Flying in the face of climate science—Part 1

NASA released data last Monday indicating that the recent streak of monthly global temperature records has continued, with July 2016 being the hottest month since the modern temperature record commenced in 1880. Each month in 2016 has now been the hottest on record—in fact each of the last fifteen months running have now seen record maximum temperatures. The first seven months of 2016 averaged 1.3oC warmer than at the start of the record in the late nineteenth century. Arctic sea ice monitoring shows it at lowest recorded coverage for five out of the first six months of the year. 2016 is almost certainly on the way to being the hottest year on record.

It is now just seven months since announcement of the historic Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation. That agreement supposedly paves the way for keeping global temperature increase during this century ‘well below’ 2oC, with hopes even of a more ambitious restriction to 1.5oC. This is viewed—rather arbitrarily—as the threshold for a relatively ‘safe’ global climate. In light of the current warming trend though, that mitigation task, regarded only last December as achievable by signatories to the Paris Agreement, seems already to have slipped from reach.

In order to achieve the Paris Agreement’s aims, the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in the earth’s atmosphere needs to remain below a level corresponding with the agreed maximum temperature increase. Estimating the concentration of GHGs that corresponds with a given level of warming is a principal focus of climate science research. The earth’s climate system is extremely complex, and the science is subject to commensurate uncertainty. Reflecting this uncertainty, the relationship between the concentration of GHGs and global temperature increase is expressed in terms of the estimated probability of exceeding a given level of warming.

So humanity faces high-consequence uncertainties on two major fronts. Firstly, uncertainty with respect to the impacts of a given level of warming. And secondly, uncertainty with respect to the concentration of greenhouse gases that will produce that level of warming.

There is, however, a further dimension to this that is far more straightforward, and about which we proceed with a far higher level of confidence. This is the quantity of greenhouse gas that is dumped into the earth’s atmosphere each year as a consequence of fossil fuel burning.

Understanding the relationship between the rate at which greenhouse gases are dumped into the atmospheric sink, and the likelihood that a given global temperature will be exceeded, is the subject of the branch of climate science known as greenhouse gas emission budget assessment, or more colloquially, ‘carbon budget assessment’. A ‘carbon budget’ is simply the quantity of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that can be emitted with some probability of global temperature remaining below some increase relative to the pre-industrial temperature. This area of research rose to prominence with the 2009 publication in Nature of an article by Malte Meinshausen and colleagues titled ‘Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2oC’.[1] The findings reported in that article have since been adopted as the basis for national emission budget planning. For instance, the Australian Government Climate Change Authority recommends that Australia adopt a long term national budget based on a global budget of approximately 1700 billion tonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2-e) greenhouse gas emissions between 2000 and 2050, corresponding with a notional 67 percent chance of remaining below a 2oC global temperature increase.[2]

I say ‘notional’ here, because this basis is taken directly from Meinshausen and colleagues, but in that article the figure of 33 percent probability of exceedance (corresponding with 67 percent probability of non-exceedance) is simply the mid-range reference figure for an estimated probability ranging from 15 to 51 percent. In other words, 1700 Gt emitted between 2000 and 2050 corresponds with a chance of remaining below 2oC that may be as high as 85 percent, but may also be as low as 49 percent—less than an even chance.

Of the total GHGs that can be emitted between 2000 and 2049 for a given probability of exceeding 2oC, Meinshausen and colleagues estimate that approximately one-third will comprise gases other than carbon dioxide. In the case of the 15 – 51 percent range of exceedance, total GHGs are 1678 Gt CO2-e, including 1158 Gt CO2 from burning of fossil fuels, industrial processes (especially cement production) and land use (including forest clearing). The Australian Government Climate Change Authority reports that 35 percent of this budget has already been spent between 2000 and 2012. Assuming the same average emission rate, this corresponds with 47 percent of the budget by 2016.  Subtracting the emissions from 2000 to 2016 leaves a remaining budget of just 890 Gt CO2-e total GHGs, including 614 Gt CO2.

In 2010, carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion and industrial processes accounted for 65 percent of the total from human activity. But around 95 percent of this fraction—so more than 60 percent of total GHG emissions—is from fossil fuel energy use.[3]

The stocks of fossilised biomass that account for over 80 percent of global primary energy supply accumulated over roughly half a billion years. We are burning through them in a few hundred. That’s around a million-fold difference between the rate at which carbon is currently being transferred to the atmosphere from benign stores in the earth’s crust, and the rate at which that carbon will subsequently be drawn down again and stored away safely in forms that, barring the arrival of another industrial civilisation in the deep future, could reasonably be considered ‘permanent’.

Before it is locked away again, this carbon dioxide will remain in circulation between the atmosphere, oceans and land-based biomass (plants and animals, including soil) for millennia. If we stopped burning fossil fuels today, the atmospheric stock of carbon would initially be drawn down relatively rapidly. But limits to the net rate at which carbon is transferred from the atmosphere to the oceans and biosphere would still result in a mean atmospheric residence time of thousands of years for a significant portion of the industrial era emissions. So there is still an order of magnitude or more difference between the rate at which carbon has accumulated in the atmosphere through human activity, and the natural reduction rate for its climate impacts. It is this basic and stark situation that underpins the climate crisis in which we are enmeshed.

The only certain way to curb the climate impacts of fossil fuel use is to limit the transfer of carbon from the fossil sinks in the earth’s crust to the atmosphere.

The tortured logic of ‘offset and forget’

This is likely to be sufficiently familiar for Beyond this Brief Anomaly readers that you may be wondering why I’ve felt the need to spell it out at all. And this brings us to a matter that I’ve found increasingly troubling in recent years—but that in the past two months has become impossible to ignore any longer. I’m talking about the gap between what people well informed on the seriousness of the climate situation think needs to be done about it, and what people know they need (or are prepared) to do personally.

The immediate dissonance relating to this that I’ve been sitting with for the last couple of months was sparked by two friends asking me within the space of a week for advice on the same matter. It’s a question I’ve been approached on plenty of times in the past. But it was only when it came up twice in quick succession that I realised I hadn’t heard it for quite a while now. The question was about how I offset my own carbon dioxide emissions.

In both cases, this was motivated by a desire to find the most legitimate and effective way of doing this. My friends were both concerned about the impact of emissions related to their own air travel, and wanted to do what they felt was within their power to address this. These are people who are better informed about climate change than most Australians, and who care sufficiently about their personal impacts to take voluntary actions to mitigate them.

I don’t know for sure why this was on the minds of these particular friends in June, beyond the immediate practical reason of pending trips for leisure and work respectively. A search of google trends for ‘carbon offset’ indicates that interest in the topic rose rapidly during 2006 and 2007 (the Al Gore ‘Inconvenient Truth’ effect), plateaued until about the end of 2008 when people started losing interest, and has been in decline ever since. It’s now back where it was at the start of 2006. So the recent alarming increase in the warming trend and some increase in public enthusiasm for action in the wake of the Paris Agreement doesn’t seem to have stimulated any significant renaissance for the idea.

I’d hazard a guess that, for those who know and care enough to think about it at all, offsetting air travel emissions has now simply been assimilated as a cultural norm that doesn’t present much need for further reflection—other than to perhaps benchmark provider credentials from time to time, in a similar way to the kind of due diligence that one might occasionally carry out for insurance, banking, superannuation or other rich-world lifestyle support services. Greenhouse gas emissions, especially from air travel, are an uncomfortably unavoidable consequence of maintaining modern identities and ways of life. Thankfully though, we have offset providers who, for a fee, will help prise us from the horns of this dilemma.

The concept of emission offsetting rests on the belief that the climate impact of actual past emissions can, with an appropriately high degree of confidence, be cancelled out by some compensatory action in the future. Offset providers promise to carry out such actions for a fee proportional to the quantity of past emissions to which the compensatory activity applies. Typically, this is either by planting trees, or investing in projects such as renewable energy development or energy efficiency improvement that would not otherwise be undertaken, often in developing countries.

Importantly, offset providers are also required to guarantee that the promised neutralising effect will remain in force for an appropriate period into the future. So for example, trees planted today must be managed over their lifetime so that they do in fact remove the anticipated amount of carbon from the atmosphere, and keep it from returning there for a sufficiently long period. In Australia, this is governed by the National Carbon Offset Standard, and the relevant period for which carbon must be stored is 100 years. I’d encourage readers to have a quick look over the wording of that brief document (specifically section 5), and make their own assessment of how confident they feel that meeting its provisions would actually equate with cancelling out past emissions for no less than a century.

I’ve certainly availed myself of such services. For a number of years, they proved quite convenient for maintaining peace of mind, as I started to confront the hard realities presented by anthropogenic climate change. I did my research on the relative merits of various providers, and even felt quite convinced that the options I chose were genuinely superior to others available. Try as I might though, I could not reconcile the underlying idea—that the climate impact of actual past emissions could with sufficient confidence be neutralised by some compensatory action in the future—with my own understanding of basic climate science, and with a systems view of how human societies function.

Carbon oracles exposed: from risk to uncertainty

These initially vague misgivings were given much greater substance when in 2007 my friend Frank Fisher gave me a copy of a book by Larry Lohmann titled Carbon Trading: A Critical Conversation on Climate Change, Privatisation and Power.[4] Lohmann documents in detail the numerous contradictions and perversities that arose in theory, and that even a decade ago had been observed playing out in practice, when the global South’s development aspirations were reframed by elite interest groups in both the global North and South as a way to create the impression of serious action on climate change, while actually doing nothing to address the underlying drivers.

An insight from the book that particularly caught my attention was presented in a breakout box titled ‘Carbon offsets and the ghost of Frank Knight’. Here Lohmann drew out the distinctions between risk, uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy, and showed how an understanding of the differences amongst these concepts leaves the assumptions behind carbon offsetting on very shaky ground (see pages 160-161). Frank Knight was a University of Chicago economist who in 1921 introduced the distinction between risk and uncertainty.[5] In Knight’s schema, risk relates to situations where the probability of an event occurring is known, on the basis of historical experience. Uncertainty, on the other hand, relates to situations where the possibility of an event is anticipated, but there is no historical experience available on which the probability of occurrence can be estimated.

Ignorance relates to situations where even the possibly harmful events are not known. And in the case of indeterminacy, an outcome cannot be known in advance because it is subject to decisions, not to chance. The concept of risk is the basis for conventional insurance practices. If the probability that an offset activity will not have its intended lifetime effect is known, then it would be possible to insure against this. For example, additional trees could be planted to compensate for anticipated losses or for calculation error. But by their inherent nature, and taking into account the very long time frame involved, offsetting activities are conducted under conditions where outcomes are subject to uncertainty, ignorance and indeterminacy rather than risk. This is typical for environmental situations, and calls for different forms of governance all together.

In light of this, the rhetoric around offsetting sat increasingly uncomfortably with me. But it wasn’t until I encountered the views of climate scientist Kevin Anderson in 2012 that the knock-out blow was landed to clear away any remaining vestiges of ambivalence on my part. In addition to the impossibility of guaranteeing that offsets will have their intended lifetime effect, Anderson points out that they will almost certainly have the effect of increasing emissions. This includes the indisputable fact that the availability of offsets and their legitimation via standards and third-party certification creates a structural disincentive for actually reducing the polluting activity in the first place. Continuing to engage in the activity sends market signals that further entrench it, ensuring further pollution in future. Explaining why he refuses to buy offsets, he states bluntly that ‘Offsetting is worse than doing nothing. It is without scientific legitimacy, is dangerously misleading and leads to a net increase in emissions.’[6] (See also the accompanying interview published in Nature Climate Change).[7]

The subtle psychodynamics of aviation-era identity

In light of all this, the short version of the response to my friends’ questions is simply this: I no longer purchase carbon offsets.

To be very clear, I am not saying that the activities carried out by carbon offset providers are without merit. The specific activities—whether tree planting, renewable energy supply projects in developing countries, or something else—may very well be worth supporting in their own right. But, in the interests of actually dealing with the enormous climate change mitigation dilemma facing humanity, I am not prepared to invest in them as a purported mechanism for ‘neutralising’ or ‘cancelling out’ greenhouse gas emissions for which I’m responsible.

Even if the claimed emission reductions or carbon draw-down could be guaranteed for 100 years—and they categorically cannot—the idea that financing for environmental remediation and economic development initiatives should be bound up with high-emitting activities in the rich world is an absurdity. This is nothing more than a convenient (and here we need to ask: for whom?) device that diverts attention from the underlying drivers of climate change, while soothing the consciences of many decent people who are relieved from confronting the full implications of their lifestyles. From where I sit, it seems that the concept of emission offsetting is at best a naïve illusion, and at worst an outright hoax.

The long version of my response was a little more involved. It included the suggestion that my friends look into supporting regenerative farming initiatives that take comprehensive approaches to restoring both environmental health and socio-economic systems—but without the rather cynical mechanism provided by offset schemes for working out what level of support to provide, and without the illusion that the impact of their air travel would actually be reduced in some way.

I did soften the message a bit. They’re my friends and I value their friendship. They were going to take those trips anyway. Both already make choices to reduce air travel, compared with peers who are less aware of or concerned about the climate impacts of their own actions. So they know something’s out of kilter with the ‘offset and forget’ notion. I wasn’t going to rub their noses in it.

But this has also fed the increasing dissonance I’ve been sensing since the matter came up in June. Because the only—the only—way to deal with the climate impacts of air travel is not to fly. And yet as the urgency and seriousness of the climate situation has increased, it seems to be getting harder rather than easier to collectively confront this.

I think I know a little of why that is. I could have written about this a long time ago. I suspect that, subconsciously, I avoided it in order to leave some wriggle room in case my stance became too personally inconvenient—socially, professionally, or in terms of the emotional consequences for family life. The time for that timidity is now well and truly gone though. I just hope that there might still be some benefit left in now speaking out about it.

Climate change’s double bind

At this point I may still need to set out the case for why this matters at all. The remainder of this post starts to unpack that question, in preparation for laying out a more quantitative case in Part 2.

To kick things off, another factor in that dissonance needs discussion. Thinking about those trigger questions on offsetting forced a confrontation with what I came to see as residual doubts about my own resolution on the issue. I don’t have to talk about this much, thanks to the unspoken collective agreement not to do so in the circles I move. As a result, my own position has remained a private matter in many social and professional settings—despite also being a matter of record in others (and despite also being the source of a story that I believe was told for ‘teaching purposes’ over a number of years in the Swinburne University strategic foresight master’s program—a fact which goes a long way in demonstrating just how pervasive and deeply embedded rich-world cultural norms relating to air travel have become in the less than half a century that it has actually been available to that small fraction of the earth’s citizens who can afford it).

I interact on a daily basis, in work-related, community and social settings, with people who identify—some, very deeply—with matters of ‘environmental sustainability’ and even ‘civilisational futures’. While I know that some face internal struggles with the impacts of their lifestyles (and that where this is so, flying is often front of mind), all bar a tiny handful clock up thousands of kilometres every year, year after year. And this is not just an individual issue. It isn’t uncommon in my experience for organisations working on environmental and social justice issues to have no coherent or considered approach to grappling with the climate impacts of air travel.

It is in the face of the disconfirming evidence of the choices made by friends, colleagues and acquaintances—people I trust and whose views I respect—that I sometimes find it difficult to maintain confidence in my own sense-making, and indeed in my own ethical judgement. For the past two months, these have been under seemingly constant, self-critical scrutiny. How could my own embodied sense of right action be so at odds with so many people who I know to be thoughtful, intelligent and kind? And yet that inquiry keeps leading, regardless of the route I take, back to the place from which I now write.

This situation could be viewed as a genuine double bind, in the original sense described by Gregory Bateson.[8] There is a primary injunction: reduce emissions or the climate system will change to such an extent that current human societies are unviable. There is a secondary injunction conflicting with the first at a more abstract level: air travel, a particularly emission intensive activity, is an essential aspect of the identity of current human societies; successful membership of these societies involves air travel and hence entails high levels of emissions. And finally, a tertiary injunction prohibiting escape from the conflict between the primary and secondary injunctions: you must not draw attention to the conflict (at risk of being ostracised by those who avoid it either by denying or discounting the seriousness of climate change, or who dissolve the conflict through faith in offsetting).

For Bateson, the double bind was a germinal theory of schizophrenia development in individuals. (Would it be going too far to wonder if the collective double bind outlined above might hold potential for an equivalent social pathology?) Individually, there is in fact a technically straightforward escape route: just disregard the third injunction. But this requires sufficient resolve to live with the consequences—as a more desirable alternative to the distress inflicted by the primary conflict. So there’s a trade-off between suffering the psychic distress, and bearing the individual costs of exiting the conflict. In writing this, I’m making clear where the balance point lies for me personally.

The context laboratory: experiments in coherent living

It was in 2007 that I first made an explicit decision not to fly on climate-related grounds. This was for a wedding, in Bali, and became the basis for that ‘teaching story’ used in the strategic foresight program. There were two threads to that decision. The first aspect was simply awareness of the physical implications of such travel, a result of basic climate science literacy. I fully appreciate that back then the cohort of people in my circumstances (privileged rich world citizen) who would have made such a decision on those grounds was vanishingly small. This was a socially extreme position, though entirely consistent with the science as it then stood. But I do appreciate how unusual it is that the empirical dimension of this would be given such weight in what is ultimately an ethical question.

The second aspect related to my responsibility as an educator. At the time, I taught two units in a post graduate course in sustainability, one a core unit on general sustainability principles and the other an elective on energy futures. Both units explored sustainability issues in relation to their social and cultural contexts, and encouraged students to recognise the institutional and conceptual structures, and cultural habits, that give rise to the many challenges faced by societies in the globally integrated industrial world. But we also went further than this: we asked students to start reflecting on their own roles (and ours, including as educators) in enacting these structures and habits in the course of day-to-day life. The broader aim of this was to develop with students a sense of responsibility for such structures, and hence to engage with care in their maintenance and transformation. This is a shift from responsibility as it is typically viewed, to a way of living that Frank Fisher described as response ability.[9]

Authenticity is central here. In simple terms: walking one’s talk. While I know most of the students would have happily excused me traveling to Bali for the wedding, my own responsibility to them went beyond this. For the students to take what we were asking of them seriously, they needed to know that we were serious about it ourselves—that we approached life in the way we were encouraging them to do. They needed to see that this approach can be lived practically, and offers viable pathways through the sustainability dilemmas facing humanity. And moreover, that it leads to change that is sustainable in its experience and effect.

That call in 2007 wasn’t part of a blanket decision not to fly at all. But prior to the question arising, I knew things were at a point where, if I took climate change seriously, and wanted others to take my concern seriously, difficult choices would soon present themselves. I’d already resolved as a rule of thumb to avoid international flights by default, and to decide on domestic flights case-by-case. It just happened that as the first actual test of that commitment, Bali is about as close to Australia as you can get while still being beyond its borders. Many wouldn’t even regard it as an ‘international’ flight. Australia is a big place, and it’s easy enough to fly tens of thousands of kilometres in a year without leaving its shores. So there was a degree of arbitrariness here.

I’ve since flown on nine occasions, all round trips from Melbourne to Australian destinations and mostly work-related or for conferences. These range in distance from Canberra (a round trip of just over 1,000 kilometres) to Perth (just under 5,500 kilometres). Each has entailed some level of misgiving. The emission budget discourse, which rose to prominence over this period, only makes my appreciation for the climate consequences more acute. It was only when I sat down to write this that I realised I haven’t flown at all for going on four years now.

The sky hasn’t fallen in. I live as worthwhile a life as I ever did in the air travel era. True enough, it’s a kind of parallel universe to that of almost everyone around me. It involves looking in different directions for rewarding experience. And requires recalibration of what ‘life satisfaction’ might look like (to whatever extent this is to be found in the realm of worldly pursuits anyway). But there are infinite apertures for living well that simply remain invisible from cruising altitude. And 1000 kilometres per hour compresses space to such a degree that a more human-paced world grows vast in comparison.

That’s a story for another time though. In Part 2 of this series, I’ll continue setting out the case for why a focus on air travel matters if we’re serious about dealing with climate change, by taking a different view of the numbers to that implied by global averages.


[1] Meinshausen, Malte, Nicolai Meinshausen, William Hare, Sarah C. B. Raper, Katja Frieler, Reto Knutti, David J. Frame, and Myles R. Allen. 2009. “Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2oC.” Nature no. 458 (7242):1158-1162. doi:

[2] Climate Change Authority. 2014. “Reducing Australia’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions—Targets and Progress Review: Final Report.” Commonwealth of Australia Climate Change Authority. Viewed 17 August 2016 at

[3] Raupach, Michael R., Gregg Marland, Philippe Ciais, Corinne Le Quéré, Josep G. Canadell, Gernot Klepper, and Christopher B. Field. 2007. “Global and regional drivers of accelerating CO2 emissions.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0700609104.

[4] Lohmann, Larry. 2006. Carbon trading: a critical conversation on climate change, privatisation and power. Edited by Niclas Hällström, Olle Nordberg and Robert Österbergh. Development Dialogue, No. 48. Uppsala: The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in cooperation with The Corner House.

[5] Knight, Frank H. 1921. Risk, Uncertainty and Profit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[6] Anderson, Kevin. 2012. “The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets.” Nature no. 484 (7392):7.

[7] Hudson, Marc. 2012. “Offsetting under pressure.” Interview with Kevin Anderson. Nature Clim. Change no. 2 (5):307-307.

[8] Bateson, Gregory. 1972. Steps to an ecology of mind. San Francisco: Chandler.

[9] Fisher, Frank. 2006. Response ability: Environment, health and everyday transcendence. Melbourne: Vista Publications.

5 thoughts on “Flying in the face of climate science—Part 1

  1. Pingback: Flying in the face of climate science—Part 2: Air travel emissions in perspective | Beyond this Brief Anomaly

  2. Great stuff, about time the salary-class greenies got called on their rampant hypocrisy. Maybe hearing it from one of their own will help the message get thru.

  3. I also explored this topic in a blog post, as a result of my involvement in the Grad Cert in Sustainability. You might like to read it,
    It’s relevant to what you say here in that I was influenced by the stand our lecturer had taken about his decision not to fly. I appreciate the research you have put into the question of carbon offsets, it is this kind of ‘guilt assuagement’ that we need to question.

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