Among the many updates this week on Taylor Swift – Grammy record-breaker, cultural bellwether, billionaire pop star and NFL superfan – is the revelation that she recently offloaded one of her two private jets.
The move to reduce her jumbo-sized carbon footprint was dented, however, when it coincided with news that the singer had brought the heft of her mighty legal team down upon a college student who uses government data and automated bots to track the planet-heating emissions from these private jets, then shares that information on social media.
Jack Sweeney, who attends the University of Central Florida, received a “cease-and-desist” letter from law firm Venable on 22 December 2023, which accused the 21-year-old of engaging in “stalking and harassing behavior”.
“While this may be a game to you, or an avenue that you hope will earn you wealth or fame, it is a life-or-death matter for our Client,” wrote lawyer, Katie Morrone. “Ms Swift has dealt with stalkers and other individuals who wish her harm.”
The letter claimed that the information Mr Sweeney was sharing was creating a “roadmap” for stalkers “intent on harming her, or with nefarious or violent intentions”.
This week, Mr Sweeney provided the link to the letter and told The Independent that his intentions were never to cause Swift harm – and that he likes some of her songs.
“But I believe in the importance of transparency and public information,” he wrote, in an email.
He continued: “It’s worth noting, as reported by [the Washington Post], that this letter surfaced days after headlines criticized her jet use and its carbon emissions.”
Mr Sweeney also argued that the information on the jet-tracking accounts is similar to that which can be gleaned from her concert schedule or NFL games, as to her whereabouts.
Over the past few months, Swift’s copious private jet travel has drawn intense scrutiny as she has pinged from one continent to another in order to fulfill her global tour dates and attend the NFL fixtures of her new boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end, Travis Kelce.
Even the star’s devoted fans are struggling to defend her potential impact on the environment. On the Taylor Swift subreddit, home to 1.7million “Swifties”, the criticism was, well, swift.
“I’m really disappointed, tbh. This is such a cruel move. It’s public info that’s already out there, there’s not much she can do, but threatening a college kid over this is just cruel,” wrote one user about the legal letter to Mr Sweeney.
“What a way to focus on her carbon footprint though,” they added, with the comment upvoted as “helpful” by 6,700 Redditors.
Another wrote: “At this point, I just want to donate to this poor kid’s research project. They’re doing important work and I generally think that if you’re pissing off billionaires, I’m here to support you.”
This redditor followed it up with: “The more I think about it, the madder I am. Like, I am really just here for Taylor’s music and don’t really care about her personal life, but this s*** is just so gross.”
In a statement to The Independent, Swift’s spokesperson addressed the letter sent to Mr Sweeney and the star’s air travel.
“We cannot comment on any ongoing police investigation but can confirm the timing of stalkers suggests a connection. His posts tell you exactly when and where she would be,” the statement read.
“Before the tour kicked off, Taylor purchased more than double the carbon credits needed to offset all of her travel, which includes the tour.”
The Independent sought to clarify which law enforcement agencies are investigating and what evidence has surfaced that stalkers have waited for Swift’s plane at airports, or discovered her location from online jet-tracking. No response was received by the time of publication.
The Independent also asked which carbon credit program Swift uses, and whether it would also cover her private jet travel outside of her tour but also received no answer.
Carbon credit schemes, intended to allow individuals or companies to “offset” greenhouse gas emissions, are notoriously unregulated, and have been found to do more harm than good.
“Super-rich celebrities such as Taylor Swift burn up our planet and cost the rest of us. Private jets are the most climate-wrecking form of transport and are the pinnacle of climate injustice,” Hannah Lawrence, from Stay Grounded, a climate action network working to reduce air travel particularly from private jets, told The Independent.
It is true, however, that Swift has faced very real threats to her safety.
Last month, David Crowe, 33, from Seattle, was arrested outside of her Manhattan home. Court records revealed he had stalked and harassed the singer, going to her apartment more than 30 times before being jailed. She has also been the target of several stalkers over the years at her properties in New York, California and Rhode Island.
Swift is flanked by security when she makes regular outings to Manhattan restaurants with A-list friends, and when she attends NFL games just feet from thousands of other football fans.
Meanwhile, global air travel in the wake of 9/11 is generally conducted under tight security and surveillance both within airport grounds and surrounding areas.
Besides Swift, Mr Sweeney has dozens of social media accounts tracking the private planes of other high-profile figures such as Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Kylie Jenner, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg.
He also tracks Elon Musk who shut down the account, Elonjet, when he purchased Twitter, claiming it was a “physical safety violation”. Mr Sweeney now operates an account on X, formerly Twitter, called ElonJetNextDay which tracks the billionaire’s planes 24 hours after the fact.
All the accounts share flight paths and distance, the cost and quantity of jet fuel, and the amount of emissions.
Flying is one of the most emissions-intensive pursuits for an individual, and the carbon footprint grows by ticket class – and rockets with private jet travel. A 2023 study by the Institute for Policy Studies found that private jets emit at least 10 times more pollutants per passenger than flying commercial.
Swift, of course, is hardly alone in the billionaire class when it comes to picking up a private plane like a public bus.
Some devoted Swifties were quick to point out other celebrities flying private, in particular the tone-deaf Kylie Jenner who posted on Instagram last year a picture with former boyfriend Travis Scott in the middle of their two jets. “You wanna take mine or yours?” she captioned the photo.
Who ranks as the worst offender of the 0.01 per cent is hard to know. For example, Myclimate carbon tracker, which tracks private jet emissions, doesn’t list Swift in its top 30 for international travel last year. “We do not claim that the numbers in our ranking are 100% accurate. The ranking is intended to raise awareness for an extended travel behavior and the problems it causes for our planet,” a disclaimer reads.
The typical private jet owner is an American male over the age of 50, working in banking, finance, and real estate, according to the High Flyers 2023 report
Yet unlike faceless corporate men, Swift’s immense success and popularity has turned her into a unique cultural lightning rod with the ability to sway millions of fans – a fact which recently inspired a MAGA-ville meltdown of conspiracy theories that she would use the Superbowl to tell Americans to vote for Joe Biden in the upcoming presidential election.
Her anticipated attendance at the Super Bowl on Sunday night in Las Vegas will require a race around the world from Tokyo, where she is currently on tour. Such is the obsession with her appearance at the game, that the Embassy of Japan in the US even weighed in to reassure everyone that Swift would make it there on time.
Gregory Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan, estimated for The AP that Swift’s 19,400 miles by private jet in under two weeks has released more than 200,000 pounds of carbon emissions. That’s about 14 times more than the average American household emits in a whole year, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
Her global reach could inspire millions of others to rethink just how often they need to fly and have significant impact. A 2023 report on Swift by Statista, a data intelligence platform, revealed that she had “unprecedented cultural and economic impact”.
Flying is expected to boom in the coming decades after aviation’s carbon emissions grew by 75 per cent from 1990 to 2012, according to the David Suzuki Foundation. If left unchecked, they could consume quarter of the available carbon budget for limiting temperature rise to 1.5C, the research group said.
“Taylor Swift justifies her private jet use through carbon offsetting but this is actually worse than doing nothing as it takes resources from the global majority to justify the outrageous emissions of a wealthy minority,” Ms Lawrence, from Stay Grounded, said.
“Rather than focusing on threatening legal action and buying ineffective carbon credits she should commit to putting a complete end to her utterly unjust use of private jets.”