Sunday, 12 April 2015

Flying to the geo science flash mob in Vienna #EGU2015

ICE Train by Rhine River (3619844036)

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 impact

Climate 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.


I 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.

Simply put.
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 change

At 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 Marshall

In 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 reading

Michael Mann and Jonathan Brockopp: You can't save the climate by going vegan. Corporate polluters must be held accountable.

Climate 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


  1. "If half of the population stops using fossil fuels..."

    It would cause tremendous and crippling financial losses to the fossil fuel industry. Also, presumably, it would result in trillions of dollars being redirected into non-fossil-fuel sources of energy which would result in exponentially cheaper alternatives (i.e. renewables) due to the vastly larger economies of scale, unprecedented levels of R&D and demand.

  2. Victor, I very much agree that assuming "personal responsibility" from climate scientists in the sense that they stop flying or driving is stupid. Just as stupid as to demand that from anybody else. In fact the "personal responsibility" idea is promoted and used by "climate parasites" who make money with people's bad consciousness (AtmosFair, etc.).

    But I want to make another point.

    1) Climate scientists are in general both more concerned and better informed about climate change in general, including impacts, than the general public. How can they not develop a personal opinion and interest in the wider ramifications of the subject they think about 24 hrs a day?

    2) Sometimes it feels like climate scientists think, deep inside, that they are having a positive impact, just because of their job. If that would be the case, it would be clearly pitiful self-delusion. Because climate science does exactly zilch, nada, nothing to solve the problem these days. At least since 20 years, correct me if longer, the policy relevant message has stayed the same and it is not likely to change in the next 20 years. As you correctly observe it is a political problem.

    3) Many climate scientists are super secure tenured professors, quite well off, have media access and a lot of credibility. They also hold a central position in the education system and sometimes could, at least in theory, influence their institutions sometimes large endowment funds.

    And that is where I could very well image a bit more moral courage and yes, assuming personal responsibility that comes from your position and capabilities given to you by society. Sometimes there is a ridiculous large disconnect between how grave the situation and how urgent your project is (dear funding agency), and the "I don't give a flying fuck about doing anything that's not in my contract" attitude.

    Obviously some actually walk their talk but its not enough. And not speaking out and keeping a neutral sciency facade out of fear to be called "activist" by the Clowns -- how pathetic is that?

    And have fun in Vienna !

  3. Victor, it's not a matter of credibility as such, it's a matter of influencing other people.

    The people in our society with a sufficient knowledge of the problem and the greatest ability to influence others, and I really can't think of more than a handful of scientists who qualify, have the greatest responsibility. Those I have in mind are media stars, prominent politicians and other famous people. But scientists and activists also have a responsibility. We need an answer to "What are *you* doing?" )and frankly I couldn't care less what deniers think).

    An activist like myself may be able to take the low-carbon pledge and swear off almost all travel (I bike or walk generally, and the only time in the last six months I took public transit was to attend AGU, and that was only because biking over the Bay Bridge isn't allowed), but that's impractical for many activists in leadership roles as well as most scientists. What to do? Strike the best balance you can. So I very much like the remarks by Katherine and Richard, and actually think you failed to explain why you don't. The tragedy of the commons argument made no sense to me, or at least seems irrelevant. I think the fossil fuel divestment movement, and the South Africa one before it, are good examples of how a critical mass for change can be built up without a tragedy of the commons-like effect.

    You're far too young to remember it and I don't know if you've studied the history in detail, but the South Africa divestment movement started with individual boycott commitments, followed by stockholder actions, followed by government divestment (universities first). The South African government threw in the towel when it became clear that significant numbers of national governments were about to sign on. In part because the South Africa divestment movement is such a clear memory, fossil fuel divestment is making much more rapid progress.

    So this stuff works, but it has to start with individuals and expand on that level of society even as it begins to gain traction on other levels.

  4. John Irving said: ["If half of the population stops using fossil fuels..."] would cause tremendous and crippling financial losses to the fossil fuel industry.

    Which would hurt everyone else as well. See Lehman Brothers. However, more realistically, this process would go slower and just reduce the growth rate of the fossil fuel industries.

    John Irving said: "Also, presumably, it would result in trillions of dollars being redirected into non-fossil-fuel sources of energy which would result in exponentially cheaper alternatives (i.e. renewables) due to the vastly larger economies of scale, unprecedented levels of R&D and demand."

    That would only solve the problem if this would make renewables cheaper than fossil fuels while fossil fuels are allowed to use the atmosphere as a dump for free. It is possible that this will happen, the price of renewable energy is dropping extremely fast and the growth rates of this sector are enormous.

    Then we would no longer have a tragedy of the commons, but this is not guaranteed to happen. With a revenue-neutral carbon tax renewables would likely soon be the most economic energy source.

  5. hvw, 1) I do not know about you, but I do not think about climate change 24/7. We may be better informed than the US Tea Party folks who keep themselves in a deliberate state of under- and disinformation, but I do not know much more than someone who is interested.

    Maybe it is different for you, I did not study climate, but physics. What I know is what I work on myself, that the temperature is rising, the rest I mainly know from newspapers/media. I hardly now anything solid about impacts and solutions, not on a scientific level.

    Being a scientist, I fully appreciate how unbelievably ignorant the conspiracy theories are. That may help me a little relative to people who do not do science.

    We should get people out of this shock state where they feel helpless and wait for climate scientists to save the world. That requires a large mass movement and not just a few thousand scientists.

    2) I agree that what climate science did the last 20 years is not relevant for the discussion around mitigation. The additional information is mainly about smaller time and spatial scales and thus important for adaptation. That makes the personal attacks of the mitigation sceptics so weird, they normally do like adaptation to help their own peers through this mess.

    Adaptation is also policy relevant.

    We will also need to know more about geo engineering, not because it is a good solution, but because low-lying countries will not let the US Tea Party drown them, they will use it, no matter how much other impacts it will have.

    Maybe the "I don't give a flying fuck about doing anything that's not in my contract" attitude" comes from the so called competitive funding system. While it is no more competitive as Soviet factories trying to get the attention of central planners in Moscow, the feeling of competition may lead to people putting on blinders, no longer being academics, but only researchers. This stress also reduces creativity and is bad for science in general.

  6. Steve Bloom: "So I very much like the remarks by Katherine and Richard, and actually think you failed to explain why you don't."

    Which comments?

    Divestment. I am not as young as you may think and was interested in politics at an early age. The Netherlands as one of the colonial powers behind South Africa was also a focal point of activism against apartheid. Thus I did notice this struggle. A mass movement, by the way, not just a few intellectuals.

    Divestment of fossil fuels sounds like a great idea to me. If markets are efficient, like economists and conservatives tell us, then there are no downsides to divestment: all shares on Wall Street will bring the same return for a given risk level. A portfolio without fossil fuels will be a bit less diverse and thus have a little more volatility, but fossil fuels are just a few percent of the economy. That is a minor effect.

    I hope that man kind comes to its senses soon and can imagine that renewable energy will soon destroy the profitability of fossil fuel companies, thus divestment does have upsides.

    Divestment is a different case than less flying, which does have downsides, especially when not everyone does so. A call on everyone to fly less would also already be a lot more reasonable as a call only directed towards scientists.

    Could you explain why you do not see global warming as a tragedy of the commons?

  7. Technically you didn’t specify how long it would take for half of the population to stop using fossil fuels.

    I see no reason why carbon taxes and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and other incentives as well as reductions in consumption cannot occur more or less concurrently. In fact, I support all of these and that’s what seems to be happening and probably what will continue to happen. Dramatically reducing our fossil fuel consumption in the coming years and decades is the only choice if some degree of sanity prevails.

    I’ll add that, to me, climate change is a moral and ethical issue. Like all other moral and ethical choices I confront I do the best I can in given circumstances. What else can I or we do? Like Steve Bloom, my footprint is quite low.

  8. Even the smallest step is a step in the right direction.I think Steve is saying that the tragedy of the commons can be overcome because a critical mass for change can be built up to counteract it.

    Is there an antidote for the tragedy of climate other than a carbon tax?

  9. The main way to solve a tragedy of the commons is to change the incentives. Shifting the tax burden from labour to carbon is only one way to do so, but the most promising in my view. Technological development my also change the incentives as simply make it too expensive to burn coal and other fossil fuels.

    There is a problem that is related to the tragedy of the common called [[the prisoners game]]. It normally only has two players. The incentives are such that being egoistic is better than being cooperative, but that both players being cooperative is better overall than both being egoistic.

    This type of game played once leads to the egoistic solution, which is bad for both. However, if you play it multiple times, there is the option to punish people for being egoistic. In this case the best strategy we now of is generous tit of tat. Start nice, but then repeat what the other did in the previous round.

    It furthermore helps if the two players/prisoners can talk to each other.

    You could also see mitigation policies as a repeated game. Because climate change goes so slowly we can play the game multiple times and observe how the others are playing.

    We know from research into the ultimatum game that humans are willing to punish people for behaving unfairly, even at a cost to the person punishing. This could also help with states that are behaving unfairly playing the "mitigation game".

  10. " Shifting the tax burden from labour to carbon is only one way to do so, but the most promising in my view. "

    I wonder how long a carbon tax will be promised before it becomes reality? How many countries will enact a meaninful one in the next five years? What does it say about the urgency of mitigation that its most promising proposal won't be in place for years, if ever?

    To date, the most widely advocated mitigation approach is the top down imposition of a price on carbon, achieved by the political process, communicated through the information deficit model. It is a denier and delayer dream scenario.

  11. Most of those deniers claim to be advocates of the free market as well. Such a free market is only efficient with well defined property rights, that includes not dumping your trash in your neighbours garden. Dumping CO2 in the atmosphere and hurting the property rights of others is the same, it means that the market is not free and not efficient.

    I would not see the situation so negatively. There are taxes on gasoline in many countries, and also emissions trading systems with achieve the same aim but more bureaucratically. The USA is a very backward country in this respect and it is not the world. Even the USA is doing something, just not the efficient way with a carbon tax recommended by economists as the most efficient solution. You can also solve global warming the inefficient way. Maybe people who claim to be in favour of free markets probably are actually against redistribution to the benefit of poor people and ethnic minorities, but do not dare to say so, which would explain the rock bottom quality of their insincere "arguments".

  12. The sole purpose of a carbon tax is to incentivize the market toward mitigation. It fundamentally recognizes the marketplace as the best vehicle for mitigation.

    The advantage of the marketplace is in the ability of participants to spend their time, money and effort in any way they choose. It can be incentivized toward mitigation from the bottom just as it can from the top. The advantage of a bottom up approach is that it can begin right now. In fact, it has already begun.

    I am pessimistic about how long it will take for a meaningful tax to be imposed. It depends on the political process. So far, the political process has proved woefully inadequate. Even political majorities, which are fleeting, have not guaranteed enactment. The climate tragedy is more a social problem than a political one. It should be overcome through a social process that does not rely on politics.

  13. The boomerang effect article is one of several recent studies that demonstrate the weaknesses of the deficit model of science
    communication for mitigation. Another study used cultural filters rather than political affiliation. It came to similar conclusions, finding that, whatever its merits, the information deficit model is inapplicable to the mitigation message. Unfortunately, none of the papers suggested a viable model with which to replace it.


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