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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

How One Man Stopped Flying To Decrease His Carbon Footprint

 June 27, 2019 at 9:16 AM PDT

Speaker 1: 00:00 The buzz and travel stories this summer can be boiled down to a word over tourism. Millions of travelers around the move each day from Europe to Yosemite, from Hawaii to ant Arctic and of course on freeways throughout California. All of this burns fuels spewing huge amounts of greenhouse gases, but one of we all traveled a lot less. Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist based near Los Angeles. He wrote a book in 2017 about his personal quest to decrease his carbon footprint. It's called being the change live well and spark a climate revolution. A big part of the change for him was cutting out conventional travel as part of coverage from the KPBS climate change desk. Kalmus spoke with round table host Mark Sauer by Skype. Speaker 2: 00:49 Well, in 2010 you began a journey to decrease the amount of greenhouse gas emissions you were creating. What was the impetus for that? You know, when I was a graduate student in New York City, I started learning about climate change. I was studying astrophysics at the time, but I got more and more concerned about it as I learned more and you know, I couldn't believe that this wasn't a story at the top of the headlines every day and that people were seemed like they didn't really know about it and they weren't really doing much about it. And so eventually it dawned on me that one thing you know I could do was to reduce my own emissions. As my awareness grew, the feeling I had about my own emissions, my sense of not wanting to anymore, it got stronger and stronger. So I naturally started looking for ways to reduce and when I started figuring out where my emissions were actually coming from, to my surprise at that time, 75% the rounds of my ambitions were from air travel. Speaker 2: 01:45 So you haven't flown in a plane since 2012 what is the avoiding flying look like in your own life? Well, my parents live in Chicago. I'm in Los Angeles, so about once a year. That means a 4,000 mile trip either by train or by driving for several years. I would do that trip in a car that ran a waste vegetable oil. It was sort of a hobby of mine, milk, Mercedes. And then late last year I actually purchased an electric car, a Tesla. So in December, December and January we, my family and I did the trip over the mountains in the winter time in the Tesla and it worked totally fine. How did you find places to charge it along the way? Uh, well on all of the freeways right now, by every hundred miles, there's a supercharger from Tesla. So it's, it's actually quite easy. Um, it takes a little bit longer. Speaker 2: 02:35 Um, you know, to get a 100 miles of charge right now it takes about 15 or 20 minutes, uh, to get 200 miles of charge if you need that, it's more like 45 minutes. So you have to stop for lunch or dinner or something longer than that than stopping for gas. Obviously you a little bit longer, but, but you have more breaks and um, you know, you kind of have this break to look forward to. So it was actually kind of nice and understand, even skipped, uh, going on a trip to Paris with your family. How did that, how'd you come to that decision? You know, my family doesn't fly that much. I think my waste is taken only maybe two plane trips in the last four or five years. Um, this was something they'd been planning for awhile and really wanted to do. And I, I was sad not to be a part of it, but my sense of urgency about climate change has gotten so strong that that even a family trip to Paris isn't enough to get me on a plane. Speaker 2: 03:22 I mean, this is just, I see ecosystems breaking down. Um, I see a species struggling, you know, I see, uh, ice sheets melting away and heat waves getting worse and, um, you know, uh, sort of political ramifications from climate refugees and it's all breaking my heart. So it just wasn't, you know, it broke my heart to miss that trip with them, but it wasn't, it didn't rise to the level of getting me on a plane. Now, critics may say that your individual trainers are moaning the much we need systemic changes which are respond to absolutely. I feel so strongly about that myself. But when you think about it, what can we as we are individuals, that's just the fact, each one of us. So what can we do as individuals to push for that systemic collective change that we desperately need? Um, so as an advocate, as, as a scientist who speaks out about climate urgency, I think my message is made much, much stronger by my decision to use less fossil fuels. Speaker 2: 04:25 So that's one among very many ways that I pushed for, uh, this cultural shift that we need. The, the collective action will only happen. And once that happens, I think it'll happen pretty quickly. So I'm optimistic in that sense, but it will only happen once the public has a strong enough sense of urgency and that's going to take a cultural shift. So you're literally walking the walk. I mean, you ride your bike around, you're walking places, you're doing public transportation, anything to avoid the burning fossil fuels. By the way, we all jump in a car as individuals and a lot of that stuff that I do, I absolutely love. For example, riding a bike, it's my main form of exercise and I just feel super happy when I'm on a bike. I would completely do that the same way. Even if there wasn't any climate breakdown happening and the car culture has been ingrained for a century in places like southern California. Speaker 2: 05:13 How can that reasonably be changed? Well, I'm, so, cars are interesting, especially when you look at them and really relative to airplanes because there is sort of a path forward through electric vehicles where you can at least imagine some semblance of a carton free car culture. You know, I think there's other problems with the car culture. There's just too many cars on the road. It causes our cities to be too spread out. So maybe the personal car, and it's also incredibly expensive to own a personal vehicle the way we do. I mean, most of those cars are just sitting was at the time, so we may be moving away from that. But airplanes, there's no similar kind of technological paths towards Carbon Free Ava. You know, some, some technological optimists might disagree and say that electric planes are on the horizon, but I don't know fuel planes yet. Speaker 2: 06:02 Right? So the problem with biofuels is there's just not enough of it. You can certainly run airplanes on essentially vegetable oil like I was doing with my old 1984 Mercedes, right? Maybe, maybe algae. But it just takes an incredible amount of this stuff. And right now we don't have the capacity to make that much fuel. And then the problem with batteries and airplanes is the energy density just isn't there. I think, you know, it's almost maybe a factor of 10 to go, um, that, you know, the, the energy density, that amount of energy get per unit mass of the kerosene is just so much higher than what you get from batteries in a car. It's kind of wonderful to have that mass load on and you get this wonderful handling from having the battery down there. But in an airplane you have to lift that up into the air. Speaker 2: 06:46 And so it doesn't make sense energetically. Now if our listeners want to decrease their own carbon footprint in terms of travel, what do you recommend? So in terms of travel, um, you know, almost anything you do except maybe driving a very large SUV by yourself is going to be better than getting into a plane. So the main thing is probably to, you know, substitute a vacation on the other side of the world with something closer. So if there's something in your state or in a nearby state that you've always been kind of thinking would be kind of fun to explore and do maybe a road trip and you know, maybe fit your whole family into the vehicle, then you're going to have a substantial carbon savings. That way, the bus actually, um, you know, if you can, if you can stand being on a bus, the bus is the best. Speaker 2: 07:34 Uh, from a carbon emissions point of view, the best thing that you can take transportation wise, right in coach and a train is roughly half as much commission as this riding coach in an airplane in this country. So we have a ways to go to decarbonize our train system in Europe, for example, they've, they've made significant inroads there are, you know, because you can obviously electrify trains in a way that you can't electrify airplanes or that we haven't so far been able to electrify airplanes. All right. Well, Peter Calamus, thanks for joining us today. Thanks for having me, mark. Speaker 1: 08:04 For more from the KPBS climate change desk, visit kpbs.org/climate change.

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Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist based near Los Angeles. In 2010, he began a personal quest to decrease his carbon footprint.
KPBS Midday Edition Segments