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Thursday, May 23, 2024

What It's Like to Give Up Air Travel to Curb Climate Change

One of the most joyful parts of being a parent is introducing your child to the rest of the world, whether it’s the beaches of Maui, the palm trees of LA, the streets of New York City, or simply taking them to your hometown so they get to know the places where you grew up.

But air travel also threatens our children’s futures. Flying accounts for 2.5 percent of global CO2 emissions and is expected to increase to 5 percent by 2050. Air travel is the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can do. That’s why some families are vowing to stay on the ground and give up flying for the sake of their children’s futures, and the futures of children all over the world.

When we start to rethink the way we travel for our future, one of the first things many of us consider is how it will affect our family, whether it’s changing vacations, disrupting traditions, or missing out on seeing family members who live abroad. These three families have given up flying and share what it’s been like for them—the good and the bad—and what their vacations are like now.

Katherine Leswing, 36, New Hampshire

Katherine Leswing was sitting in an airport in France with her five-month-old son, waiting to catch a flight home, when she first started to think about giving up flying because of climate change. “I read a news story about Greta [Thunberg] sailing across the ocean to get to New York.” Leswing, a 36-year-old mother of a toddler, says she’s always been environmentally minded but had never given the impact of her “flying habit” true consideration. “Greta taking a sailboat made me consider it in a real way for the first time,” she says. By the time Leswing landed, she knew she needed to fly less; “I was shocked to find out the degree to which flying was the vast majority of my carbon footprint.”

One of the biggest challenges was that her family had relatives in Michigan, a short plane ride away but “a haul by car.” A 14-hour haul, to be exact, with a small baby. Still, Leswing and her husband decided to drive and turn it into an adventure. “We stopped at Niagara Falls on the way back and stayed in a hotel,” she says. The trip had an unexpected effect: Katherine’s father-in-law, after a discussion with Leswing about flight emissions, decided to buy an electric truck. “He’s from the most conservative town in Michigan,” Leswing says. “He’s going to be a trailblazer.”

Leswing says one of the best decisions she made was to trade in her Southwest Airlines credit card for an Amtrak credit card. “That started a whole new line of thinking, like ‘where can I go on Amtrak?’” Living on the East Coast meant that Leswing was close to plenty of travel destinations: Boston, New York, Washington, DC. Now, Leswing regularly rides the train to nearby cities, including taking her then-2-year-old to New York City. “He ran up and down that train 20 times, so I was exhausted but he had a great time,” she says. For family road trips, they stick to nearby adventures, like a week on the coast in Maine, visiting the aquarium in Boston, or hiking in the mountains.

Still, as an avid traveler, giving up flying was a big transition; “I love to travel. I felt like, is this part of my identity gone forever?” Katherine says she doesn’t tell herself that she’ll never fly again, she just asks herself if she needs to take a particular flight or if there’s a more climate-friendly way to get the experience she’s seeking.

Valerie Milner-Brown, 69, Scotland

For Valerie Milner-Brown, giving up flying has come at a high cost. The 69-year-old grandmother, who lives in Scotland, would fly frequently back and forth to Los Angeles, where her daughter and grandchildren live. Now that her kids are grown, she had also hoped to make yearly trips to Ghana to see her family there and learn more about Ghanese culture to pass on to her grandchildren. “It hurts deeply,” Milner-Brown says. “But my conscience can’t allow me to be gadding around the globe as if all that matters is satisfying my curiosity and desire for adventure.”

Instead of traveling the globe, Milner-Brown focuses on exploring her home of Scotland and taking train trips through Europe. She likes to go to London to walk around the city and spend time in Hampstead Heath and other parks. “I am grateful to see beauty around me and architecture that is a testament to human creativity,” she says. “There is life after stopping flying.” Post-Covid, Milner-Brown hopes to explore Scotland, Devon, and Kent and is planning a group trek with friends across the UK.

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Milner-Brown’s family has mixed feelings about her choice. “Some of my daughters feel I don’t care about them as I used to and so I have made a choice which puts them second to the cause,” she says. “Ironically, it's the opposite: I love them so much and I fight for their safe future every moment of my life now.” Milner-Brown says she’s trying to convince her daughter in the US that flying to the UK uses less carbon than having the entire UK family fly to the US. Milner-Brown is also researching more carbon-friendly ways to travel, such as cargo ships. “No matter what other people do, I have to live with my conscience, which will not allow me to jump on planes.”

Tori, 11, California

The last time Tori flew on an airplane she was 9 years old and on a family trip to Ecuador. Shortly afterward, her family decided to stop flying due to concerns about climate change. Tori, now 11, has learned to adapt to a flight-free life. “I like to fly because it’s really fun, but then it’s also fun to take a vacation driving,” she says. “I can live without flying.”

For Tori’s mom, Ariella Grannett, the trick to making family vacations fun is to find ways for her kids to contribute, like making the road trip playlist or choosing the menu. “As my kids get older, they contribute more to each vacation,” she says. Now that they’re flight-free, Ariella says her family does a lot of camping and stays in cabins in remote areas, focusing more on spending time together than on visiting glamorous locations. “Vacations are a great way to relax and get a little distance from your usual routine.”

Tori’s friends don’t necessarily feel the same way. Tori says sometimes she feels jealous when her friends take flights to far-off destinations. Arielle says talking about these feelings is part of an ongoing conversation happening within their family, and that it’s important to her that her kids understand the difference between need and want. “Over and over again, we humans have to learn that happiness can't be bought.”


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