Posted by: ericgrimsrud | November 27, 2016

Air traffic out of control even in Lake Wobegon

There is perhaps no better way to reveal the hypocrisy among people who consider themselves to be “friends of the Earth” than to bring up the subject of air travel. For that reason, I suspect many readers of this post will quickly tune out – they don’t want to hear or think about it. Nevertheless, the significant contribution of air travel to climate change is absolutely clear and needs to be understood whether we like it or not. Therefore, my objective in this post is to provide an overview of the problem with a summary of the changes required if we hope to address it.

The contribution of air travel by air craft constitutes at least 5% of the total impacts of human activity on global warming and is rapidly rising (see  Part this warming effect is due to the CO2 emissions of jet aircraft and part of it is due to their emissions of water vapor which in the cold air at high altitudes immediately condenses into heat-trapping clouds commonly known as jet contrails. While these contrails also have a slight cooling effect due to their weak reflection of incoming solar radiation, that effect is operative only during daylight hours.

A very large portion of those total miles travelled by aircraft are optional and/or unnecessary and the unnecessary component is increasing by 5 to 10% every year due to increasing incentives to fly and advertising campaigns that have become integral components of our lifestyles. Boasting rights prompted by the common greeting “what have you been up to lately” now go to those who can report on the most interesting or exotic excursion undertaken during their last spring break or long weekend. Thus, unnecessary air travel is now one of our most “out of control” as well as “most preventable” contributions to global warming.

The reasons behind the explosion in air travel

Over 130 airlines now have frequent flyer programs based on miles or points accumulated. Globally, several hundred million people participate in these programs. The benefit to airline companies is the habituation of people to air travel. Concerning business travel, the ease of both domestic and international air travel and the fact that the costs are typically met by our employers, means that globe trotting to conferences is now regarded as a perk of the job – by which the frequent flyer points also accrued provide additional personal trips. In this way, bottom-up pressure is created within a firm or government agency for what is now an obscene amount of unnecessary travel relative to a few decades ago. In addition, by using an airline-sponsored credit card to pay one’s household or business expenses, frequent flyer points can also be racked up quickly even by those of us who would otherwise not fly at all.

Another huge contribution to unnecessary long-distance air travel is now the widespread encouragement of myriad pleasure or educational excursions by various organizations and persons – including many that consider their programs to be environmentally progressive and enlightening. While examples of this abound everywhere, I will offer as examples two of my favorite “institutions” in Minnesota. One of these the college I went to and another is associated with my favorite radio program.

Take a look at the wide range of travel programs for students and alumni offered by my alma mater, St. Olaf College of Northfield, Minnesota, at I completely understand the time-honored benefits of travel and why StO is so proud of their studies abroad programs.   What troubles me, however, about such programs today is that the bill for the environmental damage done by these carbon-intensive trips is being deferred to future generations – rather than being paid for now by its users. This leads me to wonder: Does St. Olaf College not know about the exceedingly urgent need to reduce and eliminate all combustion of fossil fuels within the next several decades? Does it not know that the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere is already more than 40% greater than the natural level that existed prior to mankind’s extensive use of fossil fuels for energy production? Does it not know that because of the accumulation of CO2 emissions over the Industrial Age, we have painted ourselves into a very small corner with respect to allowed future emissions of CO2? Or does St. Olaf College think it has earned exemptions from cuts in these emissions because of all the “good things” it also does? For example, does StO think that their construction of solar panels and windmills on their campus gives them a pass on their other high carbon footprint activities? And finally, does StO not have science programs on its campus that would inform its administration of these now well-known environmental concerns?

I have tried, but failed to get a satisfactory answer to these questions from representatives of StO. In the absence of them, I can only guess that the answer is either good old sloth (the sin of avoiding responsibilities) or “but everyone else is doing it so why shouldn’t we”, or “but our contribution to the total problem is so small”. Whichever the answer is, the example set by St. Olaf College for environmentally sustainable methods of travel by its students, alumni, and the general public is a very poor one.

In order to fully understand the magnitude of this problem, it is necessary to realize that StO’s story is multiplied a thousand-fold by similar travel programs offered by other colleges, universities, and private organizations. All of these compete in offering the best experiences abroad they can arrange for their students, alumni, and customers. The public has historically looked to its universities and colleges for setting examples of advanced insight in how to successfully address society’s problems. By ignoring the environmental downsides of their existing travel programs, these colleges are doing the opposite relative to what actually needs to be done – right now and within the present decade. It is much too late in this game for these colleges to boast that their travel programs are preparing its students for addressing the global warming problem later. What we do in the present decade is far more important than what we do in the next – when the game might already be over. Note that the level of CO2 in our atmosphere is still increasing every year by about 2 parts per million. Yes, the world has not yet even leveled its man-caused emissions – partly due to the increase in air travel being discussed here.

Travel programs such those offered by St. Olaf College are particularly well designed for the relatively well off and elite classes of the USA and for this reason are also very popular within the public sector. By picking on another Minnesota institution named Garrison Keillor, another good example is provided. You can sign up for one of his travel excursions at Prairie Home Companion Cruises. (see www. ). Garrison is a self-professed progressive liberal whose strong support of various causes is, in the main, in harmony with my own. Like that of most of his kindred spirits within the intellectual elite class, however, he appears to ignore his travel program’s contribution to atmospheric CO2. Again, trips such as those he offers might have been harmless in days of yore before we painted ourselves into a tiny corner with respect to mankind’s allowed future emissions of greenhouse gases. I suspect that Garrison knows this and I would love to see him adjust accordingly. We are in desperate need of examples of appropriate behavior by members of our elite classes who could afford several extensive trips per year. The desperate straits in which the world now finds itself was greatly facilitated by the bad habits set in motion by the elite classes of the Western democracies. So why shouldn’t they be a big part of the solution rather than a huge component of the problem?

I think I would be much more inclined to take a bet on the prospect for turning Garrison Keillor than one on doing the same at St. Olaf College. Our private colleges are so tightly tied to our existing business-as-usual financial powers – from which our colleges receive financial support – that they undoubtedly have little leeway in following up forcefully on some of the moral obligations they might feel. That is, they are now typically “businesses” themselves with a “go along to get along” business model rather that intellectual leaders capable of going against the financial grain if reason suggests they should. Only after an issue is relatively settled within the public sector (as occurred after the civil rights battles of the 1960’s) will the colleges typically jump with both feet into what they consider to be a “controversial” issue. Thus, the administrations of our colleges and universities are far more likely to become good “followers” than good “leaders” of needed societal changes. They can sometimes be led to hop on a progressive bandwagon when forced to do so by student protests that they cannot control. Unfortunately, we appear to be living in an era of excessively “well-behaved” student bodies, many of whom don’t even seem to realize that it is their future families that are primarily at risk.

On the future of air transport

The only way I can envision environmentally responsible air transport in the future is by use of another type of transportable fuel. Specifically, that fuel would be some type of biofuel, the combustion of which does not change the total carbon content of the biosphere. This might be a biodiesel or ethanol, for examples, made from plants. It must also be acknowledged, however, that it would be very difficult to make enough of these biofuels as to duplicate the amount of fossil fuels being used today for air transport. Also, the use of plants for biofuel production would compete with our existing methods of food production. Thus, these biofuels would be in much shorter supply and considerably more expensive than our abundance supplies of fossil fuels. With a stiff carbon fee also applied to any continued use of fossil fuels, air transport would then be considerably more expensive and, therefore, readily available only to the fraction of today’s users. The rest of us would have to use the lower cost, low carbon footprint, and slower means of surface transport driven by either biofuels, renewable electricity, and conceivably even small nuclear reactors on trains. While some of these changes would be considered inconvenient, they simply must be made if we value sustainability and the preservation of our life-supporting environment. Note, however, that the long-awaited development of fast surface transport throughout the USA might then finally occur, making life more convenient for all of us.  Note also that greatly reduced travel by high elevation aircraft would also reduce the formation of high elevation jet contrails which, of course, would be formed by the combustions of biofuels as well as petrofuels. By allowing high altitude flying only during the daylight hours, the slight cooling effect of sunlight reflection off the contrails would help negate some of the warming effect of those contrails.

But finally, some “good news” (I would like to think) for my alma mater. If the above changes in air transport could be made, the costs of St. Olaf’s wonderful international travel programs would no longer be deferred to future generations of Oles. Instead, those programs would be paid for immediately by their present users. Sounds fair and in harmony with the Christian ethical principles on which many of our nation’s colleges such as StO were founded, does it not? Yes, all of this constitutes more of a moral dilemma today rather than a technical one, does it not? My hope is that St. Olaf College finds the strength needed to do the right thing – even if their donations from the fossil fuel users and providers might be diminished. As King Olaf II’s men shouted at the Battle of Stiklestad in 1030, “Fram! Fram! Kristmenn Krossmenn” (English translation: “let’s get on with it!”)


  1. Very good Eric, I know as there are people who are working on fast rail for the US but they are not receiving much support from govt. or the people. right now, I am not feeling very good about the future. We attended the annual meeting of the Northern Plains Resource Council (NPRC) in Billings a week ago or so. A fellow from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area gave a presentation on what they have been doing with alternative energy by borrowing money from a govt.entity and paying it back over 10 years. I will attempt to get more details. He thought MT would be an excellent area as we have lots of sunlight and wind not to mention geothermal around the Yellowstone :Park area. Old Faithful would have to be protected of course.
    With the Republicans in charge for the next two years,.the future for energy saving and thus less CO2 into the atmosphere doesn’t look good.
    Along time member of NPRC, Wade Sikorsky (PhD from U of MA-Amherst) who was at the annual meeting as usual is the author of “Before it is Too Late”, the Climate Crisis and Economic Development, published in 2011. He is a rancher from the Baker MT area but apparently gets around..
    Keep up the fight and we will beat the SOB’s yet.

    PS: Hello to your good wife and also I must mention, Darlene and I have just moved to Chester as had a house built this summer and will be unpacking the accumulation of stuff over the last 40 years; will be weeks sorting what is to keep and what is to be either given away to various agencies who help the disadvantaged.or to the dump..
    If you by perchance come thru this area again, we have lots of room.
    Cell;(406) 899-0067 Our Grandson, Kirk, graduate of Gonzaga and an actuary for health orgs. for five years, decided to return to the the farm which we are elated about. He is renovating our farm house currently.. Farming has become highly technical and keeping in touch with the Ag schools and experiment stations is absolutely necessary.
    Grain,currently, is below production costs so we will trickle out the sales as we need the money. Enuf said.

    [Thanks for your comments, Arlo. Your news from the very Northern edge of Mt is always appreciated. Will look forward to seeing you in your new home in Chester one of these days when travelling to Minn.
    Best Regards, ERic]

  2. Hello Eric,

    A good article, and I like the way you challenge us to think seriously about how we do things (however uncomfortable that might be for us in the process).

    I did want to point out that the Union of Concerned Scientists has published a green travel guide (, and they evaluate travel options in terms of total distance and number of travelers (see the table on page 2 of the PDF). I assume that when they assess bus, rail, and air, they assume full occupancy.

    Anyway, in many scenarios they cover, air travel is the most carbon intensive per traveler (especially the lower occupancy first class air). But for for a single individual or a couple going 1000+ miles, air travel is second only to motor coach in low carbon efficiency, beating even current rail options.


  3. Thanks for your comments, Owen, to which I will add the following thought.
    When comparing various methods of travel, there is an aspect of air travel that must be factored in. That is that it is so easy to go long distances that using it promotes yet more trips. For example, with air travel we fly to some distant place and return quickly because we have another long air flight that we must prepared for. Thus with air travel, the number of long trips taken is greatly increased

    On the other hand, if one knew one would be going by slower surface methods, one would do a lot better job of planning one’s trips and even avoiding some trips by using modern methods of long distance communication. What we have today is a high level of “busyness” involving many trips that aren’t necessary. We do them anyway because they can be performed in only a day or two. Thus an important factor in comparing methods of travel is which methods will result in fewer trips.

    The only way I see how we can “have it all” is to use biofuels only and bite the bullet w.r.t. increased costs and the limited availability of that fuel. The fewer that then decided they simply must fly would do so with no harm to our atmospheric CO2 level.

  4. Eric, I can understand your frustration with the academic institutions but they are looking at the money aspect of course which goes without saying. but surely someone has to step forward and blow the whistle. You are a brave man.
    I am picking up the MT legislative booklet listing all the Reps and Senators with their email addresses etc. which will be done tomorrow afternoon. There are two environmental orgs working there which you may have heard of. MEIC (MT Environmental Information Center and the NPRC (Northern Plains Resource Council our of Billings). I will then contact various legislators concerning CC etc. This session is dominated by the Repubs so that in itself is not conducive to environmental success but then one has to keep pounding on the facts.
    If you would want their email addresses, I can look it up or you can Google them if you so wish;they are a courageous bunch. Darlene and I do contribute to both. Unfortunately, we have a real asshole in the WH.

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