A friend recently emailed a group of us to ask for support to make a six-hour flight for a four-day trip to do volunteer work supporting people from Central America seeking sanctuary in the United States. I felt conflicted: I wanted to help her do this important work, but not by helping to purchase a flight. One flight outweighs all the other fossil fuel most individuals burn in a year. The oil burnt by millions of flights a year is one of the causes of climate instability. So I was being invited to pay for something I regard as deeply harmful, like a carton of cigarettes for someone with lung disease.
But I didn’t just want to be silent in response to the request, especially because climate change is – and will increasingly be – a cause of migration. The two causes are linked.
I decided to write explaining why I wasn’t sending a donation. I said that I supported the cause an didn’t want to guilt-trip her about this particular flight, because we all make complicated decisions about what’s important. But could the migrant solidarity organisation bring some thinking about climate change into their work?
I know that travelling coast to coast across the United States by train or bus would take more than three days, but if a large group is travelling, could you rent a bus or book a whole railway carriage, and use the extra days of travel to train people up, or visit organisations with similar aims along the way?
I did this with Time to Cycle to get to COP 21 in Paris. It was an extraordinary five-day journey, meeting anti-fracking campaigners in Balcombe and schoolchildren in a school outside Paris, building friendships and sharing knowledge among the members of the group.
Another possibility would be including a carbon-offset element in the fundraiser (asking for the cost of the flight + the cost of planting some trees). Or joining a project locally to plant trees yourselves. Mentioning this on your fundraiser would help get climate change and the links to migration on the radar.
I believe that governments must take urgent action to transform transport to avoid climate breakdown, because individuals can’t make the infrastructure changes we need. But I believe in ‘being the change’ too – and as Peter Kalmus, among others, has found, the alternatives are often more satisfying and enjoyable. For me, that means I don’t fly within Europe, taking long-distance trains instead. I recognise there are strong reasons why people do fly. I don’t say that I’d never fly (outside Europe) again – but there would have to be a good justification. Rob Hopkins writes about thinking this through in one particular case here.
I’m in favour of carbon taxes that take into account the additional damage that flying does compared to other forms of transport (making flying more expensive, and investing in trains instead). The Green Party proposes a ‘frequent flyer levy‘ which would allow people one tax free return flight per year, with a levy on each subsequent flight.
Sorry to write at such length. I recently decided to talk more about how my personal decisions relate to the threat of climate breakdown, with more people, and you are a lucky recipient!
On deciding how to give to charity
A few years ago, I worked with Caroline Fiennes on her book It Ain’t What You Give, It’s The Way That You Give It. Though the book is mainly aimed at people deciding how to give rather large sums of money, the section on sponsorship is helpful when deciding whether to give donations to friends doing a charity run or cycle ride. Fiennes suggests that whatever the amount of money you have available, it’s a good idea to plan how you give to charity, so that you are sure the charities you support are ones that advance the causes most important to you, and in the most effective way. She advises setting aside a sum for spontaneous donations, when you want to rely on a friend’s personal choice of charity or just show your support for their efforts, regardless of the cause.