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Flight Plight: Why I Chose to Fly to an Environmental Journalism Conference

Insights + Opinion
Maarten Visser / CC BY-SA 2.0

By John R. Platt

It's a cold Wednesday morning, and I'm standing in the dark outside a hotel waiting for my rideshare vehicle to arrive.

My phone chirps to let me know that an unusual car is about to pull up: a Tesla. The driver greets me, and I eagerly climb in the back seat — after I figure out how to open the door (the recessed, aerodynamic handles are just as novel to me as the rest of the car).

It's my first time riding in one of these all-electric luxury vehicles, and it's the first low-emissions leg of this week's travel for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. As we silently pull away from the curb, I feel energized by the opportunity.

The day before had worn me out. Getting to Fort Collins from Portland, Oregon, isn't hard, but it's not exactly easy, either. First there was a cab from home to the airport (my wife had our only car that morning), followed by the flight itself. After that came a bus ride from Denver to Fort Collins that only got me to the outskirts of town. From there I hopped onto a smaller shuttle to my hotel.

The trip took most of the day. By the time I finally arrived at my hotel in early evening, I was tired, hungry, and feeling kind of anxious about all the greenhouse gas emissions produced during each leg of my trip.

I've been avoiding journeys like this because — like a lot of my friends and colleagues — I worry about their impact. Planes generate at least 2.5 percent of global emissions, according to Project Drawdown, and while there are much bigger contributors to climate change, air travel still represents a significant amount of risk to the planet, one that grows every year as the number of people flying increases.

I take that seriously. As an environmental journalist who writes about these issues all the time, I try to lead as low-impact a lifestyle as possible. I don't commute, we rarely eat out, we don't have kids, and we live fairly minimally. I even made the tough decision earlier this year to skip a vacation to see mountain gorillas in Africa because I couldn't justify the carbon emissions.

So given those concerns, why was I in Fort Collins?

The mountain gorilla vacation would have been an indulgence, something to do mostly because I could and not because I had to. The trip to Colorado, on the other hand, was work — and a chance to make a difference.

My research into flying also suggested that we probably don't need to worry too much about the occasional trip for business or family. Yes, science continues to reveal more about the harmful environmental impacts of air travel, and in fact we now know that airline emissions are worse than we realized, but the bulk of airline carbon emissions come from frequent fliers — about 12 percent of American airline passengers. Like the other 88 percent of us, I've never counted myself among that crowd. Travel to one conference isn't going to break my climate bank.

More broadly, I always try to keep in mind that that the vast majority of emissions come from just a handful of corporations, not individual people. Recent research estimates that 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for one-third of all modern greenhouse gas emissions, and many of them — such as the currently on trial Exxon Mobil — have spent decades obfuscating their role in climate change and the danger it poses to the planet. I still take a great deal of personal responsibility for my actions and choices, but I also know who's generating the bulk of the problem.

That doesn't let the rest of us off the hook, but it certainly crystalizes the need to take broader societal action.

But here's the most important reason I flew to Fort Collins: The annual SEJ conference has always provided a great opportunity for me to be a better journalist. I typically attend every other year, and when I'm there I take full advantage of the panel discussions, plenaries, tours and other events to learn the latest information about environmental threats and the nuances involved in reporting about them correctly.

The conference has always led me to great stories. Those often start with the chance to see places, animals and people in person, feel the ground under my feet, hear the tone of voices and vocalizations, and observe body language. Good reporting means getting away from your desk and computer and seeing what's happening in the rest of the world.

You can't do any of that by email or phone.

(This year's most notable story in the making: I got to see a pair of critically endangered black-footed ferrets, which are even rarer than mountain gorillas. Stay tuned for more about them.)

Attending SEJ also allows me to meet fellow editors, staff and freelance journalists, expert sources and public information officers — relationships that pay off for years down the line. I still talk with and interview people I met at my first SEJ conference a decade ago.

The conferences give me a chance to share my expertise with other journalists, especially when it comes to endangered species and extinction.

Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, this year also gave me the opportunity to talk to several people who had nothing to do with the conference — employees at the hotel, another rideshare driver and a group of students — who had deep, existential questions about environmental issues. Those questions had, in some cases, immobilized them. We had long conversations about their fears, and I feel we all came out of those talks feeling a bit better about the future.

So was the flight worth it? I'd say yes. When it all boils down, going to the conference this year gave me better tools to write about climate change, pollution, environmental justice and wildlife, and that outweighs the costs of my travel.

Of course, my flight plight was fairly specific. Not everyone has the freedom to pick and choose when they fly, and not everyone's job or family travels serve such a precise need or provide the same opportunities. I'm the rarity: It's literally my job to minimize my impact most of the time, while also occasionally going outside of my comfort zone to explore these tough questions and decisions — and to communicate their results to you.

I did investigate a few other ways to reduce my impact at this conference, including skipping the airplane. It's technically possible to drive or take a train from Portland to Denver — each trip would have taken about 20 hours, which would have extended my journey (and cut into my writing time) by several days. I could have even stayed home and livestreamed the few parts of the event that SEJ broadcasted live on Facebook. But then I couldn't have asked a tough question of acting BLM director William Perry Pendley, spent a night talking about climate reporting with a small group of journalists and scientists, or seen those black-footed ferrets and a dancing bison.

I also looked into carbon offsets, which supposedly counter out emissions from carbon-intensive activities like flying. Unfortunately, it now appears that many carbon offsets aren't all they're cracked up to be and don't do much that actually benefits the planet. That's a sad truth, and I hope the situation will improve, but for now offsets don't seem to be as effective or worthwhile as promised.

Even though that option seemed to be off the table, I tried a few of my own steps to "offset" my environmental impact on this particular journey. After I got home I made three equal donations — roughly the cost of my airline ticket — that I thought would pay off for the planet in the long run. The first went to SEJ itself, to support its efforts to further environmental journalism. The second when to biologist Stuart Pimm's nonprofit Saving Nature (formerly known as Saving Species), which I know from my reporting purchases land and restores critical habitat in Brazil and other countries. The third actually went to The Revelator's parent company, the Center for Biological Diversity, which puts its money where its mouth is to create this journalistic effort.

That's my way of investing in the future.

So those are the choices I explored and the decisions I made, all of which revealed something else to me: I'm just as capable of worrying myself into inertia as those students and hotel workers I met in Fort Collins. That anxiety has to stop. It serves no one except the corporations causing our problems in the first place. If we're terrified, exhausted and immobilized — if we think we can't make a difference — then we can't take any steps to learn more, hold the actual causes of our problems accountable, or demand progress and solutions from corporations and government.

And that, my friends, is the ultimate reason why I chose to fly this time. Now that my anxiety has passed, this trip is already paying off. I left Fort Collins feeling stronger than I did on my arrival, and that will give me the ability to keep fighting for our readers and for the planet for at least another 12 months. It might not have been the right decision for everyone, and it may not be the right decision for me a year from now, but it's the one that ultimately filled me with hope and direction. Those are things we all need.

Plus I got to see black-footed ferrets and ride in a Tesla.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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