Thank you! Readers like you are helping us double down on our investigative reporting when it's more needed than ever.
ONE LATE-WINTER evening in 2008, I opened up Google Earth, drew a 100-mile circle around my house in western Colorado, and vowed to stay within that minihabitat for a full year.
This unusual experiment began with a plane ticket. My grandmother was turning 90, and her birthday shindig was in Kansas, 750 miles away. I could jet in for two quality days and be home within 48 hours. Or I could spend two grueling days on the road. It was a no-brainer—and probably more so for me than for the average American. As the daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot, my childhood revolved around planes; Dad's second career as an American Airlines captain made jumbo jets the equivalent of the family car. With free family passes in hand, I grew accustomed to flying wherever and whenever I liked.
But then I stumbled across some figures that led me to question my ways. Grandma's party left me on the hook for 1,058 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, the equivalent of driving my fuel-efficient car 2,600 miles—almost twice the round-trip distance to Kansas. In fact, all of my green bragging rights—the recycling, the composting, the buying local, drying laundry on a clothesline—were obliterated by flying. In 2008, I took four round-trip flights, including cross-country jaunts to New York and Washington, DC. My flight-related carbon footprint dwarfed the average Indian citizen's total annual footprint by a factor of four.
Naive as this may sound, I'd always considered flying relatively benign—there were a couple hundred people on each plane, right? In reality, airplanes not only spew far more greenhouse gases per passenger than any other mode of transport, but they do so high in the atmosphere, magnifying the ill effects.
I wasn't alone in my denial. A recent study by Stewart Barr, a geographer at the UK's University of Exeter, found that people who identified as committed environmentalists actually flew more than those who didn't. Some of these "bleeding-heart jet setters" insisted they'd earned their flights through green behavior at home. "People tell themselves they can justify a flight of 5,000 miles because they've recycled all year," Barr told me.