hard to write about climate ethics, because in my experience almost
everyone is in denial about it. Most people agree that today's climate
change is mainly caused by human activity, but hardly anyone is
prepared to admit that our emissions are indirectly killing future people (as I
explain in more detail below, and here and here and here; see also WHO and DARA).
Logically, anyone who today burns large amounts of fossil
fuels, or benefits from such burning, is an auxiliary to indirect
murder - and in middle-class Western societies (for example), that is just about everybody. Ignorance is no excuse, and
in truth, we have known about this for decades (more). The obvious and inescapable conclusion is that just about everybody has to make radical changes to aspects of their lifestyle that contribute significantly to greenhouse-gas emissions; and we have to do this immediately. The time for procrastinating is well and truly over.
Speaking of logic, some readers will be acquainted with the following well-known example from the history of philosophy: (i) Socrates is a man, (ii) all men are mortal, therefore (iii) Socrates is mortal. This
is a syllogism: it includes premises (i and ii) and a conclusion (iii),
and these elements are related to each other by deductive reasoning. If
the premises are true, the conclusion is true. In the analogous case of
climate change we can say the following: (i) Climate change is
knowingly being caused by humans in our generation, (ii) climate change
will indirectly cause the deaths of hundreds of millions of future
people, therefore (iii) hundreds
of millions of future people are being knowingly indirectly killed by
humans in our generation. To my knowledge, there is no doubt at all
about either of the premises (i and ii), which means there is no doubt
at all about the conclusion (iii), either. The climate deniers will at
this point launch into lengthy misleading arguments, but in my
experience they are no more than that, and should be ignored by anyone
who is skilled in the art of argumentation, which includes recognizing
such distortions; and every academic should have that skill.
The next issue that arises is that of emotion. People who get emotional
when presenting their arguments are often distorting them at the same
time. We are used to this and tend therefore to ignore emotionally
presented arguments. The previous paragraphs are intrinsically
emotional, because they are about things that we hold dear - human
lives, and very large numbers of them. Another emotional element is the
guilt that we feel when we read these lines. But seen in a more
objective light, these paragraphs contain
neither demands nor accusations. They may have sounded like that,
but in fact they did not. Instead, they contained observations, facts,
logical conclusions. If people learned to separate their
cognition from their emotion, we could make big progress on these
Theoretically, academics should be good at doing that, too.
If we agree that murder means knowingly ending the life of another
person, and that (at the risk of stating the obvious) murder is always
bad and should be avoided at all costs (leaving aside special cases
such as abortion and euthanasia), it is obvious that
radical changes are immediately and urgently necessary to slow or stop
carbon emissions in all sectors."Denial" in this case may involve
claiming to agree with this simple argument and then avoiding the topic
as if it didn't exist, or failing to understand the obvious
implications of this shocking revelation.
The psychology of morality
In academic psychology, there is a well-known theory of morality by Lawrence Kohlberg. He identified three levels of moral development, and divided each into two stages, making six
stages altogether. According to this theory, which was inspired by
Piaget, children gradually go through each level and stage as they grow
up. The stages are presented on in Wikipedia as follows:
Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
Stage 1. Obedience and punishment orientation (How can I avoid punishment?)
Stage 2. Self-interest orientation (What's in it for me? - Paying for a benefit)
Level 2 (Conventional)
Stage 3. Interpersonal accord and conformity (Social norms - The good boy/girl attitude)
Stage 4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation (Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
Stage 5. Social contract orientation
Stage 6. Universal ethical principles (Principled conscience)
It's interesting to try to apply this idea to academic conferences. We
conference organisers often treat conference participants as if
they were in Level 1. We offer them something good (the chance to
present their work to many expert colleagues in a nice location) for a
certain price (the registration fee). We hope they will participate, if
only for purely selfish reasons. We ask them to write sensible things
in their abstract submissions, otherwise they will be rejected.
Submissions to conferences are often reviewed anonymously by external
experts: the abstract reviewers. Conference organisers may treat them
as if they were in Level 2. The reviews know the widely accepted rules
of academic quality control (what makes a good paper) and how to
evaluate a submission. They are asked to apply those rules fairly.
thought most people get stuck in Level 2 (Stage 4) for most of their
lives. Their morality is still mainly determined by others - not
themselves. Can that explain why it is taking so long for the general
public to respond to the challenge of climate change? (It unfortunately
does not explain why society is letting corporations and the rich get
away with paying so little tax, but I digress.)
am assuming that readers of this page have arrived in Level 3. If you
can think in an abstract way about general moral principles and apply
them to new situations - regardless of existing rules, conventions or
expectations - we should talk to each other about conferences and
climate. Perhaps we can come up with some new solutions.
If you are in Level 3, you regard your main ethical principles as more
important than social standards that deviate from them. You live by your principles, which in your eyes transcend current rules, laws or norms.
You may for example insist on the importance of honesty even in
difficult situations, or the universal right of every person to life,
freedom and justice, even if such principles are often infringed by
others around you. You realise and agree that the right to life of
other people is more important than your own freedom of speech (a fact
that has escaped most climate deniers). Your actions may be determined
by such principles regardless of the consequences - such as a
repressive regime threatening to throw you in prison. You are
altruistic and empathic: you can imagine what it would be like to
be another person in a difficult situation (as if standing in their
shoes). You tend to understand what other people want, why they want
that, and how they would like others to act.
Climate change will seriously affect future generations. Can we imagine
that? Can we empathize with the people who will suffer as a result of
our emissions in the future? Consider a farmer in Bangladesh in
the year 2080. He is one of those that survived the famines, plagues,
rising seas, unprecedented storms, and extreme heatwaves. Or imagine a
a doctoral student in your academic discipline in the year 2080.
Will society still be able to afford such luxuries? What will
she experience? What would it be like to walk in her shoes? What does
If those two people were here today - the student and the farmer -
taking part in a discussion about flying to academic conferences, what
would they recommend? Should we listen to them?
Are academic conferences really dangerous?
Now let me ask a general question. What would happen if we, the
academics of the world, found out that one of our regular, important,
valued activities was indirectly and unintentionally killing people in
a different time and place? We would surely stop that activity
immediately, if at all possible, wouldn't we?
Conferences to which many people fly is indeed such an activity, as I will explain in detail below. In fact, a typical large international conference may produce enough CO2 to indirectly cause the death of one future person.It
follows from the previous statements that most flying to most
conferences should be stopped immediately. Not in ten years, not in
one year, but right now.
Allow me to apologize for repeating myself - but the following
repetition is really necessary. I am not making a demand, and I am not
accusing anyone of anything. It may seem like I am waving a moralizing
finger, but that is not my intention, either. I am merely
coming to a logical conclusion, based on the facts and arguments that
to me. I ask my colleagues to evaluate my argument from that
This text has an aggressive feel about it, which I cannot deny.
Nor can I deny that I'm angry about it, although I do try hard to hide
the anger. But how else can one reasonably react, when hundreds of
millions of future lives are at risk and people seem to be pretending
the problem doesn't exist? The reason my message comes across as
aggressive or arrogant may not lie in the way I am expressing it (and
believe me I have tried many ways, more).
Instead, the reason may lie in my audience's state of denial - in
particular, the denial that our emissions are indirectly causing future
deaths. From a psychological viewpoint, aggression, like denial, can be
either a defence mechanism or a coping strategy. Aggression can cover
fear, and it can prevent a discussion that could undermine denial.
Perhaps this will become clearer if we draw an analogy with a more
tangible (although fictional) situation. Imagine an American academic
walking down the street in a poor US neighborhood with her ten-year-old
son. They come across a group of other children who are playing with
guns, firing them into the air just for fun. She gets angry with them
explains they should stop immediately. After all, they could kill each
other, her son, herself, or anyone else who happens to walk past.
The children perceive the woman as arrogant and aggressive. They
honestly and sincerely think it is ok to play with guns. They are grown
up now, and they know what they are doing. Besides, adults are
playing with guns the time - and not only on TV. She agrees that their arguments are correct. But that that
does not change the fact that they could easily kill or seriously
The woman merely says obvious things. In doing so, she defends the
right to life of all people, especially young, financially
disadvantaged people, as it happens - which is also the aim of this page.
The example is relevant for several reasons:
- Climate change is often about probabilities. The children will probably
not kill anyone, if they are as careful - as they
say. Nevertheless, everyone reading this text will agree that
those children should stop playing with those guns. Not tomorrow, not
next year, but immediately.
- Second, the example is about responsibility. If someone gets seriously injured or killed in this situation, and they are all firing their guns at the same time just for fun, it
may be unclear which child is responsible. Even if it was clear, the
guilty person would be a minor, which would limit responsibility and
punishment. Which raises the question: To what extent are we
responsible for the human consequences of our greenhouse emissions? If the answer
is unclear, is that an excuse to continue?
third connection is about the way other people view the situation. If
this incident were reported in the media, much like I have described it
here, most people would agree - from total pacifists at one extreme to
the gun lobby at the other - that the parent was right to react
angrily. If you care about someone who is putting themselves and others
in mortal danger, it is ok and usually productive to get angry.
Conversely, if the parent did not react angrily, one might well
question her skills or suitability as a parent. A parent
whose child's life is being threatened is not expected to stand by
and watch. Nor do I wish to stand by and watch, as long as people
(including myself, for many years) are flying to academic conferences,
which to the best of my knowledge is indirectly and unintentionally
future killing people. And I can understand it if people who are concerned about climate change also get angry about it.
confronted with ideas of this kind, well-meaning, empathetic academics
who like to fly to conferences (like me) intuitively respond with
counterarguments. In my experience, some are valid, some not. Here are
the children point out correctly that a lot of other people play with
guns, both on TV and in real life. This is a specific example of a more
general logical fallacy: if other people are doing something, it
must be ok; or if we have always done something a certain way, and
there were no serious consequences, we should continue. In fact,
those other people who are doing the same thing are not
necessarily justified in so doing. Besides, the context within which
happens is constantly changing. Both of these points have direct
relevance for carbon emissions of all kinds - including flying to
academic conferences. Flying to conferences is not ok just because
other people are doing it, or because Saudi Arabia is still selling or
burning enormous amounts of oil, or Australia is still selling and
burning enormous amounts of coal.
- A valid counterargument is that some academic conferences may contribute significantly to reducing the
death toll in connection with poverty and climate change in developing
countries. Examples include conferences of the Sustainable Development
Goals, medical conferences that have a significant positive impact on
disease in developing countries, and political conferences that
contribute to conflict resolution and peace. It is surely still ok for active participants to fly to such conferences.
Many of us have experienced both good and
virtual presentations at conferences. If the technical problems are
today is not difficult to do, the efficiency of communication of
academic content will be no different in live and good virtual
presentations. We can also combine personal contact
(via something as simple as Skype) with a previously prepared video -
and launch a new period in the history of academic
communication. People of the future will look back and ask why we took
so long to make this change, given the obvious academic benefits.
- A more problematic argument is that flying
to academic conferences cannot be stopped
unless a feasible alternative comparable form of academic communication
exists that fulfills the same function. In fact, nothing can justify
an activity that is contributing to a future death toll, so
colleagues who propose this argument are
in denial about the human costs of climate change. But even if we
ignore the human cost,
the truth is that any academic who today flies to a conference to give
could, if she or he wanted to, present the same material remotely and
electronically to the same audience, with the much same
efficiency of information transfer and the same active engagement of
the audience with the material. Options include
modern teleconferencing technology (assuming the conference organisers
provide a good service), a video recording prepared in advance,
or combination of both. Alternatively, they could present the same
material at another, possibly equally important conference, that they
can travel to without flying. There are so many conferences going on
these days in different places in just about every discipline that we
can pick and choose which ones we attend. Many academics should be
attending fewer conferences and spending more time performing and
writing up their research and submitting it to leading journals.
Feedback on this page
Before continuing, I want to respectfully ask those colleagues who have
read this far for feedback. We can only solve problems of this kind if
we work together.
I welcome comments on this page from colleagues who have already been thinking about the human costs of climate change.
If one of those precious colleagues is reading this text, genuinely wants to help me
achieve the text's goals, and finds any kind of error, omission,
or misleading statement, I will be more than glad to receive this
information and fix the problem as soon as possible.
For a brief introduction to the background, try the Wikipedia pages on climate ethics, climate debt, climate justice and environmental justice. These
are arguably today's more important ideas (or today's most important
contribution to the history of philosophy), so it is worth spending some time on them.
In the past few years I have had long email exchanges about climate
ethics with well-meaning colleagues. These exchanges could have
been shortened had those colleagues taken the following statements
seriously and carefully considered their implications:
And incidentally - there is no such thing as an academic who "must" fly
to a conference, especially if the conference offers good opportunities
for electronic communication.
- Plausible claim: Climate change is the biggest emergency of our generation - probably the biggest in all of human history (more).
- Plausible claim:
Academics have more responsibility than others to do something about
climate change, because of their unusual opportunities to (a)
understand and evaluate the relevant research and (b) inform and
influence large numbers of people (more).
Many academics believe they have an inalienable right to fly to
conferences. Trivial truism: If this right exists, it is
certainly incomparably smaller than the right to life of future
- Trivial truism or normative statement: We
should never knowingly cause the death of another person (the
well-known exceptions, abortion and euthanasia, are beyond the scope of
The human cost of poverty and global warming
some 130 million infants are born in the world, and some 55
million people die (source).
The birth rate is falling, but it is not falling quickly enough;
solutions include promoting human rights (especially education) for
children in developing countries (more). Of the deaths, the number of preventable deaths, or the
indirectly caused by poverty (hunger, preventable disease, curable
disease, violence), lies between 10 and 20 million per year, depending
on definitions and approach (source; source). Poverty cuts many lives short. If life is the most important human right, this is the most important human rights issue.
Mean global temperature has risen by about 1°C since the start
of industrialization, reducing the positive impact of development
efforts such as the UN Millennium Development Goals (source).
Recent decades have nevertheless seen a promising gradual reduction in
mortality in connection with poverty (McMichael et al., 2004).
A further increase of 1°C, making 2°C
altogether, will exacerbate the death rate in connection with poverty
in multiple interacting ways (IPCC). These include:
point in this list represents an unprecedented catastrophe - all by
itself. When all points happen at once, and when they interact with
each other in unforeseeable ways, we approach the limits of our ability
to comprehend. Experts cannot reasonably say what is going to happen
- even at "only" 2°C of warming. All countries will be
mainly developing countries with high population densities, weak
warm climates (see the literature listed below - especially Costello et
- heat waves (wet bulb temperatures exceeding body temperature; more)
- sea level
rise (e.g. about half of Bangladesh is at risk; more)
- deglaciation affecting water supplies,
- ocean acidification
affecting fish supplies,
- changing weather patterns affecting crops,
- loss of biodiversity affecting agriculture generally,
- disruption of food distribution when fossil fuels are banned, unavailable, or severely taxed;
- more rain in wet areas and less in dry, leading to flooding and desertification,
- larger and more frequent forest
fires including loss of ancient forests,
- geographic migration of new and old infectious and vector-born diseases,
- wars over diminishing resources such as
fresh water, and
- mass migration from poorer to richer countries.
Combining this background with the findings of the academic research
literature listed below,we can confidently predict that a global
temperature increase of 2°C
will at least double the current death rate in connection with poverty for a
period of one century.
This is no more than a rough order-of-magnitude or ballpark estimate,
but it is better than none at all. It implies that the total death
toll due to global warming will be 10 million per year times 100
years, or one billion, corresponding to one-tenth
of the projected maximum
global population of 10 billion. If, as seems likely later in this
century, a third of the global population is still living in
"developing countries", about a third of those people will probably be
dying in connection with global warming and its many negative
It is now practically certain that the predicted 2°C mark will be
crossed. But that is merely a conservative estimate. If we consider the
political context in which this is happening - the dismal failure of
politics to slow the global growth in fossil-fuel use over the past 20
years, the continuing differences between political intention and
reality, the difficulty of motivating both democracies and
dictatorships to take appropriate action, the rising global wealth gap
which is undermining democracy and the finances of nation states, the
global rise of irrational, populist, xenophobic political movements,
the continuing conflicts and other disasters that constantly distract
attention from the climate problem - the most likely outcome may be a
global temperature increase of 3-4°C, peaking (hopefully!) sometime
in the next century. That is much worse than uncomprehensibly bad, but
are currently treating it as an everyday news item.
At the 2015 Paris conference, well-meaning politicians included the ambitious 1.5°C
goal in their final statement, although leading climate scientists and
economists had agreed years before that the deadline for achieving this
goal was long past (more). With
continuing misunderstandings and distortions of this kind at the
highest level - ranging from populist naivete at the Paris conference to blatant climate denial in
political parties such as the US Republicans or the Australian
"Liberals" - it is realistic to be skeptical.
If we are lucky and humanity manages to limit the temperature increase to 2°C, that will have been caused by
burning one trillion tons of carbon (source). By comparison to estimates about human death rates, this is a relatively exact figure.
It that indirectly causes a billion deaths, spread out over a period of about a century, if follows that we are causing one future death every time we burn
tons of carbon. This is only an
order-of-magnitude estimate, but the figure certainly lies between 100
and 10 000 (probably between 300 and 3000).
Hopefully, humanity will get global warming under control. But hoping
is not good science. Global politics is complex, and the human psyche
unpredictable. According to current estimates, 4 trillion tons of
carbon could reasonably be extracted from the earth's crust. If all of
it was burned, global temperature would rise by some 8°C,
plus several extra degrees due to positive feedback processes
forest fires, melting ice, and methane release, leading to more warming
in self-reinforcing processes). In that case, the planet would become
uninhabitable for humans, and we would die out (source).
If burning 4 trillion tons of carbon causes 10 billion deaths, one
future death is caused by burning 400 tons of carbon.
Comparing these two scenarios (under control versus out of control), we
may plausibly claim that the number of tons of carbon to kill a future
person is about 1000 at the moment
and will gradually decrease as the situation worsens, approaching
400 in a business-as-usual, out-of-control scenario. Integral to this
approach to understanding the human consequences of emissions is the
time lag between cause and effect: the effect of emissions that we
are creating now will not be felt for several decades or even
centuries. Different greenhouse gases have different atmospheric
lifetimes, between tens and thousands of years (more).
Implications for academic conferences
The contribution of different forms of transport to climate change is a
complex topic. Different greenhouse gases have different warming
effects. They stay in the atmosphere for different periods of time,
depending on part on the elevation at which they are released (more).
But some things are clear. Aviation is currently contributing about 2% to global CO2
emissions. If you consider the effect of all gases emitted by
aircraft, and the high altitudes at which they are emitted, the net
contribution of aviation to global warming is more like 4% (more) - and it is growing. In the following calculations I will consider only CO2.
If you take a regular commercial return flight across the
Atlantic (e.g. LA to Berlin) in economy class, changing flights at one airport on the way, you will
about one ton of carbon, generating about 3.7 tons of CO2 (i.e. the
aircraft will get through some 300 times that much). To check how
much fuel you effectively burn on a given trip, use an offset calculator. For most individuals, flying significantly increases their carbon footprint (more). Airlines differ considerably in their fuel efficiency (more).
Assuming that humanity
will get global warming under control, and using the corresponding
estimate of 1000 tons carbon per future death, it follows that a
large global conference today - attended by 1000 flying foreigners -
future person. This person will probably live and die in a developing
country later this century, and may already be alive now, as a child.
These arguments permit only one morally
If we believe in human rights, including the overarching importance of
the right to life and the equal intrinsic value of every person,
all academic conferences must decarbonize as quickly as possible. The
easiest way to do this without loss of academic quality is to invest
the money that is currently spent on flying into
electronic conference communication technologies.
process may make conferences less enjoyable and less productive in the
sense of starting new collaborative research projects - at least in the
term. But it could also increase academic standards
by improving social inclusion.
Electronic attendance would be possible for many researchers who are
unable to attend in person, such as disabled researchers (those who
have difficulty flying or negotiating staircases, for example) and
financially disadvantaged researchers (those who cannot afford the
accommodation and registration, including student researchers anywhere
or researchers from developing countries).
Why not just offset the CO2?
The social and environmental cost of carbon is about 70 Euros
per ton. Why not just calculate that and pay it to organisations that
plant zillions of trees, or are otherwise engaged in research and
development on climate change, or the political struggle for effective
climate action? If we treated everyone in the conference equally,
including those who "must" fly (as if there were no closer conferences
in the world at which they could present their research), why not just
calculate the total carbon footprint of the conference, on that basis
estimate of the total social and environmental cost, and distribute
that cost equally across all participants in the registration fee?
The problem with this idea is that only a small part of all global
emissions (currently still 10 trillion tons of carbon per year) can be
offset by planting trees. A typical tree absorbs 10-20 kg CO2
from the air per year, that’s maybe 5 kg carbon, so the world
would need 2 trillion trees, and these trees would also need to be
protected to ensure they remain healthy and their wood is never burned.
There are about 3 trillion trees in the world, which due to
deforestation are presumably no longer absorbing all non-human
emissions (in the good old carbon cycle), let alone the added human
emissions. To stabilize and reduce global CO2 this way (remembering that CO2
concentration should be reduced from 400 to 350 parts per million to
avoid dangerous climate change), the total number of trees in the world
would have to be roughly doubled, which is not practically possible -
at least not in a reasonable time window of say 10 years (recall the
urgency of the situation). The solution for all sources of CO2, including academic conferences, is to do two things at once: significantly reduce emissions AND offset the remainder.
Seen another way, if a tree absorbs 10-20 kg CO2 per year, that’s 100-200 kg over 10 years. A return transatlantic flight creates 2000-4000 kg CO2
per economy passenger, so such conference participants would have to
plant 20 trees – for every conference! That would be a small
forest for every academic career.
In an article about the carbon footprint of meetings, Shawna McKinley, MeetGreen’s director of sustainability, was quoted saying this:
emissions that we can avoid is an important precursor to offsetting.
Acting by only offsetting creates the perception of greenwashing your
event, by overlooking things you can act to reduce. So reducing
emissions is always the first step. ... Offsets are an interesting
subject and they have a role to play, but they should never be the
first point of embarkation for an event organizer. We aren’t
going to fix the world’s biggest climate challenges through
offsetting alone. It doesn’t address the root cause of emissions.
It may not be reasonably possible to prevent colleagues from flying to
Many will continue to do so in spite of rising awareness of the
moral dilemma in which we
find ourselves, guessing that no court of law will ever accuse them of
something like "auxiliary to indirect mass murder". As long
as that is the case, conferences might be organised according to the
- Conference participants can be divided into two main categories: low-carbon physical participants who travel and from to the conference with low-carbon transport (train, bus, ship, bicycle, etc.) and virtual participants who do not travel, or travel by low-carbon transport to parallel subconferences in other parts of the world.
stated aim of the conference can be to enable and promote academic
communication among and between low-carbon physical and virtual
participants only. In the review process and conference programming,
both groups should be treated equally - as far as practically possible.
- Physical participants who use high-carbon transport (air, car,
motorcycle etc.) can be held responsible for their own emissions and their
environmental and human consequences. They can be asked at registration to sign a disclaimer that
legally releases the conference organisers from responsibility for
these emissions in future legal proceedings. As long as governments are
not levying carbon taxes that reflect the true social and environmental
costs of air travel, high-carbon participants can be asked to pay a higher
registration fee that covers those costs. Organisers can spend the proceeds appropriately, for
example on electronic communication technologies, relevant charities
(alternative energy research, development, promotion; tree planting;
climate politics) and awards for academic merit.
participants can be offered the opportunity to avoid the "carbon tax" by remaining near the
conference venue (for research or teaching purposes and/or on holiday, without using high-carbon transport)
for one week per 1000 km of distance from their home or place of work. A person
flying from New York to a conference in London might avoid the tax by
staying in the UK for 6 weeks; from London to Sydney, 17 weeks.
have developed a new conference format in which the conference is
distributed across several nominally equal hubs ideally covering all
continents. All talks are both live and virtual. All live and virtual
presentations are to audiences, and all audiences discuss the content.
All discussions are summarized in a comment feed enabling a global
discussion. During most of the conference at a given hub, audience
members are free to choose between parallel live, virtual and delayed
presentations, and symposia on specific themes that combine them.
Details are explained elsewhere.
academic societies that organise and promote conferences in their
disciplinary areas can support the transition to zero-carbon conferences by (i) encouraging universities to adjust their
travel reimbursement policies so that researchers can more easily
combine conferences, research projects and holidays into one trip; and
(ii) promoting the long-term creative development and
promotion of user-friendly electronic conference
Aspects of this approach will seem unfair or unjustified to some colleagues. But we must keep things in perspective:
a scientific viewpoint, it is certain that emissions are causing global
warming, and it is practically certain that global warming is causing hundreds of
millions of future deaths. These points are not new; disregarding climate denial and its continuing
political and social consequences, both points
have been practically certain for decades (more).
a legal viewpoint, our failure to change our conference culture in
response to these practical certainties makes us accountable for the
consequences. Legal proceedings in the area of climate protection will
become more frequent as the consequences become more serious.
follows - and this is meant purely as a logical consequence, and not as
some kind of political demand - that we academics now have no
choice but to reduce our emissions and aim for zero emissions, and
encourage people in all other sectors to do the same. The question is
not whether we do that, but how
we do it. We need to be creative, of course, developing new approaches
us to achieve these goals, while at the same time aspiring for high
academic standards ("excellence"). But we have to reduce emissions
immediately even if we are unhappy with the best available strategies
and even if they affect the quality of our work. As it happens, they
probably will not; in fact, the inclusion of financially disadvantaged
and disabled colleagues as virtual conference participants may have the
a moral viewpoint, nothing
can be more unfair or less justified than causing the deaths of future people.
Moreover, we academics are privileged by our extended education and
possibilities. We can more easily contribute to a solution of such
global problems than the average person, because we can more easily
understand them, and develop and promote solutions. That advantage morally
obliges us to act accordingly.
As a rough guide, conferences scheduled for next year
should aim to cut their carbon budget by half. Conferences scheduled
for five years from now should aim to make no net contribution at all
to atmospheric CO2, by offsetting any CO2 produced by supporting tree
planting, energy research and political projects.
Incidentally if you agree in general with these sentiments please support the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.
There are many ways to decarbonize academic conferences, and it is not the
purpose of this statement to list them all. The purpose is to
express the urgency of the issue and to encourage all organisers of
all academic conferences to face the facts and engage creatively and responsibly with the
problem. It is no longer reasonable to ignore it, deny it, submerge it in misleading arguments, or laugh it off.
Academic researchers in all disciplines are truth-artists. We are searching
for the truth, however defined, and we are hopefully doing it honestly.
The main aim of peer-review processes is to promote the truth, as far
as we are in a position to recognize it, and to expose and prevent lies
and distortions. Another important aspect of research is the
relationship between results and implications. If global warming and
associated future death rates are the result of greenhouse gas
emissions, the obvious implication is that we must stop emitting.
Implications depend on results and not vice-versa; results depend in
turn on the empirical findings, models, and associated arguments, and
not vice-versa. Climate deniers manipulate findings, models and
arguments in order to change results, which in turn changes
implications. Academics are well-placed to identify and discredit
such trickery. We should not fall into the same trap ourselves.
in all disciplines should be contributing more to political discussions about the
of reducing all greenhouse gas emissions. The details are beyond the scope of this statement, but here are a few ideas. Regarding aviation, private
jets should be globally outlawed and all airports and airlines should
have plans in place to quickly and seriously downsize their
operations and branch out into others (e.g. high-speed rail). To ensure
that this happens, governments should be heavily taxing flying (and/or
carbon generally) and spending the proceeds on research and development
of sustainable alternatives; incidentally, as long as millions of
people are dying of hunger every year, sustainable alternatives cannot
include biofuels. Beyond that, the entire fossil-fuel industry must be
dismantled and closed down, and that must happen far more quickly
than current international treaties suggest. The above
calculations suggest that the 10 billion tons of carbon being burned
worldwide every year are causing 10 million future deaths every year -
comparable with the rate at which people are currently dying in
connection with poverty, and effectively doubling it. Energy
must urgently be reduced or made more efficient in all areas (e.g.
housing and transport). The political contributions of research
organisations such as
for example Union of Concerned Scientists should be taken more seriously. These are some of the obvious
implications of climate research findings. If we academics, who
are in a good position to understand these findings and implications,
want such messages to be heard, we should start by decarbonizing
own activities as an example to others. We cannot expect others to make sacrifices without doing so ourselves.
At first glance, this document seems to invite a lot of discussion. Of
course discussion and revision of the content will be necessary - it is important to get the
facts straight. But we must also realise when it is time to stop talking
and start acting. We should focus on the most important
issues and facilitate discussion by the use of simple, direct
language. We should avoid emotional discussions whose function is more
therapeutic than academic. We should focus responsibly on understanding
and solving the problem. We should move quickly toward the development
of concrete, realistic, sustainable strategies that will
quickly lead to significant, real reductions in emissions, and ultimately to
the complete decarbonization of academia.
This is a personal statement, and responsibility for it rests entirely
with the author. It is completely independent of any
organisation to which I belong, or any position held by me, now or in
the past. It is motivated by two kinds of personal guilt. The
first is about my contribution to global warming, which is surely
than that of the average academic (more).
Since 2014, in an attempt to solve this problem, I have not flown to a
conference unless three criteria were fulfilled: I was invited to speak
to a large audience, other means of transport taking less than 24 hours
were unavailable, and I could spend significant extra time near the
conference location (research, teaching, holiday). The second kind of
guilt is about the next generation of researchers, who will not be able
to enjoy international travel in the way my colleagues and I have done.
For me personally, the challenge and fascination of traveling to
conferences in different countries was one of the main things - perhaps the main thing - that made an
academic career worthwhile, in spite of the pressure of publishing and
applying for research funding on top of teaching and administration,
and before that living for many years on low, insecure income, or being forced to move countries in search of secure income. But
there can be no doubt that the right to life of a billion present and
future people is more important than the right of researchers to fly to
conferences, which is the main point I want to make.
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