By Dr Jaymie Heilman
“I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly” climate scientist Peter Kalmus explained, noting that airplane emissions heat the planet, imperiling humans and non-humans alike. The IPCC warns that we have only eleven years to radically reduce carbon emissions or face ever-more devastating effects of climate change, and it is time for academic flyers to be grounded by the hard truths of our climate emergency.
Rank and Flight
I got where I am professionally precisely because I flew. A lot.
I am a full professor at a major research institution. My doctorate, my university jobs, tenure, and promotions all came about because I did a ton of international flying.
Between starting graduate school in 1998 and 2014, I took an average of five round-trip international flights each year – to study, do research in Peru, visit my family, go to conferences, and go on vacation.
All that flying allowed me to write two books and a number of articles, and build ties with other scholars of Latin America, and I have benefitted professionally and personally. But since 2014, I have been steadily reducing my flying.
Several climate scientists have pledged to reduce their air travels, acknowledging the hypocrisy of flying while warning about climate change and recognizing that such hypocrisy undermines their credibility.
Scholars concerned about social justice must likewise question the ethics of our flights. Take those of us horrified by Central America’s refugee crisis. Hundreds of thousands of children, women, and men have fled from in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years, trying to escape deadly gang violence, repressive governments, and devastating poverty. Climate change is making this terrible situation worse: failing crops displace families to cities unable to adequately employ and protect them. That displacement, in turn, empowers criminal gangs able to provide very particular (and bloody) forms of employment and protection to desperate youth. Failing crops also drive rural families to bypass their nations’ cities altogether, heading straight for el norte.
Is it ethical for me to fly from Edmonton to San Salvador – expending 1.73 metric tons of carbon – to research the historical roots of this refugee crisis? Probably. If the knowledge fostered by my oral history interviews and archival research somehow helps mitigate the humanitarian disaster, then all the carbon emissions from that round-trip flight — and the estimated 5 square meters of arctic ice that would melt as a consequence — are likely well spent.
Would it be ethical for me to expend 2.34 metric tons of carbon (and melt 7 square meters of arctic ice) to fly to Tokyo to give a keynote lecture about the crisis and engage interested colleagues and students? To me, the answer is clear: No.
What about expending 0.91 metric tons of carbon by flying to New York to talk about the refugee crisis at a conference? Would those emissions be justifiable, given how many people would hear my talk, and given how many insights and opportunities I’d be able to offer and receive? To me, the answer is again ‘no.’ As climate scientist Kevin Anderson puts it, “Even if our talks are riveting canters through the intellectual surf, are they really so important that we have to be there in person and in an instant, before launching off to dispense our pearls of wisdom to another packed house in another exotic location?” Continue reading