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Meet the former pilot working to reduce climate pollution from planes » Yale Climate Connections

Todd Smith always wanted to fly. But shortly after becoming a pilot and achieving his lifelong dream, he fell ill. During his required time off, he learned about the consequences of climate change and how the airline industry is a major polluter. So Smith cofounded Safe Landing, an organization for current and former airline employees who want to protect the climate and safeguard jobs for industry workers. 

Yale Climate Connections talked with Smith about his journey and about how airline workers are pushing for a cleaner industry. 

Yale Climate Connections: Can you start by telling us what you love about flying and a little bit about your background as a pilot?

Smith: I was inspired by an air show and from the age of five, my dream was always to fly. And after five years of training and two years working as a flying instructor, I got my break into the airline industry with a UK company called Thomas Cook, and I spent three years primarily flying medium-haul around Europe, sometimes to Africa. 

I loved the feeling of being up in the sky and both the tranquillity and the vastness of being in the air and looking down at our beautiful planet. And I loved how travel connected cultures and people from all around the world. People would generally be excited to be going somewhere and going on new adventures and to be a part of that was wonderful. And the thrill of landing, and crosswinds, or operating such complex systems within the airline industry was very fulfilling. I was an aerobatic pilot as well. I just loved being in the air.

YCC: Can you tell me about the health issues that affected your ability to be a pilot and how that started you thinking about climate change?  

Smith: Shortly into my career I had my medical revoked due to gut trouble, and that quickly resolved itself. And later on, whilst I was needing to prove my remission to return to aviation, I was bitten by a tick in a London park and diagnosed with Lyme disease. Lyme disease was a wake-up call for me because in the UK it was quite rare, and now [partly because of climate change] it’s affecting a lot of people. 

And during that same period, I used my staff travel benefits to go traveling. And I witnessed a climate event and mass tourism firsthand in a place called Rainbow Mountain in Peru. 

YCC: Can you describe what you witnessed at Rainbow Mountain?

Smith: Whilst on my trip to Peru, I went to Machu Picchu and there was this place that had been so-called “discovered recently.” It was a new tourist hot spot, and little did I know that it was because the snow had melted. So I made my way up there, and standing on top of this beautifully colored rainbow mountain, I couldn’t feel how bittersweet it was when the guide told me that Peru was one of the first countries to be hit by the climate crisis and that previously this mountain was completely covered by snow. 

And there were just thousands of tourists walking up the hill like ants. And every site that I’d visited was severely impacted by mass tourism, both rubbish and overpopulated areas, and it just felt like there wasn’t a point that was left untouched by our human impact.

YCC: Why was that a turning point for you? 

Smith: [With Lyme disease] as well as witnessing Rainbow Mountain in Peru, I was having firsthand experiences of the climate and biodiversity crisis and felt I needed to pay attention.

And I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t been educated in my studies of meteorology about the rapid deterioration of our climate systems. Once I realized what was going on, I studied as much as possible to try and understand the depth of it and felt a huge sense of conflict about my chosen career path and this new information and knowing the damage my industry was having on our planet. 

So knowing that my industry played a major part in that was something which took at least a couple of years to fully come to terms with because I wanted to stay in denial. I wanted to find the quick fix, but the deeper I looked, the more it became apparent that there wasn’t one.

YCC: How did you respond as that reality set in?

Smith: My first response was denial. I now know that I have been subject to something that’s termed eco-anxiety, which of course is a perfectly healthy and rational response to an existential threat. 

And I started to share articles that I’d seen with fellow colleagues, and I was met with a lot of resistance at the time and I was hugely unpopular for trying to speak out and raise awareness. I lost a lot of friends. I had to leave WhatsApp groups. I was bullied and ostracized by peers within the industry. And I don’t blame them to be honest, because you build such an identity around being a pilot. It’s way beyond a job, it’s a passion, and it runs in people’s blood. And given I wanted to do it since I was five years old, to be confronted with a reality which doesn’t fit in with my life aspirations was deeply uncomfortable. I had to go through a couple of years of depression and anxiety and absolute grief because that’s what was necessary to fully emotionally connect to the reality we find ourselves in. 

YCC: What is Safe Landing, and how did the group come about? 

Smith: Safe Landing is a group of aviation workers who are campaigning for longterm employment, and we do this by challenging industry leaders to conform with climate science and reject dangerous growth. And the group essentially grew organically.  

I was at an Extinction Rebellion local group meeting in London, and as we were going around introducing ourselves, I was feeling quite nervous at the thought of introducing myself as a pilot who was looking to return to the industry. And it turns out the guy sat next to me was also an airline pilot, and he’d studied environmental science, had a degree in that as well. And through that support of meeting other aviation workers, slowly but surely [Safe Landing] grew. 

Primarily we were there just to support each other when so many people in the industry were not willing to speak or to look at this. And there’s a bit of a paradox there because as pilots, we’re trained to think free from bias, to mitigate risk, to preserve life. And yet the evidence was clear from mainstream scientists that the trajectory that we were on was not going to ensure a livable future. And certainly, there wasn’t enough carbon budget for aviation to continue growing at the rate that’s forecast. We believe that if we continue to grow the industry unabated, then essentially a lot of destinations are going to become unvisitable. 

We’ve already seen airports underwater, wildfires affecting the airports. We’ve seen increased severe turbulence, heat waves affecting performance of aircraft, massive thunderstorms causing delays throughout days or weeks on end, and this is only set to get worse. 

We need to change course as quickly as possible.

Todd Smith

We need to really turn this ship around. At Safe Landing we believe that we all want to get to our destination when we get on a flight, but if at any point during the flight we encountered a problem which could impact the safety of a flight, then we would divert onto a safe trajectory. And we really feel that we need to change course as quickly as possible, and right now, the only thing we can do is fly less, and we need to ensure that workers from baggage handlers, air traffic controllers, cabin crew, et cetera, are supported through that transition.  

YCC: Are there specific policies that you’re calling on the industry to take?   

Smith: What we’ve seen historically — through the short-term thinking of board members, CEOs and politicians — is that they don’t care about the longevity of our career. But the workers do, so we really want to empower the workforce. So we’re championing the idea of a Workers’ Assembly, where workers from across the sector would come together, [to] fully understand from key stakeholders — both for and against climate action — what’s happening, the limits of technology. 

We believe that people make common-sense decisions when they’re provided with the facts. 

We don’t believe that we have all the answers, but we do think critical thinking is key.  

YCC: And what role do you see technology playing or not playing in this transition? 

Smith: Right now, electric aircraft would cover [short flight] routes and they’re not even yet certified and in service. But the main issue with the technology proposed is overcoming the long-haul flights. It could be several decades before something like a hydrogen aircraft can be designed, tested, and ready to replace some of the existing aircraft. 

In the meantime, there’s a lot of greenwash around what they’re calling sustainable aviation fuel. But when we actually look at the source of that feedstock, that so-called sustainable aviation fuel, it’s not coming from a renewable source. So it needs to come from a renewable source. 

And currently the forecast emissions from our sector is a tripling of emissions by 2050 [under a business-as-usual scenario]. So we really need to cut through that greenwash and the proposed technologies so that people really understand that the only thing we can do is to stop expanding the industry, and then look to find ways that we can move forward. 

One thing we’d love to see is a tax on jet fuel because currently, jet fuel is tax-free [in most countries]. So if we taxed jet fuel and had something like a frequent fly levy, that would really help build a pot of money which could be ring-fenced to support a just transition and also loss of damage for countries that are on the front lines and have least access to aviation. 

And lastly, there’s something called non-CO2 emissions. The contrails that are emitted in certain types of air can linger over our atmosphere at night and keep the heat within our atmosphere instead of escaping out into the cosmos. So, this is heating earth much quicker than just CO2. And even some of the technological proposals like hydrogen aircraft, for instance, still emit types of particles which do allow for contrail formation, and thus the non-CO2 impact isn’t addressed by that type of technology either.

YCC: As you’ve been doing this work and connecting with others in the industry who are also concerned, has it lessened your eco-anxiety at all?

Smith: It’s great to connect with other people who care, because I think we live in a culture of un-care. So for me to engage with this emotionally and to know what it means to be alive right now is kind of scary. But at the same time, I think it’s essential because there is a lot of uncertainty in this — extinction isn’t guaranteed, but it is a significant risk. There could be technological solutions that come about which aren’t currently on the landscape — we don’t know. But as it stands right now, there’s fantasy technology proposals and they can’t be scaled, so we have to be realistic about the current technology we have and our ability to reduce emissions and ensure that we do have a livable home for our generation and the future generations. 

The anxiety, I’d say, isn’t going to go anywhere. We’re going to continue to see wildfires, we’re going to continue to see hurricanes, severe weather events, et cetera. This is just the beginning. So it can become easier to navigate when you confront it and you’ve got a good community network around you, but the climate and biodiversity crisis are going to get much worse. There is always going to be an essential need for aviation, so there is a lot of work to be done. 

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