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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How 4 environmentalists travel with the climate in mind

Less (or no) flying, long road trips and a lot of exploring on foot

(Katty Huertas/The Washington Post)

Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Georgia Tech, used to be an elite-level frequent flier, racking up more than 150,000 miles a year.

But a few years ago, after a crisis of conscience, she started scaling back her air travel. First she cut it by 30 percent, then 60 percent, and then made the call to stay on the ground in late 2019.

“Of course, lo and behold, our entire lives were turned upside down, and almost nobody flew for many months of 2020,” she said.

Despite avoiding flights, Cobb loves to travel — especially with her family, which includes four kids between the ages of 10 and 14. They just go about it in a different way.

“It’s changed the way my family has approached our time together and our priorities, and what we do in terms of investigating what’s available on the ground,” she said.

As representatives from global superpowers meet in Glasgow for the United Nations’ COP26 summit on how to avert climate catastrophe, concerned citizens all over the world are making changes in their own lives to lessen their impact on the planet. That often means traveling in more deliberate ways. Here’s how four travelers — climate scientists or academics in environmental fields — see the world.

Air travel was down significantly in 2020. Climate activists hope it stays this way.

Kim Cobb, climate scientist

Cobb said she is a big fan of the overnight train to D.C., as well as Greyhound and other bus services. But often, she and her family will pile into their “aging minivan” — though she would love an electric vehicle instead — to visit family in D.C. or Massachusetts, or to explore the Georgia coast or nearby states.

They typically stay in vacation rentals or with friends or family instead of hotels. A big benefit: Those options include kitchens, making it easier to feed Cobb’s family, which includes vegetarians and vegans.

The family is considering a “massive camping trip” to Yellowstone National Park in the future, which would double as a trip to visit Cobb’s brother in Montana.

“It’s nice to have a reason to go someplace that connects us to people,” Cobb said. “If you’re going to go through that level of effort, you might as well have a destination that affords connection. That comes at a steep premium when you’re staying on the ground.”

Cobb said she finds traveling “incredibly joyful,” even if the time spent getting to destinations is longer and the trip is more complicated than hopping on a flight.

“Let’s remember that flying around with four kids was never too much of a picnic either,” she said, laughing as she recalled a catastrophe of the diaper variety in the airport security line.

Cobb can’t say she will never fly again, and she wants people to feel welcome to explore what kind of eco-friendly changes they can make individually.

“An individual move like that can hasten collective action to think about how and why we fly to weigh the climate damage and climate injustice of flying,” she said.

How to actually make your travel better for the planet

Aseem Prakash and Nives Dolsak, environmental academics

The married couple writes frequently about the climate and sustainability issues. Both work at the University of Washington, where Prakash is founding director of the Center for Environmental Politics and Dolsak is director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs.

Dolsak said that when she thinks about flying, she considers the carbon budget every person in the world needs to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius — 2.1 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.

“That just means I have to think very carefully when I fly and how I fly,” she said, and opt for local getaways or vacations by train or car when possible. Prakash describes the approach as going on a “carbon diet.”

The couple’s last flight was to Paris the summer before the pandemic. They stayed in Europe for a month and a half. Aside from a flight to Slovenia, where Dolsak is from, they got around by train and public transportation on a trip that included time in Normandy, Rome, Naples and more.

“When we do fly, we make it not a monthly event but once in a couple of years,” she said. “If it is an overseas flight, then that is combined with a lot of local travel and spending time in the places that we visit, spending time with people, learning cultures, rather than just fly in for two days then hop on to the next flight.”

Prakash and Dolsak also purchase carbon offsets — investments in projects that reduce or remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere — for twice the amount of their emissions for air and road trips.

Despite COP26 pledges, world still on track for dire warming

For their most recent vacation, they drove to national parks in Utah and Northern Arizona in March. In their plug-in hybrid, a Toyota Prius Prime, they get about 42 miles per gallon, they said. The trip took about 10 days, and they spent two to four days in each location. They booked far in advance for the off-season, which meant they were able to get hard-to-find rooms close to everything they wanted to see without driving more. Once there, they got around by foot or the park’s electric shuttles.

“You get familiar with the smells, with the sounds, with the culture,” Prakash said. “It’s a different way of traveling. It’s a different way of taking a vacation. And I think we have to, as the world enters into a very serious phase of the climate crisis ... have to rethink travel.”

He said they also largely avoid social media, which he sees as “fueling this epidemic of consumerism where people don’t go in depth.”

‘Green’ travel stunts by airlines can’t erase the environmental impact of flying

Peter Kalmus, no-fly advocate

Kalmus, a climate scientist in Los Angeles who founded the site NoFlyClimateSci, is approaching 10 years of not flying. He acknowledged that individual decisions like his are not a solution to climate change — policies that lead to everyone using less energy, he said, are needed — but believes cutting back on carbon-intensive activities is still a good thing to do.

Kalmus said he knows the movement to reduce flying is controversial and that people feel like travel is a virtuous thing. He agreed with that last point.

“When I say we should be flying less, people hear we should be traveling less,” he said. “There are ways to travel without flying. Travel is incredibly precious and good ... it’s worth spending a little more time on and going slower, for example, and trying to shift society to make slower travel more acceptable.”

He and his wife have parents in Illinois, so they and their two teenagers visit often by taking Amtrak or driving the family’s Tesla Model 3 — an electric vehicle that he said is as easy as any other car.

“You have to stop a little bit more than you would if you had a conventional gas car,” Kalmus said. But on the two-day drive, they try to time longer stops to charge while they eat, or while parked overnight. Kalmus is vegetarian, but he said finding meals on the road has been simple.

He said they also like to stop along the way and visit friends, or camp in national parks and cook food at the campsite. This summer, Kalmus said, they went to Portland, Ore., and through Montana, fitting in a Yellowstone visit in Wyoming.

“It can be a lot of fun to meander your way and see the sights and see your friends,” he said.

Sometimes, the road trips gave them a close-up view to the kind of natural disasters that Kalmus has been trying to avert. They had to avoid one route this summer because of a mudslide in an area that had burned in a wildfire. Their alternate routes had fires and smoke along the way.

“One of the main considerations we have is whether a place is burning, how likely it is to burn,” he said.

The family also enjoys long hiking trips in the Sierra Nevada mountains — which, again, does not provide a true escape. On a hike this year, Kalmus said, he was shocked by dead trees everywhere.

“It’s getting harder for me to go into nature as a vacation as a way to recharge my batteries from doing climate work because I’m so confronted with climate breakdown in these wild places,” he said. “I’m in kind of this constant low-level, or sometimes not-so-low-level, state of grieving while I’m hiking.”

More on climate change

Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon, and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it. As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe — and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive.

What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions, as well as the Biden administration’s actions on environmental issues. It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety.

Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy.

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