Nuture has a letter from David Gremillet who says: Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the environmental impact of their work… reduce our carbon footprint by attending fewer scientific conferences… Regular long-distance flying can easily triple an academic’s carbon footprint. During the past year, I have ‘spent’ about nine tonnes of carbon, two-thirds of this on plane trips. Yet I am a good consumer otherwise (see http://www.carbonfootprint.com), and I don’t even own a car. Such figures are particularly hard for field ecologists to stomach, as we hope our long-term work will highlight the environmental consequences of climate change and may ultimately influence the public and policy-makers.

The last sentence is rather problematic: is it necessary for field ecologists to believe in global warming? Could someone skeptical of global warming still be a good field ecologist? Would it indeed be better if field ecologists didn’t worry about policy implications but just did good science? Some scientists (most obviously Hansen) make no bones about using their visibility for advocacy. Most are uncomfortable in that role.

One is left wondering whether the carbon footprints of ecologists outweigh the environmental benefits of their findings and of their lobbying. Lobbying? Hmm.

The outcome is a personal decision that may be dictated more by ambition than by environmental awareness. Yep, I think that is most likely. But not just ambition. Flying off around the world is fun (if you don’t overdo it) and one of the perks of the job.

Nevertheless, as a German environmental campaigner told me 15 years ago, “Industry would be all too pleased if we did not attend distant meetings because we refuse to board aeroplanes.” Nah, don’t believe it. That just excuse making.

The bottom line, I think, is that even those who are supposedly most aware of global warming and its effects aren’t about to stop flying around the planet if their careers “require” it. So why should the ignorant unwashed masses do any better?

[Update: funnily enough, this just came my way: I'm writing on behalf of the Toyota International Teacher Program to request a phone number where we can reach you? Toyota is sending U.S. teachers to the Galapagos Islands, Costa Rica and another soon to me announced location, in order to study environmental issues and observe new cultures so that they may implement their findings in the classroom. This program strives to improve environmental education in our schools. We are currently searching for environmental and education bloggers to accompany the teachers on these trips (all expenses paid) and blog about the experience. At least its cheaper (CO2-wise) than sending teachers up in space shuttles. And less dangerous.]

Comments

  1. #1 Phil
    2008/11/10

    No. One only need worry if one is adding incremental pollution. When the plane was going to leave anyway whether or not you were on it is the point. If the bus is going on its route its going whether its full or empty. Traveling by car to a conference instead of bus would be adding incremental pollution.

    [And moral vegetarians need not worry about eating meat, because the animal is already dead. And you do not bother to vote, because one vote more or less will not decide the election. And... -W]

  2. #2 Moderately Unbalanced Squid
    2008/11/10

    Is it not reasonable to avoid the notion of all-or-nothing in favor of a more nuanced solution?

    I don’t believe anyone thinks air travel and the need for it will vanish in the decades to come. But isn’t it reasonable to ask both those who are “aware” and the “unwashed masses” to examine their flying habits and decide on priorities?

    Perhaps an arrangement to cooperate with local scientists in field biology (e.g. for a five-year project, find a local scientist to partner with and fly to the site once at the beginning of the project to coordinate methods and once at the end to coordinate analysis and publication rather than flying over for five field seasons) would work?

    [Yes, thats one of the suggestions in the letter. Science-wise, it would be good. But jolly-wise, not so good. So there will be lots of excellent reasons why it cant be done -W]

    For conferences, how about concurrent sessions held in different cities linked by teleconferencing technology? Instead of one AGU meeting in San Francisco every year, hold one in San Francisco and one in Baltimore, linking some of the sessions with video and voice.

    [Or conferences could entirely re-think themselves. The only thing of value that they do is allow people to meet; but stupidly they force these people to sit in meeting rooms most of the time listening to people droning on and on -W]

    It would be hopelessly unrealistic to encourage air travel to just stop. And I don’t hear anyone doing that (anyone who is probably resides on the lunatic fringe.) What’s important is some incremental reduction in emissions and a transfer to alternate fuels. Perhaps someday zepplins will make air travel less carbon-intensive, but until then isn’t 2 air trips instead of 5 an improvement?

    [Would be. But is it happening? -W]

  3. #3 Phil
    2008/11/11

    I don’t think voting is a good comparison when you have races being decided by literally a handful of votes when several million are being cast. You could make a very good case for voting, particularly in small or close elections.
    And in fact there are people who are so called moral vegetarians. These are called Buddhists monks. It’s not true that they are vegetarians. While they aren’t allowed to kill for food, they will eat meat if given it. I know from personal experience ( not as a monk! But watching people donate). So it’s not that unusual.
    What you are asking is what is logical for an individual as opposed to the group. If you are the last person on the plane, then it’s perfectly logical to take the flight. If you’re the first person on the new flight they had to schedule for you, then it’s not. How are you to know though?
    Most of the time these decisions are made with imperfect information. Should you attend a conference on global climate change by flying to Bali? It’s a judgment call isn’t it. It’s easy to calculate the carbon footprint of the flight but how does one calculate the knowledge missed by not going.

  4. #4 Dunc
    2008/11/11

    When the plane was going to leave anyway whether or not you were on it is the point.

    The air travel industry is extremely sensitive to fluctuations in passenger demand, as we saw back in 2001.

  5. #5 Moderately Unbalanced Squid
    2008/11/11

    “Yes, thats one of the suggestions in the letter. Science-wise, it would be good. But jolly-wise, not so good. So there will be lots of excellent reasons why it cant be done -W”

    I agree, but I think some steps are being taken – we just submitted a NOAA grant that requires local partners for any field work outside the continental United States. There wasn’t anything written in there about limitations on travel expenses, but I would be like to see them reduce the scores on applications that ask for too much in travel money. This is the real wave of the future – granting agencies will have to be total hardasses about cutting travel expenses for both fieldwork and conferences. Whoever holds the purse strings will ultimately have the last say. To some extent, this will be resisted because many of the grant reviewers and RFP writers are steeped in the old way of doing things with cheap fuel-intensive travel. The economic incentive of saving money should provide a powerful counter-balance to their habits.

    “The only thing of value that they do is allow people to meet; but stupidly they force these people to sit in meeting rooms most of the time listening to people droning on and on -W”

    Could you say that again? I nodded off – someone on my side of the terminal is droning on and on… ;o)

    [That I grant you is one improvement - wireless laptops allow people to be productive in boring talks :-) -W]

    “Would be. But is it happening? -W”

    I dunno – I only have anecdotal evidence. But I think it should happen, and the fulcrum to focus on is the funding agencies. I expect that if it does happen, it will take far longer than it should, like pretty much all changes in habit.

    [I'll try to drop my cynicism then and welcomeimprovements as they come -W]

  6. #6 Moderately Unbalanced Squid
    2008/11/12

    “That I grant you is one improvement – wireless laptops allow people to be productive in boring talks :-) -W”

    Oooh, good one – I don’t know that posting in blog comments is necessarily productive, but this blog is interesting and the conversation more stimulating than some I’ve been involved in recently. :o)

    “I’ll try to drop my cynicism then and welcomeimprovements as they come -W”

    Definitely keep the cynicism if it works for you, it just doesn’t work for me, so I thought I’d add an alternate perspective. It’s a glass half-full/half-empty kind of thing, I guess.