Climate scientists have a moral responsibility to lead by example

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The Green New Deal has placed the issue of climate change at the center stage of the political agenda. Among its many recommendations is the elimination of “pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector as much as is technologically feasible.” This has sparked a debate on whether the Green New Deal seeks the elimination of air travel because planes continue to rely on fossil fuels. Indeed, an important culprit in the rise of carbon emissions in the United States in 2018, after several years of decline, is the transportation sector, especially air travel. 

How should the academic community respond to the Green New Deal, especially its call for eliminating air travel. After all, academics recognize that climate change poses an existential threat to humanity and they lead the response by creating authoritative knowledge about the causes and consequences of climate change. In the wake of waning political support for climate action, climate policies may become a target of reactionary forms of populism. Some citizens see governments and academic institutions as morally hollow, working to further the interests of elites who evade the rules that they advise for citizens. Academics, as technical and scientific experts behind climate policies, may, therefore, face the wrath of populist anger.

{mosads}This elite-citizen disconnect creates a fantastic opportunity for the scholarly community to demonstrate moral leadership in climate action. Academics, both individually and institutionally, should demonstrate their moral commitment to climate action by lowering the carbon footprint of their professional activities.

Climate policies face political pushback across countries. Unfortunately, some people fear the climate books will be balanced on the backs of the underprivileged — this is driving the “yellow vest” protests in France. Furthermore, most countries are not achieving the Paris Agreement goals. The 2018 COP in Katowice, Poland, failed to “welcome” the recent IPCC report, which asserts a need to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 45 percent by 2030. Climate change initiatives have been rejected by voters in Washington state in 2016 and again in 2018. The French government has withdrawn the proposed fuel tax in the wake of yellow vests protests. Brazil’s new government seems to be bent on rolling back its commitment on climate issues. Australia is back-paddling on its climate commitment.

On top it all, coal consumption worldwide increased in 2017 after five years of decline. In 2018, carbon emissions are estimated to rise by 0.5 percent in advanced economies and 3.7 percent in emerging economies.   

We outline a simple but morally powerful proposal on academic travel. Climate impact of air travel is news again thanks to the New Green Deal plan that seeks to phase out air travel altogether. Worldwide air travel accounts for about 3 percent of annual fossil fuel carbon emissions — in other words, about the same amount of emissions as those generated by Germany or the United Kingdom each year. Air travel is particularly challenging because no easy technological fixes to decarbonize air travel. 

Academics themselves travel a lot to attend conferences and give seminars. One visible way to demonstrate leadership is to start a conversation about carbon budgets for academic travel. This will require academics and the institutions in which they work to publicly disclose the carbon footprint of their travel, adopt measures to reduce professional travel, and actively explore non-travel or low-carbon avenues for enhancing academic interactions. 

We would also like to see major international and national academic bodies, including America Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Geophysical Union, to publicly account for the carbon impact of their activities and then start incorporating the social cost of carbon in their annual activities. For example, the 2018 fall meeting of the American Geophysical Association (AGU), a leading body whose members contribute tremendously to various IPCC reports, attracted about 24,000 participants. The AGU should calculate the carbon impact of the travel associated with such conferences and tell the world how it seeks to reduce its conference carbon footprint.

At least some professional bodies could probably go a step further: they could switch, at least every other year, to a hub-based format. For example, in July 2018, the Conference on Music Perception and Cognition transformed its periodic in-person conference into a remarkable multi-hub worldwide event with simultaneous sites in Austria, Argentina, the UK, Canada, and Australia. 

While not a part of the academy, all national and international organizations that engage with academia for their technical reports — be it the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) or the United Nations and all its affiliated organizations — should reflect (at minimum) the social cost of carbon of travel associated with their work, and actively explore non-travel mechanisms to accomplish organizational goals. Ideally, major funders should follow these same principles for all travel related to grant activity. Of course, any meeting focused on climate — whether it is a NOAA committee or IPCC working group — needs to publicly disclose its carbon footprint and outline how it plans to reduce it.  

To some extent, universities already recognize that they need to act on climate change. Following the initial University Presidents’ Climate Leadership Commitments more than a decade ago, there are now more than 600 university climate leadership commitments, of which 372 appear to promise some sort of “carbon neutrality” by 2050. The related university reports are full of admirable measures on recycling, food service, building codes and electricity efficiency. But these commitments neglect critical sources of university-related emissions such as aviation.

For universities, the first step is to set real targets for actual emissions commensurate with the best scientific evidence on the greenhouse gas budgets that must be observed to meet global targets, such as 1.5- or 2-degree temperature change. Public targets must then be accompanied by transparent reports showing changes in actual emission sources, such as the amount of flying done by faculty members and students, stated in terms of actual emissions (not just “net” emissions counting offsets).

Some might say that academic travel has so little impact on climate change and the cost of curbing it is not worth the damage it might inflict on research. This is a self-serving position which undermines the moral commitment of academia to fight climate change. 

Every group that is asked to reduce carbon emissions probably believes that their activities are too important — either for their own survival or for humanity — to sacrifice at the altar of climate change. If people in Appalachia or the Navajo nation in Arizona, which face extreme poverty, are asked to sacrifice their livelihoods in the coal industry, what moral right do academics have to disavow their moral responsibility of responding to the climate crisis? 

As academics, we are probably the most knowledgeable about the extent and ramifications of climate change, we have a moral imperative not only to speak out on the subject but also to lead by example. 

Nives Dolsak is professor and associate director of the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. 

Aseem Prakash is Walker Family professor and the founding director of Center for Environmental Politics at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Parke E. Wilde is professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University 

Joseph Nevins is professor of Geography and director of Independent Program at Vassar College.

Tags Aseem Prakash Climate change Environment Joseph Nevins Nives Dolšak Paris agreement Parke Wilde

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