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. Read the rest of this entry »