Does global warming make air travel unethical?

That’s the question recently considered by two blogging economists, Tyler Cowen and Will Wilkinson. One reader presents his situation:

“If I don’t fly from London to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand she will be upset, I will cause her pain and so that’s morally bad. If I do fly to my sister’s wedding in New Zealand I will put about four tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which will contribute to climate change, which, according to the World Health Organisation, already causes about 150,000 deaths every year. Clearly that’s also morally bad. Which is the morally correct thing to do?”

Tyler seems to punt on this question, stating that having children is much worse for the environment than flying. He writes, a little tongue-in-cheek, “So people with no biological children should be allowed to fly a lot and people with lots of biological children should not get to fly so much at all.” I don’t think Tyler’s actually recommending a new law, or a “carbon quota”; instead, he’s just trying to re-order our priorities a little. Sure, flying is bad for the environment, but having children is much worse.

Will Wilkinson answers the same question another way. “Your choice is very unlikely to determine whether or not an airplane leaves London for New Zealand. So, chances are extremely high that the same amount of carbon will be emitted whether or not you choose to go… So, if not being a horrible selfish brat of a brother matters to you at all, then you should go.”

Just like voting, one individual flying on a plane is highly unlikely to make a difference to the environment in the grand scheme of things. To forego a trip to New Zealand for your sister’s wedding would be almost completely symbolic– that plane is leaving with or without you. But if you care enough about global warming to make such a choice, you might surprise people with your principle, and change their behaviors too.

Still, if it were me, I’m getting on that plane.

Check out Gadling’s recent interview with Tyler Cowen here.