Flights of Peril and Privilege (Part 3 of 3)
By Richard Slimbach
- Mitigate the damage
International travelers most sensitive to the threat from aviation to the long-term prospects of the biosphere and the bottom two billion have begun, albeit in very small numbers, to “offset” their emissions. Starting in 2027, 65 nations have agreed for all their international flights to offset emissions beyond 2020 levels—either directly or by purchasing credits. Carbon offset schemes aim at reduce greenhouse gas emissions by compensating for or neutralizing the emissions made. Carbon offset providers are paid money (typically $10 or $11 per metric ton), which then pays for someone to plant trees, help build a wind farm, or subsidize clean cookstoves for people in the developing world. All these things help mitigate damage caused by flying.
Fifteen years ago, after gaining awareness of the harmful impacts of study abroad travel on the climate, the global studies faculty at Azusa Pacific University instituted a sustainability policy that required students to purchase legitimate carbon credits for the international component of their degree program. They first used an online carbon calculator to estimate the cost of pollution associated with their round-trip flight; afterwards, they bought the equivalent number of offsets to fund carbon-mitigation projects across the globe. They essentially levied a carbon tax on themselves.
Today’s business community widely accepts the “polluter pays” principle: those who produce pollution bear the costs of managing it to prevent damage to planetary health. But 15 years ago, the link between greenhouse gases and climate change was still controversial. Many people viewed the atmosphere as a “global commons” that everyone had a right to use, without being regulated or shamed. So, the program faculty braced themselves for some tough resistance from griping parents, students, and administrators. The push-back came, but the policy prevailed. To be consistent with the student requirement, the faculty agreed to purchase offsets for all their professional travel, at their own expense.
Offsets can be purchased through many airlines during the booking process, or through other organizations like Cool Effect and ClearSky. The most trustworthy offset programs are certified by rigorous third-party auditors like Gold Standard or Green-e. Still, the decision to fund carbon mitigation offsets should not be seen as a panacea for the increasing threat of climate change. Critics reasonably argue that offsetting is too little, too late. And that it affords wealthy people a way to salve their conscience in the air without giving up anything on the ground. Buying tickets at all, they say, encourages governments and carbon-polluting industries to see the expansion of airports and air travel as somehow compatible with a stable climate.
- Normalize virtual conferencing
International conferences attract tens of thousands of global educators each year. The vast majority of participants are transported by planes that discharge massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere. Meanwhile, travel and conference costs continue to rise. Given the environmental and financial costs associated with conventional, face-to-face meetings, virtual conferencing and remote training sessions are increasingly being seen as a cost-effective and climate-friendly alternative (Krause, 2018).
Videoconferencing systems in 2019 are faster, cheaper, easier to use, and far more engaging than anything available before. Participants are able to take part in real-time polls, chats, and Q&A sessions. True, videoconferencing, like online courses, lacks the push and pull of in-person academic exchange around seminar tables. Remote attendees also forfeit long chats in the dining room and, come evening, the lubricating of collegial feeling over drinks. Moreover, the field’s experiential educators thankfully maintain a distinctive bias toward embodied, unmediated, and dialogue-driven learning. But even they must ask: At what cost?
Somewhat surprisingly, international education societies have been slow to move away from the large, centralized, expensive, and highly polluting annual conference model. Every year, upwards of 30,000 international education scholars, administrators, and practitioners fly from across the U.S. and abroad to attend the annual meetings of The Forum on Education Abroad, NAFSA, the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE), Diversity Abroad, Going Global, the European Association for International Education, and the Association of International Education Administrators (AIEA), to name just a few.  Assuming each of the 30,000 attendees (a conservative estimate) travels an average of 2,000 round-trip miles (a total of 60 million miles or 96,560,640 kilometers) to attend the meetings, those gatherings will generate an estimated 3,180,000,000 pounds or 1,590,000 tons of CO2. Not to mention all the paper, plastic, and food waste. Many global educators I speak with have an uneasy conscience about the large carbon footprint created by conference travel. But to my knowledge, no international education association has built a global, open access, videoconferencing infrastructure to significantly reduce the carbon footprint associated with their meetings.
In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells persuasively argues that we have a limited amount of time to forestall a terrifying cascade of climate-related catastrophes, much worse than what we’re already experiencing. This “new abnormal” will require new mindsets and rules. In the words of Naomi Klein, it “changes everything,” including how we think about educational travel. Climate change necessarily curtails human freedom: future generations of students and educators will need to adjust to fewer opportunities to see new parts of the world. On a planet in peril, we simply can’t do everything we want.
On a personal level, I’ve junked my bucket list for good. My present commitment is to take no more than one professional domestic trip each year, with offsets, and no international flights. I fully recognize that this commitment is made after decades of horizon-expanding world travel. And even with the knowledge that flying is a climate killer, I’m not at all sure that I’ll be able to keep my promise. I keep telling myself that truly loving the world means accepting the limits of the created order and not knowingly doing damage to it. For elder educators like myself, that might involve taking fewer flights, rooting locally, and traveling slower. For students and young professionals who commit to traveling internationally in a responsible manner, it may mean staying longer, fully embracing the wonder of novel cultural possibilities, and rectifying any damage done in the learning process. This we all can do, knowing that future generations will inherit the society and climate we shape today.
Richard Slimbach only allows himself one domestic flight for one conference each year. This year he’s attending the 6th GSL Summit at Clemson University, from Nov 3 – 5. Join us there; register now.
Richard Slimbach, raised and educated in California, is currently Professor of Global Studies at Azusa Pacific University. He created Azusa’s Los Angeles Term and Global Learning Term programs, and co-created the Transformational Urban Leadership program (focused exclusively on the planet’s one billion slum dwellers). A graduate of UCLA (Ph.D. in comparative and international education), he is the author of Becoming World Wise (Stylus, 2010) and The Art of World Learning (Stylus, 2019). He lives with Leslie, spouse of 36 years, and their two children (Justus and Destinae) in Monrovia, California.
 The AIEA maintains a fairly complete list of international education conferences: https://www.aieaworld.org/upcoming-conferences
Krause, M. (2018, Oct. 27). A Modest Proposal to Decentralize Annual Conferences. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@mwkraus/a-modest-proposal-to-decentralize-annual-confereces-f7b9abc00bfb
Wallace-Wells, D. (2017, July 9). The Uninhabitable Earth. New York magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html
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