Should you feel guilty about flying? A lot of people would say you should. After all, the danger of runaway climate change is real. No one knows how far away that is. We probably have 10 to 30 years, but we may have longer, and we may already have passed the tipping point.
When we reach that point, the best estimate is that hundreds of millions are going to die from flood, drought, famine, epidemics and war. Many more will be scarred by what they must see and do to survive. And a substantial proportion of the world's species will perish.
Flying may account for only about 3 per cent of global emissions of carbon dioxide, the main cause of climate change. But that CO2 has twice the effect of emissions from cars, because it is put high in the atmosphere where it does more harm.
So maybe you should feel guilty. But. It's your holiday. You have three weeks. You have a husband and three children in school. His job stresses him and you hate yours. It's the only time you're ever all together. You live for this time. A family of five can get to the south of Spain on cheap flights for £300 if you book ahead. By train it will cost more than £1,000. You don't have that.
So maybe you shouldn't feel guilty. But it's the wrong question. The question isn't should you feel guilty; it's how are we going to stop climate change? So let's start there.
It will take massive government action across the world to halt global warming. To allow for economic growth in poor countries and some population growth, we have to cut CO2 emissions in rich countries by at least 80 per cent.
We can do that. We already have the technology. Most CO2 comes from burning oil, coal and gas. So we have to build wind farms and solar panels around the world, and concentrated solar power in the deserts. We have to insulate every leaky building in the world. We need trains and buses for almost all city journeys. And we need to stop making petrol and cement. There are a thousand things more, but those are the biggest ones. Individuals can't do them. Governments can, and they can do most of them in five years.
Doing things differently
Most of the changes we need don't mean sacrifice. They mean doing things differently. It's the same with transport. The alternative to most flights isn't staying at home. It's rail travel, which emits a fraction of the carbon.
Governments could ban all flights inside Europe and build new fast rail lines. Tickets could be subsidised, and booked on the internet so the trains are full. Trains travelling at 125mph, like the ones in the UK now, could go from London to Istanbul in 24 hours and London to Delhi in 48. But mainstream politicians keep telling us that stopping global warming will cost too much. They say ordinary people will never stand for sacrifice.
Stop a minute and think what "cost too much" means. It means ordinary people would be paid pounds and euros and rupees for insulating houses and building wind farms. It means millions of jobs round the world.
I keep thinking about the Second World War. Back then, every major power in the world changed their whole economy to make as many weapons as possible to kill as many people as possible in order to win the war. We need the same thing now, across the world, to save lives.
The United States joined the Second World War on 7 December 1941. President Roosevelt immediately asked Congress for a military budget for 1942 equal to the GDP of the whole country for 1941. Roosevelt got it, and the whole economy changed in six months. The car factories made planes, tanks and weapons instead – 68,000 planes in the next three years. The government told industry what to make and where to send the raw materials. All the other great powers did the same. And that armament boom pulled the world out of the Great Depression.
The US and British governments are already throwing money at tax rebates and corporate bail-outs to try to stop the recession. Why not do some good with all that money, make jobs and save the planet?
Long haul and cheap flights
So we can eliminate flights to Europe and India and use trains instead. But what about long-haul flights to South Africa and New York?
One answer is abolish business class so we all sit cramped together. But more important, we need rationing. Back in the Second World War, the government rationed food. Working-class people went along with it, because they believed they were fighting for something and everyone had the same ration. The average British child ate better than ever before and grew taller.
That's what we need now – one flight per person per year, and you can't sell it. Business people can make one flight, and video conference the rest. Grandmothers can travel to hold their grandchildren. Rationing will work much better than making flights more expensive. Expensive flights mean the rich fly and the rest stay at home. It won't be fair, and it will make ordinary people hate greens.
But it's not just flying. There is always a better solution for the climate than charging more. If you tax wasteful short-life light bulbs, people will buy fewer. If you ban them, people will buy none. A congestion charge cuts inner-city car traffic by 20 per cent. A ban on cars there cuts them by 100 per cent.
The solution, then, is government investment and regulation. But that's the problem, too. It's not technology; it's politics.
Last year, the 10 largest corporations in the world by sales were Wal-Mart, ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Toyota, General Motors, ChryslerDaimler, Chevron, Conoco Phillips and Total Oil. That's six oil companies, three car companies and a chain of suburban parking lots. It's also a formidable amount of political and economic power.
There's an even bigger problem, though. Many mainstream politicians have woken up to the dangers of climate change – Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy, Gore and the Terminator. So have many bankers and corporate leaders. They now understand the science. They have children and grandchildren. And they own the world – they don't want to destroy it.
However, ever since the 1980s, almost all governments and politicians have told us "private good, public bad". The market is the only solution, they say. So political leaders try to take action within the limits of the market. But it doesn't work – the problem is too big.
That's where guilt comes in. The governments should be solving the climate problem. They aren't. So an avalanche of propaganda is coming at us - saying it's all your fault.
Almost everything about climate is put in terms of individual lifestyle choices such as green tourism. But no one really thinks that will insulate the houses of the poor, build wind farms around the world, or cut emissions in China.
What we need is a mass movement to change government policies, or replace the current politicians with people who will take action.
That's not easy. But that movement has started. Last year there were demonstrations and protests at the time of the United Nations climate talks in 70 countries. Most actions were small, although 130,000 marched in Australia last year. This year there will be marches again on 6 December. Next year, the UN meets in Copenhagen in December to sign the global treaty that will set limits to CO2 emissions. There will be a march in Copenhagen and across the world in the middle of the talks.
Even that will only be a start. But we have to start. Does that mean you can just fly when you feel like it and wait for the world's governments to act? No. Cut down on your flying when you can. Take trains if possible. Be sensible. But don't beat yourself up. And don't wait. Join in whatever climate action you can find.
'Stop Global Warming – Change the World' by Jonathan Neale is out now (Bookmarks, £11.99).
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