Other countries, by contrast, have been constructing high-speed rail infrastructure for decades. In China, rail passengers can travel from Shanghai to Beijing – which are roughly the same distance from each other as Durham and Boston – in as little as 4.5 hours. That’s not bad, considering how much time is usually spent waiting at airports.

In many regions of the U.S., there’s little political will for investment in high-speed rail projects, which are expensive. But the U.S. has also chosen to invest relatively little in inter-city buses, even though they might be easier to integrate into our existing transportation networks. For what it’s worth, a bus is by far the lowest-carbon way to travel, absolutely crushing Amtrak.

Buses have a deservedly bad reputation for being uncomfortable, but a dedicated effort could make them better. A startup company in California, for example, is marketing its bus line between San Francisco and Los Angeles as a cushy rolling hotel.

Earthbound and Torn, if you had a comfortable, affordable, low-carbon option for traveling a long distance by ground, you would choose it. But right now, that choice isn’t available to you.

Why canceling won’t help

Let’s look more closely at another of your bad options: taking a lonely stand against air travel by canceling one or both of your trips. (I’m assuming it’s not logistically feasible to combine the two journeys.)

The most likely outcome is that your planes will still depart, because other passengers are unlikely to alter their travel plans. You’ll suffer the social costs of absenting yourself – with zero benefit to the atmosphere.

This is the Achilles’ heel of focusing on individual carbon footprints. It’s difficult to get people to alter their behavior if they believe others won’t. That’s particularly true if there’s a personal cost to the behavior change, said Jan Brueckner, an economist at the University of California, Irvine.

“Relying on altruistic behavior is just not the way to tackle the global warming problem,” he told me in a recent interview. “You need government policies to induce mass changes in behavior, not individual ones.”

Brueckner’s preferred answer to the problem is a carbon tax. Impose a fee on sources of carbon dioxide, such as jet fuel, he explained, and the price of airline tickets will increase, nudging everyone, not just altruistic people, to fly less.

Brueckner isn’t alone in calling for political – not individual – change. “Efforts at ethical consumerism are not only small in scale relative to the overall problem, they in many cases won’t work at all,” writer Matthew Yglesias argued recently at Vox. “The problem requires systematic change that only government intervention can make.”

What you can do

Earthbound and Torn, because you don’t have an attractive low-carbon option for visiting your relative or attending the wedding, my advice is to book your ticket – and then do your part to make better transportation available in the future. Instead of spending your energy on guilt and stress, try channeling it toward action.

You might begin by learning more about policy options under discussion right now at the federal level. One is the Green New Deal resolution, which calls for investment in high-speed rail. Another is a bill, recently re-introduced in the House, that would tax carbon sources. There are also efforts at the state and regional level to improve high-speed rail.

Next, learn more about your leaders’ positions on transportation, and let them know how you feel. Yglesias at Vox offers this advice: “It’s helpful (genuinely) to make phone calls and even write letters to elected officials explaining why you are voting the way you are voting. And ordinary citizens can make meaningful contributions to elections they can’t vote in by directly contacting acquaintances who live in swing districts, volunteering to phone bank or knock on doors, or even, most basically, by donating money.”

A word about long-haul flights

So far, I haven’t addressed a truly sticky problem. At a regional scale, buses, trains, and cars can be used as an alternative to planes. And they may become a more-preferred option if airline ticket prices rise and ground transportation improves. But over trans-continental distances, trains can’t – and likely won’t – transport people as quickly as planes can. And for overseas flights, there is no viable substitute.

But attempts to impose supranational regulations on airlines, which would be necessary to address emissions from international travel, are politically unpopular, said Scott Cohen, who researches tourism and transportation at the University of Surrey. “There’s a lack of appetite for that type of regulation, because mobility that’s facilitated by air travel is viewed as a fundamental human right,” he said.

In other words, regulations on international travel are unlikely to materialize in the near future, leaving us back close to where we started: suggesting that people voluntarily reduce their long-distance air travel. But even here, there are ways to work with others, rather than as an individual. For example, you might add your name to a list of people who are pledging to fly less often, such as this group of Earth scientists, other academics, and members of the public.

Best of luck to your sick relative, and I hope the wedding is joyous.


Note added 2/18/19: I’ve received questions from many of you about offsets. How effective are they? Do they solve the moral dilemma of flying in the age of climate change? I’ll address those questions and more in a future column. In the meantime, feel free to send me your thoughts.

Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...