Sep 18, 2023



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By Joe Fassler

Mr. Fassler is a journalist covering food and environmental issues.

If you’re a billionaire with a palatial boat, there's only one thing to do in mid-May: Chart your course for Istanbul and join your fellow elites for an Oscars-style ceremony honoring the builders, designers and owners of the world's most luxurious vessels, many of them over 200 feet long.

The nominations for the World Superyacht Awards were all delivered in 2022, and the largest contenders are essentially floating sea mansions, complete with amenities like glass elevators, glass-sided pools, Turkish baths and all-teak decks. The 223-foot Nebula, owned by the WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum, comes with an air-conditioned helicopter hangar.

I hate to be a wet blanket, but the ceremony in Istanbul is disgraceful. Owning or operating a superyacht is probably the most harmful thing an individual can do to the climate. If we’re serious about avoiding climate chaos, we need to tax, or at the very least shame, these resource-hoarding behemoths out of existence. In fact, taking on the carbon aristocracy, and their most emissions-intensive modes of travel and leisure, may be the best chance we have to improve our collective climate morale and increase our appetite for personal sacrifice, from individual behavior changes to sweeping policy mandates.

On an individual basis, the superrich pollute far more than the rest of us, and travel is one of the biggest parts of that footprint. Take, for instance, Rising Sun, the 454-foot, 82-room megaship owned by the DreamWorks co-founder David Geffen. According to a 2021 analysis in the journal Sustainability, the diesel fuel powering Mr. Geffen's boating habit spews an estimated 16,320 tons of carbon-dioxide-equivalent gases into the atmosphere annually, almost 800 times what the average American generates in a year.

And that's just a single ship. Worldwide, more than 5,500 private vessels clock in about 100 feet or longer, the size at which a yacht becomes a superyacht. This fleet pollutes as much as entire nations: The 300 biggest boats alone emit 315,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, based on their likely usage — about as much as Burundi's more than 10 million inhabitants. Indeed, a 200-foot vessel burns 132 gallons of diesel fuel an hour standing still and can guzzle 2,200 gallons just to travel 100 nautical miles.

Then there are the private jets, which make up a much higher overall contribution to climate change. Private aviation added 37 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2016, which rivals the annual emissions of Hong Kong or Ireland. (Private plane use has surged since then, so today's number is likely higher.)

You’re probably thinking: But isn't that a drop in the bucket compared with the thousands of coal plants around the world spewing carbon? It's a common sentiment; last year, Christophe Béchu, France's minister of the environment, dismissed calls to regulate yachts and chartered flights as "le buzz" — flashy, populist solutions that get people amped up but ultimately only fiddle at the margins of climate change.

But this misses a much more important point. Research in economics and psychology suggests humans are willing to behave altruistically — but only when they believe everyone is being asked to contribute. People "stop cooperating when they see that some are not doing their part," the cognitive scientists Nicolas Baumard and Coralie Chevallier wrote last year in Le Monde.

In that sense, superpolluting yachts and jets don't just worsen climate change; they lessen the chance that we will work together to fix it. Why bother when the luxury goods mogul Bernard Arnault is cruising around on the Symphony, a $150 million, 333-foot superyacht?

"If some people are allowed to emit 10 times as much carbon for their comfort," Mr. Baumard and Ms. Chevallier asked, "then why restrict your meat consumption, turn down your thermostat or limit your purchases of new products?"

Whether we’re talking about voluntary changes (insulating our attics and taking public transit) or mandated ones (tolerating a wind farm on the horizon or saying goodbye to a lush lawn), the climate fight hinges, to some extent, on our willingness to participate. When the ultrarich are given a free pass, we lose faith in the value of that sacrifice.

Taxes aimed at superyachts and private jets would take some of the sting out of these conversations, helping to improve everybody's climate morale, a term coined by the Georgetown Law professor Brian Galle. But making these overgrown toys a bit more costly isn't likely to change the behavior of the billionaires who buy them. Instead, we can impose new social costs through good, old-fashioned shaming.

Last June, @CelebJets — a Twitter account that tracked the flights of well-known figures using public data, then calculated their carbon emissions for all to see — revealed that the influencer Kylie Jenner took a 17-minute flight between two regional airports in California. One Twitter user wrote, "kylie jenner is out here taking 3 minute flights with her private jet, but I’m the one who has to use paper straws."

As media outlets around the world covered the backlash, other celebrities like Drake and Taylor Swift scrambled to defend their heavy reliance on private plane travel. (Twitter suspended the @CelebJets account in December after Elon Musk, a frequent target of jet-tracking accounts, acquired the platform.)

There's a lesson here: Hugely disproportionate per capita emissions get people angry. And they should. When billionaires squander our shared supply of resources on ridiculous boats or cushy chartered flights, it shortens the span of time available for the rest of us before the effects of warming become truly devastating. In this light, superyachts and private planes start to look less like extravagance and more like theft.

Change can happen — and quickly. French officials are exploring curbing private plane travel. And just last week — after sustained pressure from activists — Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam announced it would ban private jets as a climate-saving measure.

Even in the United States, carbon shaming can have outsize impact. Richard Aboulafia, who's been an aviation industry consultant and analyst for 35 years, says that cleaner, greener aviation, from all-electric city hoppers to a new class of sustainable fuels, is already on the horizon for short flights. Private aviation's high-net-worth customers just need more incentive to adopt these new technologies. Ultimately, he says, it's only our vigilance and pressure that will speed these changes along.

There's a similar opportunity with superyachts. Just look at Koru, Jeff Bezos’ newly built 416-foot megaship, a three-masted schooner that can reportedly cross the Atlantic on wind power alone. It's a start.

Even small victories challenge the standard narrative around climate change. We can say no to the idea of limitless plunder, of unjustifiable overconsumption. We can say no to the billionaires’ toys.

Joe Fassler is a journalist covering food and environmental issues. He is the author of "Light the Dark" and the forthcoming novel "The Sky Was Ours."

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