I’m so fly, I’m #NoFly!

#NoFly: Walking the talk on climate change, by Shaun Hendy. BWB Texts, 2019. Reviewed by Robert McLachlan

In June 2018, Swede Maja Rosén founded We stay on the ground with a pledge not to fly in 2019, and a goal of persuading 100,000 other Swedes to join her. In August, her compatriot Greta Thunberg began her school strike for climate. 

Today, the No Fly movement has spread around the world, with the Flight Free 2020 campaign reaching eight countries, and Greta is a household name, with the September strikes drawing 4 million people globally. What a difference a year makes!

The New Zealand scientist Shaun Hendy made his own flight-free year in 2018, attracting widespread publicity in the media, partly thanks to Stuff‘s “Quick! Save the Planet” series. In #NoFly he describes why he made the pledge, how it worked out, and how he sees New Zealand’s low-carbon future playing out.

Shaun credits University of Auckland psychology professor Quentin Atkinson for giving him the push he needed. The theory of “costly signalling” says that people can better send honest signals about themselves if their message is accompanied by taking some action that requires effort. (Philanthropy, risk-taking, and conspicuous consumption are the classic examples.) Indeed, psychological studies have found, not surprisingly, that people strongly dislike hypocrisy and regard hypocrites as untrustworthy (whereas lying, strangely enough, is all right). 

This is a very short book with just four short, tightly-organized chapters. Chapter 1 describes Shaun’s actual experience of travelling around New Zealand by train, bus, and electric car. He succeeded, and enjoyed a lot of the trips, but, needless to say, he finds that we need a huge improvement in our intercity public transport. Chapter 2 is a whirlwind tour of the discovery of climate change, from the birth of the industrial revolution, to the early speculations about the greenhouse effect by Joseph Fourier in the 1820s, to Svante Arrhenius’s landmark 1896 paper “On the influence of carbonic acid [CO2] in the air upon the temperature of the ground” establishing the basic principles of global warming by the burning of fossil fuels, to its widespread understanding by scientists by the 1980s. (Incidentally, Arrhenius’s second cousin’s great-great-great-granddaughter is Greta Thunberg, and her father, Svante Thunberg, is named after him. How good is that?!) After that, the story turns murky, as emissions have skyrocketed in the past thirty years and we are now faced with the prospect of catastrophic climate change.

There are some New Zealand connections, too, and here I can’t resist including the now-famous report in the Rodney and Otamatea Times of 14 August 1912:

Understanding how this could have happened is the subject of Chapter 3, focussing on scientists’ efforts to communicate the dangers and how this message  was received. Hendy bases his interpretation on Jess Berentson-Shaw’s A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World (BWB Texts, 2018), where it is argued that scientists need to base their messages on values that are shared with their audience. They should be aware of their own values and how they affect the questions that they choose to study and how the results are communicated. For example, Mason Durie’s 2018 Manawatū Lecture contrasted ‘knowledge transfer’ (such as teaching postgraduate students) as a scientific value with ‘community understanding’ as a mātauranga Māori value.

Many, many factors have brought us to where we are now and still prevent decisive action. They include the power of the fossil fuel companies and their disinformation campaigns, the investors who fund the expansion of fossil fuels and the machines than burn them, our inherent short-term bias – particularly evident in some democracies –, the apparent advantages of freeloading, and the rise of neoliberal economic management, all of which are symptoms of an underlying global tragedy of the commons. On top of this, politics and social media have taken such a bizarre turn in recent years that academics and thinkers of all stripes are scrambling to make sense of the developments and to suggest solutions. 

Apart from the psychology of communication and belief formation, behavioural psychology and sociology could well be places to look for answers too. People live in suburbs, drive cars everywhere, and holiday on the Gold Coast because everyone around them is doing it, and because those were the obvious choices. A lot of climate work focuses on the top level (government and international policy) and the bottom level (individual action). The middle levels, communities, organizations, and their networks, are surely important too. Climate change will only be solved by collective action. It is important to understand how collective action – a complex interplay between government leadership, public support, and civic organizations – is achieved.

Chapter 4 closes with a vision of a low-carbon future for New Zealand, involving denser cities, less travel, and improved (and low-carbon) vehicles and public transport. Unfortunately, tiny steps in this direction are not going to get us there in time.

Emissions are rising rapidly. Hendy’s numbers for aviation are a bit out of date: while domestic aviation emissions are flat (due to more efficient aeroplanes), international emissions are sharply up.

Annual gross New Zealand emissions. Aviation figures include the effects of radiative forcing at 1.9 times the CO2 emissions. International aviation includes outgoing flights only. Source: MfE

Globally, it’s the same story, with air travel up 77% in eight years, now standing at 1000 km per person per year:

Source: International Civil Aviation Organization

Hendy rightly places a lot of emphasis on how New Zealand families are now widely dispersed around the world, and the value of (some) work travel. However, for both residents and visitors,  friends and family are the reason for 28% of trips; work, education, and conferences are 15%. Holidays make up 57% of all trips. The same is true globally where work trips are a tiny portion of all flying. Unprecedented levels of migration are creating more dispersed families. And all projections are for continued rapid increases.

Land transport emissions are also rising sharply as the country is flooded with cars – we now have the highest vehicle ownership rate in the OECD. Despite all the media coverage of electric vehicles, the fact is that the petrol and diesel fleet is increasing by around 140,000 vehicles per year. It’s going to take some time, some strong measures, and some major shifts in public opinion to turn this around.

On aviation, it’s true that there are no easy solutions. We have to start with baby steps, and to my mind the most urgent of these is to bring international aviation into the Emissions Trading Scheme. Domestic flights pay a carbon charge, international ones do not. At present prices, an Auckland–Brisbane return flight (1 tonne CO2e) would cost an extra $25. Not much, and not much of a deterrent, but the point is it would bring these emissions under the falling cap on emissions that the Zero Carbon Bill will bring in. 

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