a young boy and his father walk through the woods

As a parent, how can I do what’s best for the climate?

My 7-year-old son, Nate, loves airplanes. He has folded hundreds of paper airplanes. He built a large cardboard airplane out of our recycling. We have bribed him for good behavior with airplane toys. His grandparents have bestowed on him a wide range of airplane gifts.

At his last birthday party, which had an “airplane art” theme, kids built and decorated small wooden airplanes and a cardboard airport.

He can identify the airline of a plane he sees flying overhead. He can draw the logo for Alaska Airlines, a carrier that we flew once. And when he goes on a flight for a family trip, he meticulously watches the planes move across the tarmac and take off and land.

When your child is passionate about something, you want to expose them to it, but lately I’ve been drawing inspiration from a young person who eschews airplanes entirely.

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who sparked a global movement with her Fridays for Future school protests, recently spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-emission yacht because she refuses to contribute to the carbon footprint of the airline industry. Now she’s working with U.S. climate activists and protesting outside the White House in advance of next week’s United Nations-hosted Climate Action Summit, at which she will be a speaker.

The environmental impact of air travel is abysmal; about 2 percent of global carbon output comes from the aviation industry, and emissions from that sector are only rising.

According to an online calculator provided by the International Civil Aviation Organization, a U.N. specialized agency, a round-trip flight between New York and San Francisco (a trip my family makes regularly) generates about 2.4 metric tons of carbon dioxide for every four passengers. That’s half the emissions of the average U.S. car for a year, according to the EPA. Moreover, the ICAO estimates that air travel emissions could increase by 300 to 700 percent by 2050.

This is sobering stuff, especially when we think about our children and the world in which they will grow up.

According to a report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, time is running out to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit. If the global temperature rises more than that, say 2 degrees Celsius, there will be more extreme weather, rising sea levels, diminished Arctic sea ice and a loss of ecosystems, among other things.

The truth is that we may fail to meet this goal. Even still, this should prompt all of us, but especially parents, to examine our choices and priorities in our personal lives, in our civic engagement and at the voting booth.

After the IPCC report last October, my husband and I decided to stop eating beef and lamb, the two foods that cause the highest carbon emissions; meat and animal products have a much bigger carbon footprint than plant-based foods.

It’s tougher, though, for us to commit to reducing our air travel.

At present, we take about one family trip every year, generally flying to California (and back) to visit our friends and family. It doesn’t feel like a lot, especially when Instagram would lead us to believe everyone is jetting off to vacations in Europe and Hawaii. But when we look at our kids and consider the world in which we want them to grow up, how can we justify it?

Part of the reason why it seems so impossible to meaningfully reduce air travel is because we live in a society that has grown to depend on it. It’s completely normal for adult children to move across the country from their families, with the understanding that they will be able to visit them with ease.

If we lived in a country that had implemented significant carbon taxes decades ago, our lives might be organized differently; we might stay closer to home in our adulthoods and live in a less mobile, more local world.

I think of this especially in relationship to the Jewish community, where so many people have close ties to Israel and take it for granted that they will travel there regularly.

I don’t have an answer to this problem, though I fear by saying that I will leave the impression that we shouldn’t let ourselves get too bothered by our personal consumption. But that’s not true. We should be bothered by it.

When we have to fly, we can purchase carbon offsets, which are questionable in their efficacy but better than nothing.

However, this week I’ll be doing something which seems even more effective and much more hopeful. I’ll be taking Nate out of school to participate in a global climate strike on Friday, Sept. 20. New York City public school students who want to attend the strike that day are excused from school, and Greta Thunberg herself will be at the New York protest.

It’s no accident that teenage activists have become the standard bearers for climate activism. What could be a more natural youth movement than a campaign to save the Earth that our children will inherit?

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a former J. reporter who writes about education, families and Jewish life. She lives with her husband and two sons.