Good people must suffer
I take more flights than I should. I try to be a good person in other ways, but I definitely take way too many flights. So far in 2022, I’ve been to Barcelona, Tenerife (which I don’t recommend), and Vienna. Later this month I’m going to Turkey, and it wouldn’t surprise me if I went on another holiday later in the year. I also expect to do quite a bit of travelling next year - I could tell you that I really intend to cut down, and I definitely want to take fewer flights than I did this year, but I still know I’ll take at least two. So clearly, I’m pretty selfish when it comes to how much I travel.
When I tell people about my travels, they’re less judgmental than you might expect. Nobody’s been obviously annoyed about the fact I’ve flown so much this year, although I wouldn’t be surprised if a few people have been polite in person but actually been making a mental note that I’m selfish and a hypocrite, which would be perfectly reasonable.
While people aren’t judgmental at all when I mention the travel alone, I have noticed that people do take a bit of an issue with the fact that I donate to Clean Air Task Force (CATF), in the hope that I undo some of the damage that my flying causes. CATF, which is a non-profit that advocates for both regulations for fossil fuel emitting infrastructure and innovation in low-carbon technology, seems to me as though it’s much better than traditional off-setting. Founders pledge estimates that CATF’s work will avert one ton of CO2 equivalent per $0.29 spent (with a confidence interval of $0.03 to $5.50). A flight from London to NYC emits about 0.59 tons of CO2 equivalent, so you can more than offset a flight with a £15 donation, which is how much I usually donate for each flight I take.
What objections do people have? Generally, the objection takes one of a few forms:
The estimates are probably inaccurate
The offset is only in expectation, your money won’t definitely make a difference
If everyone did this, the donations would be much less cost-effective
I’m sceptical of these objections: most people who claim that the estimates are inaccurate aren’t making that claim because of any special knowledge about CATF, it’s just that they think that the impact of this sort of non-profit is in some way too difficult to measure. They might also be familiar with other forms of off-setting (like paying people to plant trees), and know that these have lots of problems (like the fact that sometimes you pay people for trees they would’ve been planting anyway). But having taken a glance at Founders Pledge’s work, I don’t see any reason to be especially sceptical about their numbers.
The expectation thing just doesn’t seem like a problem to me - the flight only causes harm in expectation too! It’s not as though if I didn’t book the flight, it wouldn’t have happened. My weight might make a small difference to how bad the flight is, but at 160lbs I’m not so heavy that the person who would have otherwise taken my seat would definitely be lighter than me. The real reason that flying is bad is, I assume, the same as the reason that Will MacAskill gives for why consuming animal products is bad:
Most of the time you don't make a difference. That's true. But occasionally you make a large difference, which makes up for it. Maybe the supermarket makes decisions on how many chickens it's going to buy in 1,000 chicken breast chunks or something. So if it sold above a certain number, then it would increase stock, and if it sold below a certain number, it would decrease stock. Most of the time, you won't make a difference, but if you take it over the threshold, then it won't decide to buy 1,000 more chickens. So maybe 1 in 1,000 times you'll make a difference to 1,000 chickens.
The final objection (that if everyone did this, donations would be much less effective) also seems like an odd reason to think donations aren’t particularly helpful. It’s true that if everyone did this, I would probably need to donate more to off-set my flights. But everyone isn’t doing this! If everyone was donating to the most cost-effective climate charities, I would have to donate more to off-set the flight, and I would. Although maybe I wouldn’t, because climate change might basically be solved. There’s probably a long discussion I could have about this with a Kantian who hates CATF, but I don’t know anyone who fits that description.
People also make the more reasonable suggestion that I could both donate and not fly, which is true and probably what I ought to be doing, although I still think that assuming that I donate £X per month to CATF, it’s still preferable to fly and donate a bit extra than to not fly and not donate extra. There are other reasonable criticisms (although nobody has ever actually made them to me) about the fact that if I’m going to donate money, it might as well be to something even more cost-effective than CATF that has nothing to do with climate change. If I’m donating £X to CATF and think that it will do less good than donating £X to AMF or LTFF, why not just donate to AMF or LTFF? I also make some semi-arguments against offsetting in a piece I wrote here.
I think, though, that these arguments aren’t the real reason that people dislike the idea of donating to try and undo the damage of a flight. I suspect that the real reason is that people think that doing good doesn’t really count unless you make a meaningful sacrifice. Tom Chivers has made a similar point in the past, noting that lots of people seem to object to vegan meat, in his review of a book by Jenny Kleeman:
Kleeman was talking about vegan meat — cultured steaks and burgers developed in a laboratory. She had met various scientists and entrepreneurs who were trying to make it happen (including some, it should be admitted, who come across as spivs and carnival barkers). And then she said: ‘Vegan meat depends on a pessimistic view of human beings: the belief that we are incapable of changing the way we eat.’ Instead, we should, as humanity, lose our taste for meat altogether.
That was when I realised why the whole book felt bizarre. To me, lab-grown meat represents an optimistic view: that we can still have things we like (meat) at hugely reduced costs (of animal suffering and environmental damage) seems to me a positive. But Kleeman thinks giving people what they want is harmful. Instead, she says, we should try to change our attitudes so that we don’t want those things.
Maybe this isn’t the exact same point, but I do think that the claim that we shouldn’t eat anything that tastes like meat at all (even if it’s completely vegan) comes from the same position that doing good is worthless (or worth less) without huge sacrifices. I get the sense that this is why people are frustrated when I mention the donations, but not when I only mention the fact that I flew a lot. Then again, I do have an enormous incentive to justify my flying, so maybe I’m wrong and they’re right, let me know what you think in the comments. I might do a part 2 to this post.