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Nudging Climate Scientists To Follow Their Own Advice On Flying

Queries is a recurring feature that ventures beyond the headlines by presenting discussions with researchers that put new scientific findings in perspective. These discussions examine the backstory behind the latest studies, ask how new research fits into what’s already known, and look at what the latest studies tell us about our world. Here’s our latest:

Climate scientists have spent decades researching how greenhouse gas emissions are prompting global warming. And they’ve spent decades flying around the world to talk about it.

A report published this month by the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, a collaborative research center associated with the University of East Anglia in the U.K., points out this hypocrisy: If climate scientists want to protect the climate, they shouldn’t be organizing conferences that torch it.

The authors of the report say that it’s time for the climate science field to create a culture of work and travel that’s low-carbon. To meet international climate goals, aviation emissions must fall dramatically. Technological fixes won’t get us there — the bulk of the necessary cuts will need to come from a reduction in the number of flights. But the Tyndall analysis found that academic researchers are among the highest producers of aviation-related emissions. The research community must commit to flying less, the authors say, and one way to do that is by carefully selecting where conferences are held. For instance, holding a meeting of the Future Earth scientific steering committee in Australia, South Africa, China, Argentina or the United States produces 1.8 times more emissions than having the same conference in Europe.

Tyndall released a “Travel Tracker App” in conjunction with the report to nudge researchers into flying less by tracking their travel emissions and helping them make decisions about when they can justify travel and when they can’t. (The app isn’t available for public use — yet.)

I spoke with Corinne Le Quéré, the report’s lead author and director of the Tyndall Centre, about the report and its call to action.

CA: In the paper you talk about something you call the “high carbon research culture.” Why single out flying in particular?

CL: Because it’s the most intensive source of carbon emissions. I mean, if you compare the carbon emissions from sitting in a plane, especially long-haul flights, flying is really high compared to all these other elements in the professional research sphere, like what we eat at conferences, the heating of our offices and the power generated for computers.

It’s also that this is something where we have control. For instance, heating our offices, we don’t have control over this. I mean, if we wanted, we could go to the university and ask them to do something, but flying is something where we have direct control. What do we accept and what do we not accept?

CA: What are the challenges to reducing the amount that researchers fly?

CL: One of them is to make sure that people who do not fly continue their progression in research. I was, myself, a single parent for 10 years, so I know a lot about the difficulties of traveling to meetings when you have a family with constraints, and I’m by no means the only person in this position. Research is very competitive. You’re always looking for your next grant, or if you’re a young scientist, for gaining a permanent position. One important thing we need is to get exposure to our research so that other people cite it and we influence others to do research built on our research — that’s done in the research culture through conferences, essentially.

CA: Can the benefits of conferences be replicated without long-distance travel?

CL: We found that there were two particularly positive things about having conferences: one is exceptional stimulation and the other one is creating personal links of trusts. So we thought that we could develop a plan to ensure that we keep these benefits but have an alternative way to look at them. For example, we could have distributed conferences that are linked to one another via Internet connections and Web-based exchanges. And links of trust, yes, they are very important, but you don’t need to meet people regularly to do that. It’s often enough to meet people once to develop a link of trust and then to continue via Skype or via other, more carbon friendly sources.

CA: So how do you decide which trips are justifiable? I remember a study showing that people who recycled felt justified to take an overseas holiday. I’ve had climate researchers tell me that the importance of their work justifies its emissions. Where do you draw the line?

CL: It’s easy to justify a lot of things when you don’t have a plan, and what we’re trying to push here is for the research community to establish a plan to get out of this carbon-intensive research. We have made justifications for accepting or not to travel, and we have made a little guidance about when can you actually look at other sources of transport, rather than flying.

I think that in five years’ time, what I want to see is that the threshold will have gone up. And it will have gone up because we will have a plan that we will have adopted and embraced that make these decisions less difficult. At the moment, you feel very marginalized if you’re not going to a conference because you don’t want to travel, but I think we have to create that space where it becomes the norm not to travel.

CA: When I decided to curtail my travel, a lot of people told me that my individual contribution doesn’t matter because it’s not enough to solve the climate problem. What do you say to that?

CL: I really don’t see the argument, because it’s all in the sums that the emissions reduce. But there is also another way to see this, which is: I cannot be credible as a climate scientist if I don’t align my own behavior with what I’m saying one has to do. So this is not a personal choice of stopping to fly because I don’t feel comfortable about it, but it’s a professional choice of reducing my emissions because I want to remain credible and I want to keep the trust of society.

CA: Your survey found that 80 percent of respondents would support an organization-wide policy to reduce flying. Is there a sense that if there’s some kind of rule, it will create a change of culture and eliminate the problem of one person feeling left out?

CL: Absolutely. This is really what we’re trying to do with this travel strategy here is to provide support for people to justify their new types of action and to provide support so that they don’t get penalized in promotions and in CVs and so on for it.

We did a debate and then a survey in 2012 and then another one in 2013, and people really were a bit lost. They didn’t know what to do, when to say no, when not to say no, what is the professional interface, what is the personal, what is the role of personal emissions there and so on. It took us quite some reflection to realize that really the obstacles are not in the technical elements, they’re not in absolute value. They’re really in the culture of research.

CA: One of the things you say in the paper is that it matters what climate scientists say and do. That seems so obvious. Why hasn’t there been more discussion of this up until now?

CL: There was a sense for a long time that developing our understanding of how the climate works was more important in a way than what credibility the climate scientists had. Also, for a long time there were not many alternatives to going to conferences. The Web support that we have now — good line connections, good communication across countries — that’s not really recent, but it’s really recent that it works well.

CA: I wonder if some of it also comes down to a reluctance to engage in public policy and a concern that it will be seen as activism rather than science. Is that a worry that you’ve seen?

CL: Yeah. I think you got your finger on something real here. It’s not a concern that I share, but there is an impression that we’re here to deliver the science and that’s our role, and everything that relates to a decision should be judged as personal. I don’t share this view. I think that we have a professional image that will be judged by whether we behave in a way that’s aligned with what we say.

Christie Aschwanden is FiveThirtyEight’s lead writer for science.

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