Who’s responsible for climate change? Not ecologists, right?

19 06 2012

It’s sometimes difficult to take a long, hard look in the mirror and admit one’s failings. Today’s post is a thought-provoking challenge to all ecologists (indeed, all scientists) who gaily flit all over the known universe in the name of science. I’m certainly in one of the upper guilt echelons on this issue – and while I tell myself each January that “this year I’ll fly much less frequently”, I usually end up breaking my resolution by month’s end.

In some defence of my sins, I have to state that while I should always endeavour to fly less, I am convinced that strategic, well-planned (and usually small) meetings are some of the best ways to advance scientific ideas. As CB readers might know, I am particularly impressed with the results of dedicated workshops in this regard.

I also think that even if all aeroplanes suddenly fell from the sky and one could no longer enjoy that transcontinental G & T, we’d still be in a terribly climate-change mess – we need BIG solutions beyond simple consumption reduction.

Now I’m just making excuses. Thanks again to Alejandro Frid for providing this challenge to me and our colleagues.

Recently I asked a math savvy graduate student at Simon Fraser University, in Western Canada, to proofread an equation. ‘No problem’, she replied, ‘but could you wait a few days? I am about to fly to Korea for a conference but I will return shortly.’

Hmmmm? So this is what the system promotes: gallivanting halfway around the world and back within a week, burning extraordinary amounts of fossil fuels, all in the name of scientific career advancement. Who are the climate change culprits? Not us ecologists, right?

Of course I am being unfair to Ms. Maths Savvy. Most of us are equally guilty of boarding that big ol’ jet airliner in the name of scientific meetings or the pursuit of ecological knowledge in far off study sites. Yet the inconvenient truth, according to a recent editorial in Nature Climate Change1, is that “international air travel accounts for about 5% of global warming”. Flying all over the world in the name of ecology and conservation therefore implies that we believe that (i) there are no alternative means to accomplish the same goal with far less emissions, and (ii) that the benefits of our work outweigh the atmospheric impacts of flying. Think again.

For insight into these issues, I interviewed Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of Manchester and arguably the climate conscience of scientists. I was attracted to Anderson’s perspective because of its blunt honesty. He calls air travel “…the most emission profligate activity per hour”2 and has little patience for the irony that “international climate jamborees”, otherwise known as climate science meetings, have contributed far more to increasing carbon emissions than to any meaningful action on climate change. His recent commentary in Nature3 makes it amply clear that buying carbon offsets when flying may ease our perceived guilt but not emission rates.

Given that today’s atmospheric CO2 concentrations are 397 parts per million and rising, a concentration unprecedented in the last 800 thousand years, I asked Anderson whether the conservation benefit associated with a flight could ever outweigh the atmospheric costs of yet more emissions? His reply:

“I’ve not yet met anyone or any organisation that considers that they are not the exception who should be able to emit more than the mean level for, say, a 2 degrees Celsius [increase in global temperature relative to pre-industrial times]. I take the view that if we emit more than we consider is appropriate as a mean level, we must be clear about who should emit less to compensate for our excess emissions.”

Anderson advocates that scientific meetings that demand air travel be replaced with virtual conferences. I asked him whether virtual meetings could have a cost to science itself. Could they quench the buzz and energy of being together in one physical place which, as in a musical jam session, spark spontaneous and novel ideas? If yes, is this a trade-off we must accept, given the triage stage that we are in? His reply:

“Yes – if it is a real trade off; but I’m not so sure it often is once opportunity costs are considered. There are research groups in my own University I don’t adequately engage with – let alone ones across the UK. Culturally, I’d learn more by visiting some of the poorer parts of North Manchester – just 6 miles from where I work – I’d learn about fuel poverty, aspirations, the challenges of public transport, trying to rear healthy kids in damp and low-quality rented houses/flats etc. – a wealth of energy and climate change issues on my doorstep. Instead, I could order a taxi to an airport, fly to some exotic location, hail another taxi so I could hear talks I’ve read about before from people I saw at last month’s academic jamboree. We’d have a good time, eat nice food, stay in another hotel and generally feel we’re part of a self-important clique solving a major world problem. Ok – we would have some academic arguments, discussions and perhaps leave upbeat about new avenues of research. But would any of this be more than I would gain from talking with other researchers in my own institution, country etc? Would the issues raised be any more challenging, interesting, and important than what I’d learn in the poor North Manchester housing estate – or for that matter, on the energy consuming profligacy of the football and similar set living in Wilmslow or the Cheshire plains? There are many big issues on our doorsteps – and many of those considering them are based a short walk or train journey from where most of us are sitting.

Occasionally, international travel, preferably slow travel, might pay dividends over and above the opportunity cost of the trip and time away – but we must balance this. At the moment academics and other climate change policy makers spend more time on planes than they do on buses, trains or shanks’ pony – but to what avail? Emissions are out of control – we’re failing! Do we really think more international events, conferences and ever-expanding climate festivals of excess are going to solve the problem or provide new insights? We need to think and act differently – and starting at home and leading by example would perhaps add gravity to our otherwise unattractive message.”

So there you go. Ecologists do not have to be practical ‘deniers’ of climate change (not to be confused with idealistic deniers, which ecologists are not). Taking fewer trips and travelling ‘slow and low’ is a great start. Leading by example, Anderson has avoided flying for almost eight years. Last year he embarked on a professional trip by train from Manchester to Beijing, 10 days out and 11 days back. While the choice might astonish busy academics, the fact is that he wrote a whole paper on the way out and almost completed a second one on the way back, something that would have taken endless months during his hectic life at Tyndall. And of course, the destination was packed with satisfying action for him. Anderson sums it up by saying:

“[t]ravelling slowly forces us to travel much less, be much more selective in what we attend and to endeavour to get more out of those trips we do take. Fewer trips and potentially longer stays: not rocket science, just unpalatable climate change basics.”

Before considering your next flight from Canada to southern Chile to study endangered deer, or from Adelaide to Sweden to discuss boreal forests, I highly recommend reading Anderson’s blog on slow and low travel2. It may just make you long to become a lot more grounded.

Alejandro Frid


  1. Editorial. Guilt trip. Nature Climate Change 2, 297 (2012)
  2. Anderson, K. Final musings: slow and low – the way to go (2011)
  3. Anderson, K. The inconvenient truth of carbon offsets. Nature 484, 7-7 (2012)



9 responses

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3 07 2012
Daniel Hudon

One should lead by example, of course, and one can do a lot with skype — though what will be needed is a virtual coffee hour and virtual happy hour as I’m always impressed at how much science gets done outside the main sessions. On the other hand, how many scientists does it take to NOT go to a meeting before a flight is cancelled? Perhaps smaller meetings could be consolidated into fewer larger ones, while simultaneously requiring offsets and slow travel.


22 06 2012

You might also be interested in Ponette-González, A.G. and Byrnes, J.E. 2011. Sustainable science? Reducing the carbon impacts of mega-meetings. Ethnobiology Letters. 2:65-71.

Oddly, it was quite difficult to get this little analysis (and the possible solution) published.


22 06 2012
Ecology blog roundup « theoretical ecology

[…] Ecologist’s footprints: Corey Bradshaw over at ConservationBytes has an interesting article about the ecological footprint of working […]


19 06 2012

My PhD research focusses on invasive species that are common to Northern Europe and North America and, as a result, I’ll be doing a little bit of back and forthing. Still, it’s become abundantly clear in the process of my research to date that the best way to get things done is through a healthy mix of collaborative work and Skype conferences. Physically travelling all over the place seems to be a bit of a waste of time and effort. With such powerful and ubiquitous communications technology at our disposal in the modern world there is ample room for ecologists to practice what they preach.


19 06 2012
Adam Felton

Imagine if at the next major conservation biology conference there was a keynote session (not a side event), dedicated solely to educating the audience about the technologies they and their universities will need to enable virtual attendance at international conferences, and the reason why we need to do this. The following year, have an engaging session by leading conservation biologists that is predicted to be the headline act at a major conference, that is only accessible virtually. The knowledge gained from such trial runs can then be fed into planning the first ever virtual-only international conservation biology conference (which will only work if the field’s leaders once again get on board). In short, ratchet it up. We need such incentives, or nothing will change. Without leadership on this, researchers will keep flying. If we get it right, in addition to all the obvious environmental and cost-saving benefits, presumably it would also give wider international access to cutting edge concepts in conservation (if planned appropriately).

But perhaps most importantly, if we don’t do this, we are implicitly advertising to the world that those who know most about the implications of climate change on global biodiversity, nevertheless rank meeting peers as more important than reducing emissions. We simply can’t afford to keep sending that message.


19 06 2012
Alicia Warren

Scientists and academics would do well to give themselves a travel emissions budget. If you exceed your emissions budget one year, you forfeit 1.5 emissions for every emission overspent the next. You could choose to use it up in one plane flight or go low and slow and manage a couple of extra conferences. When you run out of emissions to spend you would have to resort to internet conferences. To work it would probably have to be agreed and enforced at department level.


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