Science·What on Earth?

This former pilot says people need to fly less for the sake of the environment

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we speak to a former pilot who criticizes the aviation industry's carbon footprint and explore what Niagara wine producers are doing to save their businesses in the face of climate change.

Also: The Florida town that survived Hurricane Ian

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This weekly newsletter is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page.

Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox every Thursday.

This week:

  • This former pilot says people need to fly less for the sake of the environment
  • How a Florida town showed climate resiliency during Hurricane Ian
  • For Niagara winemakers and grape growers, adapting to climate change is a matter of survival

This former pilot says people need to fly less for the sake of the environment

Man in pilot uniform.
(Submitted by Todd Smith)

As far back as age five, Todd Smith wanted to be a pilot. In the wake of the Great Recession of 2008-2009, the Briton spent tens of thousands of pounds on flight training lessons, eventually getting a job as a pilot with British travel company Thomas Cook. But by 2017, he was having second thoughts. While dealing with some health issues, he began to question his role in an industry that accounts for two to three per cent of global emissions, a percentage that is only likely to grow in the coming years. The 33-year-old eventually quit his job, began working with British eco-activists Extinction Rebellion and co-founded Safe Landing, an organization made up of current and former aviation workers trying to ensure the long-term viability of flying while "challenging industry leaders to conform with climate science and reject dangerous growth." Andre Mayer spoke to Smith — who lives on a canal boat in London — about his decision to leave the industry and how he thinks it can be reformed.

What was the moment that made you realize you needed to change?

I was at Rainbow Mountain in Peru, witnessing this beautiful sight, but with this real sense of: I shouldn't be able to see this. It should be covered in snow. People were walking up and down like an anthill, and the guide was saying that Peru was one of the first countries to be hit by the climate crisis.

At the time, I was developing a relationship with Earth and the biosphere. I came to the realization that [climate change] is happening, it's happening now, and my career, in essence my whole identity, is wrapped up in part of the problem. It was a moral injury to have been part of this industry. COVID happened, and it was the final straw for me. 

Do you think the average consumer appreciates aviation's impact on the environment?

We've all been birthed into a culture in the Global North in which we want to experience the world, connect with others in the world, and that is a beautiful thing. And ultimately, the reason we travel is because we love to experience Earth and the beautiful areas that are normally inaccessible, and for those reasons, aviation is wonderful. 

But the reality of the trajectory that we're on for 2050 is that we could be hitting two degrees [warming] — that's 99 per cent of coral reefs dead, rainforests turned into savannah, up to 700 million Africans displaced. If we're going to continue to travel in the future, without taking proportionate action now, then we're going to witness the decimation of the natural world. I don't think that's a future that most people would want to subscribe to. 

What is the purpose of Safe Landing?

Our primary purpose is to ensure long-term employment in the aviation industry. [Climate change] will lead to a much bigger crash when [current aviation] policy meets science.

Safe Landing warns that the continued growth of the airline industry is unsustainable. What measures could have a meaningful effect on emissions?

We've got one per cent creating 50 per cent of global aviation emissions…. This polluting elite needs to pay more [to fly], to fund this carbon capture technology — not the taxpayers. Or [governments need to] essentially put in a regulation to stop people from flying so much. We've got to start thinking more holistically. The International Energy Agency has said we need a cap on long-haul growth.... We are moving into a period of recognizing that the growth paradigm is an impossibility. 

Convincing people to fly less seems like a tall order. How do you go about doing that?

We want to tell a new story, that we ultimately need to decelerate our lives, be realistic about where we're at, so we can ensure a sustainable industry in the future, on a safer trajectory.

We need to recast the relationship between us and the planet, which is a living organism, the life support systems that actually nourish us and provide us with the air that we're breathing — in the same way that the air in the cabin of aircraft does. This is a system failure — we need to divert and change course immediately to ensure survival.

— Andre Mayer

This interview has been edited and condensed.

You can read Andre Mayer's feature story on the environmental cost of flying here.

Reader feedback

Rick Cheeseman:

"I was very encouraged by the 'Can comedy be a climate solution?' article. Am I reading too much into this or could comedy be a strong counter to far-right indoctrination? It just feels so YES!! If you agree, and if you can, please tell me how I can further this tack. I am about as funny as a blank wall, but I will do what I can. Right now, it appears that the far right, in the form of oligarchs in all countries and their climate-denying, paltering corporate friends, are the single greatest threat to humanity."

Write us at

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

CBC News has a dedicated climate page, which can be found here.

Also, check out our radio show and podcast. Scientists are noticing changes in the behaviour of tornadoes in Canada, putting people and property at risk. This week on What On Earth, we hear from a man who survived a deadly twister and the researchers pushing for solutions, like "seatbelts" for roofs. What On Earth now airs on Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: The Florida town that survived Hurricane Ian

Climate change is throwing all kinds of nasty weather at us. Much of the news coverage of wildfires and storms understandably focuses on the damage and cleanup, but one upshot of extreme weather events is that they show us which pieces of infrastructure are built to last. 

Florida is more vulnerable than most U.S. states to unstable weather, and earlier this month, Hurricane Ian walloped the Sunshine State, wreaking particular havoc in Fort Myers and Naples, with winds of more than 160 km/h and massive storm surge. The hurricane ended up knocking out power to more than 2.6 million customers.

But just 20 kilometres southeast of Fort Myers, in a neighbourhood called Babcock Ranch, the power stayed on. Located in a state where most electricity is generated by natural gas, Babcock Ranch bills itself as "America's first solar-powered town." It features a solar array containing 700,000 panels, which more than cover the electricity needs of the 2,000 homes there. Hurricane Ian damaged some roofs and blew over some trees, but for the most part, Babcock Ranch was spared. According to one resident, "We have water, electricity, internet — and we may be the only people in southwest Florida who are that fortunate." Perhaps the greatest testament to Babcock Ranch's resilience is that it became a temporary refuge for some people stranded by disaster in neighbouring parts of the state.

An array of solar panels.
(Kerry Sheridan/AFP/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

For Niagara winemakers and grape growers, adapting to climate change is a matter of survival

A man holds grapes used to make wine.
(Mark Bochsler/CBC)

Extreme weather is hitting the global wine industry hard.

For example, spring frost blasted through France last year, which resulted in the country experiencing its smallest harvest since 1957, costing the industry around $2 billion US in sales

A growing number of winemakers in Europe are embracing sustainable practices to conserve energy, reduce water and maintain healthy soils in the face of extreme weather — and some wineries in Ontario's Niagara region are following suit to adapt to drought, heat waves and prolonged rainfall.

Niagara winemaker Bob Nedelko, the owner of Ivan's Vineyard, said he was prepared to experience good years and bad when he bought his vineyard in 2008. But climate change wasn't something he thought about. That's now changed.

"I've been able to witness some of the effects of it over time," he said. 

Nedelko said heavy rains last fall, followed by freezing temperatures, caused some of his vines to die.

"I cringe at the words 'polar vortex,'" he said, referring to the weather phenomenon that often pushes cold, Arctic-like conditions to southern Canada and has been known to destroy entire grape crops in the province.

Matthias Oppenlaender, chair of Grape Growers of Ontario, told CBC Hamilton in July that the impact of extreme climate events is more concerning each year, with last winter's frigid temperatures causing some of the worst damage the Niagara region has seen in 17 years.

Early estimates show around 50 per cent of grape vines in Ontario were damaged by extreme temperatures.

"Depending on the extent of the damage, it takes us a couple of years to come back to a full crop and that's providing that Mother Nature will be kind to us over the next couple of winters."

It's reasons like these that growers like Nedelko are embracing sustainable practices to withstand some effects of climate change. 

Some vineyards encourage natural flora to grow between the vines or plant cover crops like buckwheat or clover, a practice that has been shown to help manage weeds, control vine growth, improve soil health and reduce erosion.

Nedelko's vineyard is one of 53 listed by Sustainable Winegrowing Ontario Certified (SWO), which certifies wineries and vineyards as sustainable. The organization says it takes into account how vintners and growers manage a variety of factors that relate to sustainability, including soil health, biodiversity, water management, waste management and energy efficiency. 

Participants then undergo third-party auditing annually to ensure they adhere to these environmentally sustainable practices. 

"There's a big focus on trying to understand when is the best time to water or irrigate the grapes. How little is enough? How can we look at reducing the amount of water?" said Andrea Kaiser, chair of SWO and brand manager at Reif Estate Winery in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Kaiser said adaptation is crucial from an environmental and economic perspective. 

"Being sustainable also means being able to keep the farm in business for future generations so that it stays farmland and doesn't become developed," she said. "There really isn't a choice."

Teaching the next generation of winemakers about sustainability and climate change has become a key focus at Niagara College. Winemaking professor Gavin Robertson (photo above) said discussing the importance of installing irrigation to ward off drought or setting up wind machines to help pull warm air down on cold nights weren't things winemakers considered decades ago. 

Anthony Shaw, professor emeritus at Brock University in geography and tourism studies, said there are some advantages to climate change for wine growers in Ontario. 

He said Ontario's temperature has been steadily increasing over the past 50 years and that the warming trend has extended the province's growing season, allowing popular varietals — like cabernet sauvignon and shiraz — to flourish.

Shaw also notes that a warmer climate could expand wine production into areas in Ontario not typically known for it, such as Grey County in the province's southwest and Durham County east of Toronto.

Unprecedented heat waves and drought conditions in British Columbia last year undoubtedly contributed to smaller wine grape crops, but also resulted in smaller grapes that produced a stronger concentration of flavour in the fruit, leading growers to anticipate an excellent vintage from their 2021 crops, despite lower yields.

Shaw warns, however, that a longer, warmer growing season can lead to a fairly wet fall, which can be problematic for growers.

"There is a great deal of volatility. It's not a great industry to be in if you want to sleep well at night," said Shaw.

Idil Mussa

Stay in touch!

Are there issues you'd like us to cover? Questions you want answered? Do you just want to share a kind word? We'd love to hear from you. Email us at

Sign up here to get What on Earth? in your inbox every Thursday.

Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now