This week, more than 20,000 Earth and planetary scientists from all over the world are converging on Washington for the annual gathering of the American Geophysical Union. They come together to celebrate the wonder of our planet and to swap clues about the evolution of the Earth system from the deep past to the distant future. It is a treasured geo-family reunion. But to avoid the carbon-dioxide emissions from flying, one of us will travel to Washington by train, and two of us have decided not to attend.
As Earth scientists, we understand the urgency of climate change better than anyone. Our findings are inscribed in international and national reports dating back several decades, each more urgent than the last. The most recent report points out that humanity must be halfway to a 100 percent carbon-free economy within a decade if we are to avoid the most devastating climate effects.
We grieve for the lives lost to record-breaking storms and wildfires, for the ongoing deterioration of Earth’s coral reefs, for our children’s future in a hot, unstable world. For us and for many other Earth scientists, dramatically reducing our personal carbon footprint has become a moral imperative and a lifelong pursuit.
When we first assessed our own carbon footprints, we found air travel to be the largest culprit, constituting roughly three-quarters of the total. And we are not alone. Most academics fly as a core part of our jobs; there are conferences to attend, proposals to review on panels, invited lectures to give, collaborations to advance, field data to collect.
Unfortunately, flying is extremely carbon-intensive. One round-trip flight between Los Angeles and London emits three metric tons of carbon dioxide. For context, the average citizen of China generates five tons of CO2 per year. In Bangladesh, that number falls to one ton per year, equivalent to the emissions from a typical round-trip flight within the United States. To us, these data make it clear that an addiction to air travel is inconsistent with a stable climate. So we made the difficult decision to fly less — a lot less.
We started on this journey at different times and have settled on different paths toward our shared goal. In each case, we struggled with an increasing awareness that the climate damage from our flight emissions far outweighed the tangible benefits of most scientific meetings. In response, two of us have gone from flying 100,000 miles per year to flying less than 30,000, and one of us has not flown in years.
In our personal commitments to fly less, we are bucking cultural norms in Earth science, and in academia more generally. When one of us recently chose not to fly across the country to receive an award for climate research, the decision generated mixed reactions among fellow climate scientists. In other instances, invited talks were rescinded when we requested to present remotely to save carbon emissions. We have chosen to bear the professional costs of reduced networking opportunities and less visibility for our work, and, in many cases, the personal costs of missed family vacations to far-flung destinations.
We know that these individual choices to fly less will not “save the planet.” To address climate change on the rapid time scale outlined in the recent climate assessments, collective steps such as adopting a carbon fee at the federal level and enhancing renewable portfolio standards at the state level, among others, will be essential.
However, collective action requires collective urgency. Although we fly less primarily to reduce our emissions, we also recognize that individual action shifts norms and can catalyze collective action, including institutional change at our universities and professional societies.
We envision a future in which scientists can attend conferences remotely, engaging with their colleagues during online presentations and grabbing a virtual coffee with that long-lost mentor. While there will certainly be growing pains, we see this as an opportunity to create more inclusive collaborative meeting models, allowing those without travel funding or with family-care responsibilities to participate, for example. With thoughtful design and iteration, zero-carbon 21st-century meeting models could increase connectivity and productivity for scientists and nonscientists alike.
Each year, as climate impacts worsen and the timeline for action shrinks, a growing number of Earth scientists and other academics are choosing to fly less. We encourage our universities and professional societies to invest in the technical infrastructure and to develop the online meeting models that will accelerate our shift away from frequent flying as a professional necessity.
In the meantime, we are content to go by ground — or not at all.