Global Warming And Airplanes
Earlier this week, my colleague Mary Grady stirred the pot with her blog on the prospect of technology driven green airplanes. I found it interesting that a discussion like this can't be compartmentalized to exclude the giant, stinking elephant in the middle of the room: general aviation's role in and relationship to carbon emissions and climate change.
Mention the word green—which I detest, by the way—and you won't enjoy even a degree of separation from global warming/climate change. The aviation press, of course, runs from this topic as though it were Ebola virus. The reason is that editors know that pilots and owners don't like to confront unpleasant realities and some labor under the misconception that politics and aviation exist in separate universes. They never have—the two are more conjoined than ever.
If we slice GA down to its constituent parts, what we're most interested in is the piston segment. Reader Peter Thomas wrote to say that his solution to all of this is to simply ignore it. "I don't care about the emissions I produce," he writes, neatly defusing any worry about greenhouse gasses. Ah, the serenity of the certain. But if you parse his statement rationally, you'd have to conclude he's correct. Piston GA burns so little fuel—and it will continue to burn less as GA remains small as percentage of total fossil fuel consumption—as to have little bearing on carbon dioxide emissions. If we all quit flying tomorrow, no one would notice, least of all the atmosphere.
What Thomas has managed to do is to get by the guilt by perception that stymies many of us. GA has always had the fat-cat perception about it and the current occupant of the White House has aggravated that. And since climate change is directly linked to fuel consumption, airplanes look like Hummers times 10. Never mind that your airplane gets 25 MPG, the perception is there and denying it doesn't make it go away. Explaining it doesn't seem to work, either.
I have talked to many pilots and owners about this and they seem to divide themselves into several camps. One camp declares the whole climate thing is a hoax and they simply haven't read the science or ignore the findings as bogus. Another camp accepts and understands the science, but remains skeptical of the conclusions. A third embraces the science, accepts that it's credible, but hasn't the first clue what, as an aviator, to do about any of it. I'm in the third camp. I freely admit that my head is so far in the sand on this one that you can't even read the shoe size on the bottom of my sneakers.
So I rationalize it all by adopting a version of Thomas's logic. I do care about the emissions, but reckon the tradeoff in rapid transportation, community services and jobs is worth it for the small contribution in carbon load. Personally, I'd rather make gains where it really matters, in powerplant emissions and surface vehicles. If that means less consumption of electricity or higher rates, I can live with it.
I do not call myself an environmentalist, although I like to think I'm savvy to the issues and that I act responsibility. If you do call yourself an environmentalist and you like fooling with airplanes a little or a lot, well, you have a problem. You're living a paradox—sort of like the fine, upstanding judge or banker who gets falling down drunk on the weekends.
Not that I'm passing judgment, by the way. I am merely observing that we live in complicated times. Like me, you'll have to find your own way and if you do, how 'bout digging me out of the sand?