You get used to it, but actually it is very strange. One week in spring, suddenly over 10 thousand geo scientists turn up in a middle European town, go into a huge building, specially build for such mega flash mobs, talk about arcane topics and find others that want to do the same. Crazy.
Such events also have environmental consequences. Especially travelling to Vienna produces much additional pollution. The UK Tyndall Centre recently produced a report stating that climate scientists should set an example and fly less. Not that this is a large contribution to climate change, but you can claim that for every individual action of a small group. No, the reason is according to the first author Corinne Le Quéré:
“It’s a credibility issue, ... We’re trying to support a change in culture.”I find the idea very sympathetic, but I could not disagree more.
I do not see less flying making an impact, I do not think it would or should change the credibility of climate scientists and I do not think it supports a culture change.
No impactClimate change is a [[tragedy of the commons]]. The atmosphere is a resource that every one of us uses; it is overexploited because every individual has benefits from using it and the downsides are spread over everyone. Without coordination these incentives invariably lead to overexploitation. The term tragedy of the commons comes from the communal lands around a village, the commons. Every villager benefits by having too much cattle, all suffer because the land degrades, that is the tragedy. One villager reducing his herd does not solve this problem. The neighbours will just enlarge their herds. You need coordination.
Climate change, the ozone hole or biodiversity loss are extra tough versions of such tragedies of the commons because so many people are involved. That makes coordination difficult. To make the number of participants workable normally nations negotiate to solve these global tragedies.
If half of the population decides to stop eating meat of industrially maltreated animals, that reduces the problem by half. A tragedy of the commons is different. If half of the population stops using fossil fuels, this will at best delay the climate problem a few years and in the worst case also delay the solution by the same time span.
In the end, the solution to global environmental problems will come from social changes. The incentives need to change so that people automatically make other choices and do so because that is the best choice for them too. If climate scientists would act as if climate change is a personal choice problem, rather than a tragedy of the commons, that may give the wrong impression.
Especially for climate change, the preferred behaviour will be even easier once the incentives have changed. Now it may be hard to live without a car where you live, but once the incentives change more people will use public transport and get on their bikes. As a consequence, the quality of public transport will increase and more biking lanes will be build, your office may get showers and the dress code may change. Society needs to change.
CredibilityI do not think that flying less makes climate scientists more credible, nor that it makes a stronger case that climate change is real, nor that people will suddenly realise that 97% of climate scientists agree humans are causing climate change.
If climate scientists fly the mitigation sceptics will call them hypocrites.
If climate scientists do not fly the mitigation sceptics will call them activists.
As always, the best advice is to ignore what the unreasonable say, but it is not a priori clear which option makes climate scientists more credible in the eyes of the public.
There is also nothing special about being a climate scientist, my job is to study the reasons for non-climatic changes in historical observations and to develop algorithms to remove these changes. If I would not be blogging, I would not be thinking often about the economic and human costs of climate change. No more than someone else. I am not suddenly also an expert on all the different impacts of climate change. There might be a few public scientists that have this broad overview, most are simply doing their job and do not have a better idea of the problem as someone reading a decent newspaper.
If people chose to reduce their environmental impact that is great. Some people living like that may also make the transition easier by showing that the behaviour is possible and that you can live a happy life that way. However, anyone who worries about climate change can do that, that is not specific to climatologists.
On credibility. I dare to write this post because I travelled the 880 km to Vienna by train. In doing so only emitted a quarter of the CO2 of a comparable flight, if you believe the calculator of the rail company. I did so because I love going by train, you have more space, you can walk around, see the landscape slowly change. When you fly you have to wait in line all the time and are interrupted continually: get to airport 2 hours in advance, check-in, security, boarding, disembarking, get your luggage, travel to centre. Flying is a waste of your time and it is loud, while travelling by train is a great moment to read books and articles.
Culture changeAt the moment we already have the big problem, mainly in the USA, that people who do not like the political solutions claim not to accept the science of climate change. They know so little about the science and about scientists, that we can be sure it is not that the science is lacking or that the scientists are not behaving right. I would see it as a major improvement if these people would no longer come up with specious "arguments" why a science is wrong that they hardly know anything about.
Then we could have an adult conversation and negotiate. The liberals get renewable energy, the conservatives aircraft carriers or whatever they want to have. An interesting way to shift the tax burden to carbon would be to let the US Republicans decide which tax should be lowered the same amount as the carbon tax brings in revenue.
The science and the political solutions are two different things. Someone may hold the opinion that the solutions are worse than the problem. I do not agree, but that is just personal opinion. That is comparing apples and oranges, which is the realm of politics, not science.
This culture does not get better by telling those people that if they accept the science, like 97% of climate scientists, that they should then also take personal consequences and fly less, like 97% of climate scientists.
George MarshallIn a recent TEDx video George Marshall (of Talking Climate) makes a similar case as the Tyndall Centre about personal responsibility. I do not agree with him, but he sure can tell it well and makes many important points. He tells about meeting an expert in marine biodiversity who orders a grilled swordfish, a climate scientist who flies to South America for a summer skying holiday, and about having a conversation with an animal rights activist while Marshall was eating the biggest US hamburger he had ever seen. After which he explains the psychology that enables this disconnect in human minds.
Related readingClimate Central: Can climate scientists make a difference by not flying?
Tyndall Centre: Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st Century
Also by George Marshall: How to talk to uncle Bob, the climate ostrich
Do dissenters like climate change?
Boomerang effects in science communication: how motivated reasoning and identity cues amplify opinion polarization about climate mitigation policies