Flygskam, the Swedish word describing the climate guilt one feels when flying, became a mainstream word in the English language last year. The word’s popularity symbolized the breakthrough of the flight shame movement in the Western world. This opinion piece will argue that the growth of flight shame is about to accelerate rapidly, as a direct result of the outbreak of COVID-19.
COVID-19 and Global Warming
Most governments, especially in the Western world, did not respond to the outbreak of COVID-19 robustly. The lack of action persisted despite the overwhelming evidence of the severity of this outbreak. Furthermore, many governments had knowledge that their healthcare systems did not have the capacity to respond.
The British Government conducted a pandemic exercise in 2016 which found that the country could not cope with an epidemic outbreak. And yet the follow-up recommendations were never properly implemented, reports The Guardian.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 death toll continues to rise worldwide. As societies begin asking what could have been done to prepare for the epidemic better, global warming will inevitably surface as another looming natural phenomenon. Rightly or wrongly, pressure will grow on governments to demonstrate what they are doing to prepare for impact this time around.
Warnings from environmental activists decrying over-consumption and air pollution will no longer be seen as far-fetched by as many people as before. Not everyone will think this way, but inevitably a share of the population will begin eerily sensing a resemblance between the lack of robust preparation for the COVID-19 outbreak and for increased global warming. There will be people who start feeling flight shame for the first time.
There will be knock-on effects. It will become politically costly for governments to justify decisions that are perceived as damaging to the environment. The aviation industry will come under major scrutiny for the way its activity is taxed and for the public financing it receives. It will become increasingly difficult for local and national governments to justify Public Service Obligation contracts. Airport expansion projects will be met with far more protests.
Airlines serving Western markets can expect environmentalist activists and everyday citizens to step up their efforts for change. The flight shame movement is already disrupting the Nordic and German aviation markets. European flight growth has been falling. These disruptions will intensify, and spread further.
Halting flights is no longer far fetched
One of the strongest objections to flight shame has always been that it would lead to too much disruption across so many industries. Business travel, tourism, supply chains, postal cargo, and diplomatic relations are among the many crucial elements of society that depend on aviation. It was thought that the flight shame movement could not be effective without also reducing those vital social functions.
And yet, most aircraft in the world are now grounded, occupying tarmacs across all continents. The economic damage and the disruption to society has already happened. So what will stop environmental pressure groups from claiming that governments should use the gradual emergence out of economic and societal lockdown to reduce our dependence on aviation?
By no means will everyone start thinking in this way. And I expect that many who make parallels between global warming and COVID-19 will be those who are already converted to the environmentalist cause anyhow.
But there will be some who do change their minds. Probably a fairly small share of the total population – but large enough to have a marked impact on the aviation industry.