Why do most Swedes fly on holiday, despite the fact that we’re in the middle of an acute climate crisis?
That’s a question I’ve asked myself many times, but I’ve rarely dared to ask others the same question. Since I decided to give up flying ten years ago I’ve not known how to respond to people when they tell me about their flights. Usually I’ve ended up saying nothing at all, as I’ve not wanted to be a killjoy, but often regretted my silence afterwards. I’ve had many sleepless nights wondering why I am more concerned about destroying the mood than about climate collapse.
Last year I had had enough, and decided that my New Year’s resolution was to dare to be “socially inconvenient”, and start asking people questions about the climate when people tell me about their flights.
That turned out to be the best New Year’s resolution I’ve ever made (and probably the only one I’ve managed to keep). It has taught me so much about people’s thoughts about climate change, and above all it has given me hope that change is possible.
One of the first people I asked was my closest neighbour Magnus. He asked us to look after his cat while they went on holiday to Vietnam. Despite feeling pretty awkward about it (especially since he is also our landlord) I plucked up the courage to ask him if he’s worried about the climate, and if he knew how many emissions his flight would create.
After our conversation I felt so relieved as he did not get offended, although perhaps was a bit surprised, and after a couple of similar meetings I realised that it actually is possible to talk about the climate. I decided to start a campaign, with the goal to make 100 000 Swedes take a Flight Free year. Ever since, I’ve barely talked about anything but flying and climate change, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that the climate crisis has a very different meaning for different people.
Media often creates the picture that we all know exactly what is about to happen, but that we don’t care about it. That is not my picture of reality. When I ask people if they are worried about climate change most people do say yes, but if I ask what they are worried about it is very clear that most people aren’t aware of how serious the situation is.
Hardly anyone knows that the IPCC has given us just ten years to cut global emissions in half if we are to have a chance to limit the temperature rise at a manageable level. Many people still believe that climate change is something that will affect others, somewhere else, sometime in a distant future. Few realise that the climate crisis is happening here and now, and that it is themselves, and us all, that will be affected.
Many people feel that they fly so rarely, that it can’t do that much damage. But in a single flight we emit over a ton of carbon dioxide: the amount to which we need to decrease our emissions in total. That means that our annual holiday uses up our entire carbon dioxide budget, and leaves no room for the things that we actually have to do, such as eat, and live somewhere.
When I tell people this, a lot of them feel shocked; very few are aware of what an enormous impact flying has on the climate. My neighbour Magnus went home and Googled it after our conversation, and to his surprise found that his trip to Vietnam created as many emissions as if he had driven one lap around the globe in his car.
This past year has been one of the best years of my life. I have had so many interesting meetings and I feel more hopeful than I have done in a really long time. I have realised that it is possible to affect people, and that many are willing to fly less once they realise how important it is.
Something that I find really fascinating is that people, once they have made the decision to stop flying, also want everyone else to do the same. Similarly, I’ve noticed that people are more willing to join the Flygfritt campaign if they know others who have already signed up. That is not surprising: we humans like to act like those around us do. The reason most of us keep living our lives as though we weren’t in the middle of an acute climate crisis is not because we don’t care, it is because we watch what friends and family do. This means that if enough people start to act, change can happen fast.
The conversation with my neighbour Magnus not only resulted in him signing up for the Flygfritt 2019 campaign, but he and his wife have decided not to fly again at all. He has also told me that he nowadays thinks about the climate in everything he does and is trying to encourage others to do the same.
No one can save the climate on their own – but together we still have a chance. If we are to succeed, we who have realised the severity of the situation need to take the lead and show the way. We need to show what it takes with our actions, and we need to be brave enough to talk about it. Don't assume that people don't care - assume that everyone would be prepared to fight for the climate if they knew what is at stake.
We have been helping each other to deny the climate threat for ages – it is time we help each other to wake up!