Why Climate Activists Have To Fly — And Everyone Else Has To Shut Up About It

Zoe Samuel
3 min readApr 19, 2019
These didn’t get built without people on site. Image by Dirk Goldhahn via Wikimedia Commons.

Every time there is a climate conference or protest, people who care about preventing runaway climate change travel to the site in question in order to lend their support. Meanwhile, these people are subjected to a peanut gallery of apathetic armchair warriors making inane comments about how they shouldn’t fly.

Here’s why it is childish and stupid to complain about people flying (or eating, wearing clothes, showering, commuting etc) who also care about the climate. The primary fact underlying the urgency of the climate movement is that individual change is mainly just rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic. Going vegan doesn’t change the farming system and refusing fast fashion doesn’t close a sweatshop: these may be virtuous (depending on your beliefs), but ultimately they are just visible markers of what should be a deeper commitment to rewriting an entire system. Where they exist without that commitment, they are pretty much meaningless virtue signaling.

Giving up meat and buying ethically-sourced clothing is also fairly easy to do. The problem with climate change is that you literally cannot opt out of playing your role in exacerbating it. The system is set up to make this impossible. You can ameliorate somewhat — for example, choosing not to fly willy-nilly when there are other options available — but the level of expertise and effort required to achieve carbon zero in the current system is beyond the vast majority of people. The key is to figure out where your choices have the most impact, and accepting that there are tradeoffs involved.

If climate change is to be brought to heel, systemic change is required. This means investment, changes to the tax code, stripping existing subsidies for fossil fuels, adjusting farming practices to reduce tilling, investing in wetland restoration, increased afforestation, carbon drawdown, revamping the energy system to clean up the grid then electrifying everything — and much more. Critical mass in overhauling systems of this magnitude cannot be achieved — has never, ever been achieved — without large-scale organization, which requires people from multiple disciplines working together. It entails marching, voting, meeting, designing, innovating, investing, building, and more. At least sometimes, this must be on-site and in person. This requires travel.

Fliers can buy carbon offests for now. There is currently no alternative to fuel-powered planes. Electric planes are way ahead of where they were expected to be by this point, and soon fossil fuel-free flying will be possible for short- and medium-haul flights (and nobody will be happier about that than the airline industry, for whom fuel costs are a millstone around their neck).

An already-existing electric plane — coming soon to an airport near you!

In the meantime, kvetching at someone for trying to exist effectively in the world right now and do the right thing is ridiculous and petty. The goal of the climate movement is to give us all better options that don’t cause harm. It is not to inhabit a fantasy land in which climate action means ineffective hairshirt hippie nonsense. It is counter-productive to whine at people for accepting the options that exist now even as they work to transform them.

Those who travel to participate in projects, protests, conferences, etc, are getting off their butts, putting their money where their mouths are, and doing something about the problem. Those who slouch on the sidelines doing nothing while they watch the situation get worse are not in a position to judge how their own rescuers go about saving them.

Unless you’re doing at least as much as they are, then shut the fuck up.