“Flight Shame” arrives in the United States – via Greta Thunberg’s sailboat


A year ago, a 15-year-old in leopard-print tights sat outside the Swedish Parliament building with a purple backpack and a sign announcing that she was on strike against climate change.

This week, Greta Thunberg arrived in New York aboard a solar-powered sailboat, now the 16-year-old child star of climate anxiety among younger generations. As evidenced by the coverage of his carbon-neutral trip, one concept has also swept across Europe in just a few short years: the shame of theft, often hashtagged in the original Swedish, #flygskam.

It didn’t start with Greta, but something in her passion for the matter fueled her compatriots’ unease over the carbon-spitting vacation in Thailand. As Greta inspired youth strikes around the world, took the train to Davos to scold world leaders and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, the Swedes have changed their behavior.

Greta Thunberg inspired youth strikes on the topic of climate change around the world. She paraded behind a banner at a student protest in Stockholm.


jonathan nackstrand / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images

Passengers on domestic flights fell 8% this year through July, compared to the same period in 2018, according to Swedish airport operator Swedavia, while international passengers fell 3%. The weak Swedish krona may have held back some travel, at least overseas, but it appears that many non-tour operators took the train instead, judging by an 8% increase in travel reported by the Swedish rail operator SJ during the first quarter of this year.

There was also a hashtag for it: #tagskryt, or train bragging, which was also quickly adopted by non-Swedes.

So far, the shame of thefts and the bragging of the trains have been largely a European phenomenon, in part aided by factors such as carbon taxes which increase the cost of flights. The Green Party of Germany wants to make domestic flights obsolete by 2035.

The IATA air trade group says the aviation industry is now responsible for around 2% of global carbon emissions. In June, seven aerospace companies, including Boeing Co.

and Airbus SE promised more action on emissions. Airlines, including in the United States, have launched sustainability campaigns and tout more fuel efficient engines and measures such as converting waste into jet fuel. Once again, Europe has been at the forefront; KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has even urged its customers to fly less, suggesting that they take the train for shorter trips or meet by video conference.

When Greta arrived in New York, the question was whether the shame of the theft would strike a nerve in America as well.

Greta Thunberg, speaking in New York after her transatlantic crossing, has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


Lev Radin / Pacific Press / Zuma Press

Rail travel is a viable option in most countries in Europe, but less so in much of the United States. And US demand for air travel is increasing, not decreasing. Ed Bastian, managing director of Delta Air Lines Inc., told the Wall Street Journal in July that he didn’t expect environmental concerns to sidetrack this.

“We provide an incredibly important service to customers,” he said. “You have to balance the social responsibilities we have for our planet; on the other hand, we know that our customers want to connect all over the world and be more connected to other places in the world … this is our function in society.

Industry trade group Airlines for America points out that U.S. carriers carried 42% more passengers and cargo in 2018 compared to 2000, with a total emissions increase of just 3%. “We are confident that when our passengers know the facts about our environmental record and all that we are doing to connect the world, they will remain proud to fly,” said Nancy Young, group vice president of environmental affairs.

Kristin Hogue, who is starting a doctorate. program to study the intersection of culture and climate at the University of California, Davis, challenges the idea that individuals should feel guilty for stealing. She has traveled to climate-related events for the past year with her daughter, Alexandria Villaseñor, 14, who is something of an American Greta, regularly demonstrating outside the United Nations in New York and often speaking to leaders. policies.

“We believe people should take individual action if they can. Some people have to fly for work or for their family and we will not shame them, ”said Hogue. “Businesses need to take responsibility and offer alternatives to travel,” she said.

For anyone who pledges not to fly, a myriad of obstacles quickly arise, even if no ocean crossing is involved.

Roger Tyers, an environmental sociology researcher at the University of Southampton, had pledged not to fly this year or next when he won a scholarship to study Chinese attitudes towards sustainability . True to his word, he embarked on a two-week trip to Beijing involving 21 rail connections. It all cost over £ 2,000 (around $ 2,400), almost three times the cost of a return flight. Yet he qualifies his trip as “flying” in terms of carbon emissions.

Mr. Tyers emphasizes that there was no shame. “Some pilots may feel ‘shame’, ‘unease’ or ‘unease’ because of the disconnect between their environmental concern and their flying behavior,” he wrote in an email. “That’s what happened to me, so I quit.”

Such introspection is also at the root of behavior change in Sweden, according to academics.

“Shame is often seen as a bad emotion, but it can also be an important emotional carrier of information that encourages us to take responsibility for our actions,” says Maria Wolrath-Söderberg, researcher at Södertörn University in Stockholm who studies climate rhetoric. . “Culturally, we Swedes have cultivated the idea that the environment is important. At the same time, we are among the populations with the largest carbon footprint. The awareness of this gap has started to increase in the consciousness of the Swedes and it hurts.

Ms Wolrath-Söderberg said her ongoing research shows the importance of role models for people who decide to stop flying. “Many have told us that they took this step after a specific person inspired them or they deepened the painful divide between who you want to be and how you actually live. , that person was a child, grandchild or Greta.

Greta Thunberg is in New York to attend a United Nations summit on climate change.


andrew kelly / Reuters

As Greta herself jumped ashore in lower Manhattan on Wednesday after 13 days at sea, loud cheers rose from the hundreds in attendance to greet her. Greta’s 14-year-old counterpart Ms Villaseñor was there to introduce her at a brief press conference.

Amanda LaValle, a mother of three from Kingston, NY, brought her two oldest daughters to the crowd. “I encourage them to get involved. I already blew my own climatic credentials by having three children, ”she said, half-jokingly.

She recognized how difficult it can be to put her principles into practice. Earlier in August, when she was due to travel to Minneapolis for a three-day training sponsored by Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, she briefly considered taking the train. But, she said, “It would have taken two days and I couldn’t see taking any more time away from my family.”

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Greta’s trip had its own critics, who pointed out that some of the crew will return by plane, while others will fly to bring the boat back to Europe.

Boris Herrmann, captain of the sailboat Malizia II, said criticism was expected but Greta should not be held responsible for the flights of crew members. “We’re kind of the ferry to bring it. We are a professional sailing team and sometimes we have to fly. We also used this trip for training, ”he said, adding that the team compensates for their flights by funding sustainability projects, including planting mangroves in Indonesia. “Travel is an example of how difficult it is to have a zero carbon impact.”

Write to Sofia McFarland at sofia.mcfarland@wsj.com

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