Climate Etc.

Walking the climate talk

by Judith Curry

Their [climate scientists] actions may have limited discernible influence in terms of ‘bending the curve’ on emissions, but their efforts to ‘walk the talk’ have tremendous symbolic value – Max Boykoff

The carbon footprint of Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio – both strong activists/advocates for fossil fuel reductions – apparently have colossally large personal carbon footprints.  Their hypocrisy is not lost on the public.

Climate scientists, with their much more modest life styles, can’t match Gore and DiCaprio in the carbon footprint department, but nevertheless their carbon footprints are much greater than the average middle class individual owing to their colossal amount of air travel.

So, Should scientists give up air travel?  Excerpts from a weather.com article:

Globally, air travel accounts for 2.5 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If air travel were a country, it would be roughly on par with Germany in emissions. And if air travel by climate scientists were a city, it would be a one-stoplight outpost.

In other words, climate scientists curtailing their air travel would make a microscopic dent in reducing emissions, but a new paper argues they should do it anyway, because their influence goes far beyond numbers.

“It’s a credibility issue,” Corinne Le Quéré, a researcher at the Tyndall Centre, said in an interview via Skype. “We’re trying to support a change in culture.”

“Their [climate scientists] actions may have limited discernible influence in terms of ‘bending the curve’ on emissions, but their efforts to ‘walk the talk’ have tremendous symbolic value,” Max Boykoff said. “Moreover, because this has become such a politically charged and high-stakes issue, their actions are scrutinized much more than those who aren’t studying the problem.”

Making symbolic decisions does come with real world tradeoffs, however.

Le Quéré said turning down a speaking engagement can be off-putting to event organizers and as the current system is structured, can deprive scientists of time with their colleagues, which is invaluable for stimulating new ideas and connections.

Another tradeoff scientists must weigh is their ability to raise social consciousness about climate change, and whether that’s best achieved by making themselves as visible as possible, or serving as examples on how to live more sustainably.

Peter Kalmus, walking the talk

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus is profiled in the article How far can we get without flying? Excerpts:

I’m a climate scientist who doesn’t fly. I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm to humans and to nonhumans, today and far into the future. I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly. Back in 2010, though, I was awash in cognitive dissonance. My awareness of global warming had risen to a fever pitch, but I hadn’t yet made real changes to my daily life. This disconnect made me feel panicked and disempowered.

Then one evening in 2011, I gathered my utility bills and did some Internet research. With these data, I made a basic pie chart of my personal greenhouse gas emissions for 2010.

This picture came as a surprise. I’d assumed that electricity and driving were my largest sources of emissions. Instead, it turned out that the 50,000 miles I’d flown that year utterly dominated my emissions.

Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you’ve just emitted 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year. Flying first class doubles these numbers.

However, the total climate impact of planes is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone. This is because planes emit mono-nitrogen oxides into the upper troposphere, form contrails, and seed cirrus clouds with aerosols from fuel combustion. These three effects enhance warming in the short term. (Note that the charts in this article exclude these effects.)

Given the high climate impact, why is it that so many environmentalists still choose to fly so much? I suspect that most people simply don’t know the huge impact of their flying—but I also suspect that many of us are addicted to it. We’ve come to see flying as an inalienable right, a benefit of 21st-century living that we take for granted.

The quantitative estimates of my emissions guided me as I set about resolving the dissonance between my principles and my actions. I began to change my daily life. I began to change myself.

My first change was to start bicycling. I began by biking the 6 miles to work, which turned out to be much more fun than driving (and about as fast). It felt like flying. Those extra few pounds melted off. Statistically speaking, I can expect biking to add a year to my life through reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.

Other moves away from fossil fuels turned out to be satisfying as well. I began growing food, first in the backyard and then in the front, and I discovered that homegrown food tastes far better than anything you can buy. I began composting, an honest and philosophical practice. I tried vegetarianism and found that I prefer it to eating meat; I have more energy, and food somehow tastes better. I began keeping bees and chickens, planting fruit trees, rescuing discarded food, reusing greywater, and helping others in my community do the same.

Now, I feel more connected to the world around me, and I see that fossil fuels actually stood in the way of realizing those connections. If you take one idea from this article, let it be this: Life without fossil fuels is fun and satisfying, and this is the best reason to change.

I experienced a lot of social pressure to fly, so it took me three years to quit. Not flying is an ongoing challenge as I progress in my scientific career, but I’m finding that I can thrive by doing good work and making the most of regional conferences and teleconferencing. Not flying does hold back my career to some extent, but I accept this, and I expect the social climate to change as more scientists stop flying.

In today’s world, we’re still socially rewarded for burning fossil fuels. We equate frequent flying with success; we rack up our “miles.”

JC reflections

Well I have to say that I hadn’t realized the full impact of flying on the carbon footprint of jet setting scientists.

In the climate science community, it’s a badge of ‘importance’ to fly 100,000 or even 200,000 miles or more per year; IPCC principals and those involved in the World Climate Research Programme (steering committees, conferences) easily rack up well over 100,000 miles.  Really high annual miles is unique among the climate field, since the UNFCCC has globalized this issue and there is a mandate for participation of global scientists and holding meetings in relatively inaccessible 3rd world countries.  Many climate scientists ‘virtuously’ purchase indulgences in the form of carbon offsets to counter the effects of their flying (hah!).

I minimize my own flying since I regard time spent on an airplane to be usually on net a waste of time (I’m not very good at working on a plane) and disruptive to healthy personal routines.  In the 1990’s, when I was heavily involved in WCRP Programmes, one year my miles made it over 75,000.  Personally, I regard it as a badge of honor if I can keep my miles below 25,000 (which I have been able to do about half the time).  At the moment, I fly several different airlines (based on convenience and cost), so it isn’t easy to track my miles), but I expect my annual total is around 25,000.

So there are two issues here that I see related to the colossal amount of miles that climate scientists fly – walking the talk, and wasting a colossal amount of time and productivity.

Max Boykoff and Peter Kalmus effectively make the case that climate scientists should walk the talk.  One might argue that climate scientists who are vocal activists/advocates for fossil fuel emissions reductions are hypocritical for flying around so much.  If a climate scientist of the activist/advocate stripe doesn’t feel some cognitive dissonance over their own personal carbon footprint, well it is difficult to defend against a charge of hypocrisy.

Circa 2006/2007, during my alarmed phase, I traded in my Subaru for a Prius (no idea at this point if this was a net carbon/resource savings, but it was good PR), moved to a location where I could walk to work (and grocery store, etc.), religiously ran around turning off lights and turning down the thermostat (my staff at Georgia Tech ran around turing the lights back on and turning up the thermostat).  My motivations were personal cognitive dissonance, as well as the PR need to walk the talk.  At this point, I do try to minimize my overall ecological footprint (I don’t regard carbon to be a particular priority tho) as matter of planetary aesthetics and ecosystem health.

The bigger issue that concerns me is the insane amount of travel that climate scientists do, particularly those involved in the IPCC and WCRP.  I understand the value of conferences and some face to face interactions.  But committee meetings (panel reviews, etc.) can and should be done electronically via the internet. IPCC meetings should definitely be done via the internet – this could only improve the process of manufacturing consensus and making it more bully proof.   Apart from the colossal loss of productivity associated with a large amount of travel, there are adverse health effects as well (recall Steve Schneider actually died on an airplane).

I am really minimizing my own personal travel, max of one international trip (business or pleasure) per year, and trying to stay overall below 25,000 miles.  I get a pretty large number of invites to speak – I have managed to arrange Skype presentations for many of these.  I rarely to never meet with my collaborators.  I have not personally seen my co-author Vitaly Khvorostyanov since the 1990’s.  I’ve met Marcia Wyatt in person exactly once (I’ve never met Sergey Kravtsov in person).  I’ve met Nic Lewis in person exactly once.  Face to face is not required for effective collaborations.  Email and the blogosphere can very effectively foster collaborations.

It’s time particularly for the IPCC to drop the hypocrisy of a large number of meetings in obscure locations that result in a very large number of air miles.  Not to mention the drain on the productivity of the scientific community.