For a meteorologist like Eric Holthaus, the fifth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is something like waiting for the Super Bowl for six years. Holthaus, who writes for Quartz and formerly for the Wall Street Journal, was awake at 4 a.m. on a Friday morning reading through the summary that made it clear the world is running out of time to act. Boarding a plane home to Wisconsin, he broke down in tears. He determined to stop flying, a decision that has gained national attention. “It’s not worth the climate,” one of his tweets said.
IPCC’s conclusion, in short, is that scientists are unequivocally certain that the Earth is warming and that humans are the dominant cause. Without immediate action to curb emissions, the world has little chance to limit warming to 2°C. We only need to burn 10 percent of fossil fuels reserves to blow past that upper limit.
But Holthaus’ biggest moment of disillusionment was reading what scientists had to say about geoengineering that attempts to reverse climate change by changing the climate system. These last-ditch concepts can resemble costly sci-fi-like schemes and carry their own severe risks, like massive aerosol injection into the atmosphere. He knew this already, but it meant something different to see it in a document approved by 195 member countries.
In an interview with Climate Progress, Holthaus said he thought, “Well, that’s it,” as he read the report. “There’s no way we can wait anymore for world leaders to take action on this.” That’s what made him decide, as a as a meteorologist who has covered climate change for more than 10 years, to stop flying. He doesn’t consider it a drastic change, but leading by example.
“I do everything, I recycle, I don’t own a car, I’m a vegetarian, all of the things that are reducing my carbon footprint. But I also fly 75,000 miles a year,” he said. “So when I plugged that in a carbon calculator, it’s like, wow, I have double the emission of the average American and here I am every day telling people to take action and I’m not doing it myself.”
Conservative media have treated Holthaus with as much respect as they treat mainstream climate science. Drudge linked to it, while Fox News’ The Five ridiculed him, calling him, “a kook.” In that case, Holthaus said at least he’s glad he successfully got Fox to discuss climate change on air for 4 minutes. Otherwise, he says he’s had overwhelmingly positive reaction, from colleagues and people who have looked at their carbon footprint of daily activities like shopping or meat consumption. For people who don’t drive much but fly often, planes can account for three-quarters of a person’s emissions.
Many don’t fly the number of miles Holthaus has logged, like flying to Ethiopia for a climate adaptation project. Climate hawks like Bill McKibben have the same problem of how to reconcile aviation emissions with continuing their work. McKibben’s answer has been to limit his flying to when it’s absolutely necessary, and otherwise choosing to conference by web.
Airplane emissions account for 5 percent of global pollution, and 3 percent of carbon emissions. U.S. passengers alone are projected to double from 500 million to 1 billion in a decade. There have been small steps of progress. Last week a U.N. agency approved a road map for establishing a ceiling on aviation emissions in 2020. A price on carbon, as well as an informed public, are vital to lowering this pollution, since emissions from your flight also heavily depend on factors like the destination and time of year.
With aviation emissions expected to rise 300 to 700 percent by 2050, countries will need to hold the aviation sector accountable for its emissions in a plan to combat climate change. “A world that is protected from climate change looks very different from the world today,” Holthaus said.
As a meteorologist, Holthaus says he feels compelled to do what he can personally, while being an unbiased source of information for the public. “As a journalist and as a scientist I have to talk about facts,” he said. “The truth is there is no remaining doubt and there’s no need to waver on the issue of do humans cause climate change anymore. So I think my reporting and my response as a human and a fellow person on the planet — I think that of course — it should reflect that.”