Around 25,000 of my colleagues flew to a conference, leaving a colossal carbon footprint in their wake. This makes our warnings less credible to the public
This weekend, 25,000 Earth, Sun, and planetary scientists from across the US and abroad flew to New Orleans for the annual American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting. These scientists study the impact global warming is having on Earth. Unfortunately, their air travel to and from the meeting will contribute to that warming by emitting around 30,000 tonnes of CO2.
As an Earth scientist and AGU member myself, I know the importance of their work. Still, there’s something wrong with this picture. As scientists, our work informs us – with dreadful clarity and urgency – that burning fossil fuel is destroying the life support systems on our planet. There’s already more than enough science to know we need to stop. Yet most scientists burn more than the average American, simply because they fly more.
I haven’t flown since 2012, nor have I wanted to
Few people know how harmful it is to fly in planes, including scientists. In 2010, I sat down and estimated my climate emissions. It turns out that, hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly. I’d flown 50,000 miles during the year, mostly to scientific meetings. Those flights accounted for 3/4 of my annual emissions. Over the next two years, I gradually decreased my flying.
Eventually, there came a day when I was on the runway about to take off and felt an overwhelming desire not to be on the plane. I saw too clearly the harm it was doing to the world’s children, to all the beings on our planet. I haven’t flown since 2012, nor have I wanted to.
Climate activists tend to fly a lot. This sends its own contradictory message
Today, while I know that my career could progress slightly faster if I flew, I find it hard to imagine a scenario that would make flying seem worthwhile to me. (If I really want to attend a conference in person, I take the train.) And I’ve realized that the main impact of reducing our emissions isn’t the emissions reduction itself: by modeling change, we tell a new story of what’s possible, shifting the culture and opening space for large-scale change.
In becoming scientists, we didn’t sign up to burn less fossil fuel or to be activists. But in the case of Earth science, we have front row seats to an unfolding catastrophe. Because of this, the public takes our temperature: if the experts don’t seem worried, how bad can it be?
When we make a conscious effort to contribute less to global warming, we can better communicate the urgency of the Earth system changes we’re seeing. As a citizen and a father, I know I feel a responsibility to sound the alarm. Not to do so, for me, would be a kind of denial.
I’m not alone. Over 400 academics have signed a petition at flyingless.org, and a few Earth scientists have joined me in telling their stories at noflyclimatesci.org. Together, we’re pushing for increased use of web-based and regional meetings, more remote support from the AGU, and more support from our academic institutions, which ostensibly exist to make the world a better place.
Like academics, climate activists also tend to fly a lot. This sends its own contradictory message: if the people urging us to burn less can’t even do it, then it must be impossible. But in reality, many of us could cut our emissions in half with little effort.
People who’ve gone even further than this report that their lives become more abundant and satisfying as a result, not less.
I’d love to see what would happen if prominent climate activists and outspoken celebrities would consciously, publicly, and radically reduce their own fossil fuel use. They could begin by flying less.
Burning fossil fuel causes real harm, and will become socially unacceptable sooner or later. Those of us who know the seriousness of global warming must do everything we can to stop it, and like it or not, AGU scientists play a key role. Once this shift gains momentum, policy and systems-level change will follow more quickly than we can imagine.
- Peter Kalmus is an atmospheric scientist at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but is writing in a personal capacity. He is the author of
Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution