Today I had a friend from my university come by for a visit. I dub him The Researcher. The Researcher had a good talk with me about all kinds of subjects from taxation theory to climate change to good coding practice and one thing that came up was his regret that his lifestyle was so terrible in terms of CO2 output. I did a quick bit of math with some online calculators and concluded that his flight from his home to Toronto and back output as much carbon as my entire lifestyle for a year including a flight home for Christmas.
I wonder what to think about this. Certainly there is plenty of vitriol directed at people who drive huge gas guzzling SUVs around the streets of Toronto but it seems to me that those thoughts are directed at the wrong targets. The CO2 cost of flying is absolutely immense so if we are really concerned about reducing climate change rather than just bitter at people who buy expensive things we can't afford then our ire should be directed at the airlines and those that use them. I certainly advocate moving to efficient vehicles but I see far more complaint against vehicles than planes than the relative emissions would justify.
It makes me wonder what the most moral standpoint to take is. Should I simply ignore what everyone else does and concentrate on only my own lifestyle or should I spend time and effort trying to push others to change how they live? Unfortunately I think we as a society spend a lot more time taking potshots at safe targets than we do actually looking at the numbers involved. It is safe from a social standpoint to complain about big companies and governments since they aren't going to meet you at a party and be bitter about your views but complaining about things that most of the people you know do on a regular basis may well land you in some very uncomfortable social situations.
Saying "Why doesn't the government do more about climate change?" is simple and risk free. I haven't advocated increasing my tax load to accomplish these changes or suggested which programs should be cut to pay for the difference. It is similarly true that you don't see "Big Oil companies should take more safety precautions" regularly combined with "and I am in favour of price increases at my local gas station to pay for it." Saying "Anyone who flies instead of taking the train, boat, or bus is a climate criminal." is significantly more likely to cause problems, not the least of which is that so few of us never fly anywhere.
I don't begrudge The Researcher his lifestyle. I am certainly in no position to moralize, both because I do fly and because I don't feel like this is a moral issue as opposed to a practical one. The government fixing the negative externalities of flights with additional taxation is a move I would support and I am confident The Researcher would too. I do wonder though at how effective our complaints are when we focus them on those who will not inconvenience us personally when they hear of them.