Gare de l'Est, Paris

Flying in Academia and the climate crisis II

Since I wrote a first post about flying in academia almost a year ago, the discussion has spread widely. We have started to collect ideas on how to make our own research more climate-friendly, in my own institution and among researchers from the social science and humanities in Berlin. In this debate it has been helpful and inspiring what other institutions and people do or try out. I present here some links, blog posts and articles related to this debate and the points they are making.

People in academia (who) fly less

There are several movements of researchers worldwide declaring that they will stop flying or fly less. Apart from the Commitment not to fly for less than 1000 km that over 4000 scientists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland have signed (and that also calls for a change in federal law concerning the reimbursement of travel costs!), there are similar movements in the other parts of the world.

In an article in the Journal of Sustainable Tourism the authors Higham and Font call for a decarbonization of academia:

„It is time for academic institutions to take responsibility and for academics to show leadership in the sector by auditing our own impacts, reducing them within our current institutional constraints, and envisaging and experimenting with low carbon business models that make us proud of being part of a sustainable solution, and not just reporting how unsustainable everyone else’s behaviour is.“

Scientist’s credibility

There is a debate going on about how the personal behaviour of scientists affects their (academic) credibility among the public. This issue is certainly crucial for scientists working directly in climate science, but may also play a role for researchers in the social sciences or humanities who do research on effects of climate change, environmental issues or policies. A study published in Climatic Change from 2016 and a follow-up from 2019 show that the personal behaviour of climate scientists affects their credibility, and also the intention of the audience to change their own behaviour (you find the journal article here, a podcast interview with the main author and an interview with another author of the study). Other papers, like this one, go into the same direction, arguing for a certain responsibility in the three overlapping domains of action: personal, professional and public.

This debate has strongly be influenced by earlier articles in US newspapers about The Climate Change Hypocrisy Of Jet-Setting Academics in The Huffington Post discussing the discrepancy of what academics demand and what they actually do themselves:

„This is a notable disconnect between what universities preach and what their culture incentivizes and their star professors do. Academics are probably among the people most aware of the threats posed by climate change. But might their own carbon-profligate lifestyles undermine their moral authority to demand that coal miners, Teamsters working on oil pipelines and mining-dependent Native American tribes sacrifice their own economic well-being to fight climate change? „

The authors also suggest a few solutions to the problem, like a internal carbon tax for academic institutions that could be used to buy offset. Others, like Parke Wilde on the Academic Flying Blog stronly oppose the idea of offsets, arguing that offsets not only do more harm than good, but also, that academics, if they choose in a more responsible way when its necessary or worth flying, could proudly „own“ their emissions: „First, for climate mitigation globally, institutions and individuals should support emissions reduction activities directly and generously, without undermining or zeroing out their benefits through flying. Second, for our own aviation impact, as institutions and individuals, we should reduce what we can and not offset the rest. If our travel really deserves to be recognized as essential, we can own the emissions proudly.“

Institutional approaches

Although the approaches mentioned above may all have their merit, my personal opinion still is that many of them are slightly problematic, as most of them concern only the level of individual action. While this is a common approach today, I am convinced that a problem like climate change cannot be solved through changing personal behaviour, and that we need political and systemic changes to address it.

So I think it is interesting that the campaign by Scientists4Future also calls for a change in the German federal law concerning the reimbursement of travel costs. And the discussion is under way in many universities and research institutions worldwide: After a critical article in The Times about jet-setting academics calling for climate-friendler food, the University of Cambridge self-critically examinded their own policies, and now is about to rework their travel policies, with the aim to avoid air-travel where destinations can also be reached by train. Universities like the the UCL have sustainability strategies involving a reduction of flight emissions, ETH Zürich is implementing its air Travel Project Stay grounded, stay connected, monitoring all flight emissions with the aim to reduce them by 11 percent over the next five years.

Inspiring experiences

I finally liked the inspiring report of UK-based anthropologist Hanna Knox A year without flying, that kind of relates both: the personal level and the bigger picture. Right at the beginning she makes clear that she indeed realized that she could do without flying – living in Europe, with  a more or less reliable network of public transport, a field-site in the UK and a permanent position. I think this is a crucial point because this brings us away from the personal level (who does stop flying?) to the systemic one (who is able to stop flying?), and this relates on one site to infrastructure and on the other side to job security in the academic world. If people should fly less, then we need to fight first for an infrastructure that allows us to reach our destinations by train, inexpensive and reliable. And second, for more job security in the academic sphere – many young researchers would probably happy to skip some conferences they are flying to, if they wouldn’t have to secure their next short-term contract.

The issue of flying, as also Knox writes, is directly linked to ideas of other forms of „doing“ science, to „slow science“. And to fly less, or to travel more consciously, for her has has turned more into an experiment that opened up new possibilites, new imaginations:

I have come to see this whole exercise not as a demonstration of what other people should do, or what the right way of addressing climate change is, but as an exploration of what becomes possible when we bring a projection of climate changed future into the present. […] In another it holds the prospect of being a radical exercise in imagining our world differently.  I have started to think now of not flying as a conceit then, a way of saying what if there were no planes, no way of doing the business as usual version of anthropology that I find myself structured within. How we would respond? In starting to work out the answer to this question, I have found a new space for thinking about what it means to do anthropology and do academic work, a space in which I am beginning to explore with others new ways of reflexively critiquing and potentially transforming, the high-carbon version of knowing and acting that we have come to take for granted.

Photo: Des Coulam, Soundlandscapes, https://soundlandscapes.wordpress.com/category/home/


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