Annals of a Warming Planet
We Don’t Need Supersonic Travel—in the “New Normal,” We Should Slow Down
If we’re going to take climate change seriously, it also needs to come with a new aesthetic.
By Bill McKibben
June 9, 2021
Supersonic jets, though attractive to acquisitive airlines and impatient globetrotters, are climate-insane.​Photograph from Cover Images / AP
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An interesting question: Did the pandemic break something in the heedless momentum of human acceleration, or are we really going straight back to normal?
An interesting test case: United Airlines’ announcement that it will buy fifteen supersonic jets, which would allow business travellers to fly from San Francisco to Tokyo in six hours, and take “day trips” across the Atlantic.
Surely, we don’t want this. In part, of course, because it’s climate-insane. Supersonic planes, as Kate Aronoff points out, emit five to seven times as much carbon per passenger as conventional jetliners. United’s statement that the planes, which could be in operation by the end of the decade, will be “net zero from day one” is perhaps the best example yet of what an empty pledge “net zero” is turning out to be. Among other issues, the planned fleet of planes could use up twice the European Union’s supply of “sustainable jet fuel.” (By the way, if you want an example of creative greenwashing, here’s a piece making a case that more private jet travel may be “beneficial” for the climate. “Saying too loudly it’s better to have a few wealthy folks and their shiny jets instead of more widebody airliners arriving with budget travelers doesn’t necessarily go over well,” the author writes, adding that some companies have introduced “jet-sharing programs” so that “private fliers can carpool.”)
But let’s talk about something more than emissions. If we’re going to take climate change seriously, it also needs to come with a new aesthetic. We have to start seeing wind turbines on the horizon as kinetic art, not blight, for instance. And we might want to rethink what travel means, something that our pandemic year should have helped us with. At this point, it’s clear that you can conduct a lot of business remotely. What that means is not that we need to stay at home forever but that we could learn to travel slowly, precisely because we can e-mail the whole way, and because, as Zoom insists, people are learning to use it at thirty thousand feet. (Turn off your mic and use the chat, people.) Also, there’s Slack.
More exciting than United’s supersonic order was the news that, as early as 2025, an outfit called Hybrid Air Vehicles may be offering regularly scheduled blimp service between cities such as Seattle and Vancouver, or Barcelona and Mallorca, or Liverpool and Belfast. According to the company, dirigible travel will emit ninety per cent less carbon dioxide per passenger mile than a standard airplane—and, by 2030, an all-electric version may eliminate emissions entirely. But I think the experience will be the thing: with no need for a runway (and no jet-engine noise), the blimps could land near the center of cities. And blimp passengers, instead of strapping themselves into a metal cylinder with tiny windows and enduring a cramped ride, will have huge windows to gaze out of and plenty of room to move around. Yes, there will be luxury options for the rich—that feature of our world won’t disappear. But these options do sound nice: a Swedish firm has already ordered a dirigible outfitted with deluxe cabins for trips over the North Pole. I’d save for years to do that once.
So far, the best descriptions of what this new world could be like come from Kim Stanley Robinson, a science-fiction author who specializes in depicting the kinds of delights that a world that took our predicament seriously might produce. Travel by blimp has featured prominently in several of his books, most recently the wonderful “The Ministry for the Future.” In the novel, he writes that takeoff “felt strange, lofting up over the bay, bouncing a little on the wind, not like a jet, not like a helicopter. Strange but interesting. Dynamic lift; the electric motors, on sidecars up the sides of the bag, could get them to about two hundred kilometers an hour over the land, depending on the winds.” In Robinson’s book, the travellers stay aloft for days, their pilot following animals or dropping down to see the snouts of glaciers. And here’s the thing: the passengers can keep working if they need to.
As with the air, so the sea. In the early stages of Robinson’s new world, ships are outfitted with solar panels that run electric motors. But soon people are building clipper ships with six sails, each one made of photovoltaic material, so that it can capture both wind and sun power. Because it’s possible to keep working on board, even the President of the Ministry of the Future, arguably the most important person on the planet, can take one, “winds pushing and pulling them, the sun, the waves. The glorious glide, crest to trough, trough to crest, long rollers of mid-ocean.” This is a world worth wanting, one that manages to be both slimmer and far more elegant.
Passing the Mic
As the New Yorker investigative reporter Jane Mayer wrote in her account of the Koch family’s influence, “Dark Money,” this money is often given in order to further the Kochs’ libertarian political approach, which has included a stiff dose of delay and obstruction in addressing climate change. Mayer quoted a Koch official as saying that the family’s “investment” in education had created a valuable “talent pipeline.” Assuming that, on average, thousands of scholars taught hundreds of students per year, the official said, the Kochs and their cohort could influence the thinking of millions of young Americans annually. “This cycle constantly repeats itself,” he noted, “and you can see the multiplier effect it’s had on our network since 2008.” Last week, a group called UnKoch My Campus, which is part of the nonprofit Essential Information, released a searchable database of recent donations that the Charles Koch Foundation has made to universities. I asked Jasmine Banks, the executive director of UnKoch My Campus, to explain; the interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Money from the Koch foundations gets put to many purposes—do you think that there’s a significant amount that ends up funding climate denial on campuses?
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The money can be difficult to track once it makes its way to schools. And the connection may not always be clear at first. With George Washington University and the Regulatory Studies Center, there’s a direct line. In other places, such as George Mason University, which has received nearly a hundred and eighty million dollars from Koch foundations since 2005, the connection is less transparent. The school itself isn’t putting out climate-denial data, but it produces lawyers, lobbyists, politicians, and judges who could enact a climate-denial agenda.
How are students responding to news of this funding? And what about faculty?
We have student and staff organizers on the ground who have been pushing back against Koch money for a while, so to see the numbers laid out plainly at their schools and others reminds them what they have been fighting for. We've found that, when it comes to faculty, many are tentative about speaking out because of potential repercussions.
Many people might say, ‘It’s their money, they can do what they want with it.’ How do you explain to them why you think it’s dangerous?
The money itself isn’t dangerous—it’s the strings and conditions attached to it where we start to see the harm. When donations dictate what curriculum or textbooks are being taught, what faculty is hired or fired, or exert influence over school fellowships, then it becomes a matter of academic freedom.
Climate School
Utilities are increasingly pairing wind and solar power, usually with a battery to store power. Power magazine quotes an analyst explaining why: “The cost for projects involving solar, wind, and storage have certainly come down in recent years. Storage in particular has become much more competitive. Two to three years ago, the costs were simply too high and didn’t make economic sense. But while the price tag has gotten smaller, the economic feasibility of projects that combine renewables with storage remains jurisdictionally dependent. As the old real-estate adage goes, ‘location, location, location.’ ”
Ella Nilsen at Vox offers a detailed analysis of a problem that I laid out a few weeks ago: until there’s a better national network of charging stations, it may be hard to persuade more buyers to opt for electric vehicles. She quotes an expert, saying, “In San Francisco, there’s a huge congestion problem, and there are simply not enough plugs for EVs in that metro area. There is congestion in areas where EV demand has flourished. If we don’t get going on this, we will have roadblocks, especially for longer trips.”
Campaigners at Fossil Free Netherlands—who were involved in the recent case that led a Dutch court to demand that Royal Dutch Shell cut emissions forty-five per cent, and who won a ban on fossil-fuel ads in Amsterdam’s metro stations—signed their name to a report detailing the ways that “social tipping points” could speed climate action. The authors say that governments should push for new technology, but that this will happen faster and mean more if lawmakers eliminate “fossil subsidies, and invest that money to help citizens, businesses, and organizations become more sustainable.” Meanwhile, that Dutch court ruling continues to spark insightful analysis. The international human-rights lawyer Tessa Khan, writing in the Guardian, reckons that “it is hard to overstate the consequences of a decision that is already being hailed as a turning point for big oil. Given the replicability of the arguments and the international standards and common facts that comprise the basis of the case, it will inspire a wave of similar actions around the world.”
Rebecca Leber offers some of her always illuminating reporting, this time singling out the Permian Basin in Texas as the place that may tell the story about the future of oil and gas in the United States. She writes that relying on state regulators is unlikely to get much done: authorities in Texas have rubber-stamped thirty-five thousand requests to flare heat-trapping methane from wells, without issuing a single denial.
Scoreboard
A new report from the N.G.O. Amazon Watch details the holdings of the three biggest asset managers—​BlackRock​, State Street, and Vanguard—in oil companies that operate in the world’s largest rain forest. The total of those investments is forty-six billion dollars, and, the report says, the oil companies are often linked to human-rights abuses and deforestation in the region.
The Wall Street Journal has noticed that a nationwide “battle brews” over bans on connecting gas to new home construction, writing that this has “the potential to reshape the future of the utility industry, and demand for natural gas.” Another advance in that fight came last week, when activists in the town of Brookline, Massachusetts, persuaded the annual town meeting to make new construction permits conditional on an agreement to go fossil-free.
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change states that thirty-seven per cent of heat-related deaths around the world are attributable to the excess heat that attends the climate crisis. As John Schwartz summarizes, in the Times, “Climate change has added to overall mortality from all causes by as much as 5 percent in some parts of the world, the authors found; they detected increased mortality from climate-boosted heat on every inhabited continent.”
Over the years, researchers have learned that wolves play a key role in restoring ecosystems, by reining in prey, such as deer, that can overbrowse trees and shrubs. A new study has found that wolves also save human lives—by reducing deer numbers, they cut fatal car collisions.
Warming Up
Given the subject of today’s newsletter, I can perhaps be forgiven for admitting a fondness for the 5th Dimension and its treatment of lighter-than-air travel. For good measure, here is Hugh Masekela’s version.
Bill McKibben is a founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and a contributing writer to The New Yorker. He writes The Climate Crisis, The New Yorker’s newsletter on the environment.
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