Grounded: Academic Flying in the Time of Climate Emergency

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.

Ethics Review

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?”

Power and Responsibility

It is full professors like me – rather than graduate students, PhDs looking for jobs, or untenured academics — who should make concerted efforts to reduce our flying. Yet, a recent study of University of British Columbia academics found that senior scholars were responsible for more annual air travel emissions than their junior colleagues.

Of course, academics also fly for personal reasons; most of us live far away from our extended families and closest friends. On this point, I am astonishingly lucky: I got a great job in my hometown and my husband was willing to move with me. My mother-in-law was, too. This means my “love miles” – the distance I must fly to see relatives and friends – are reserved for my cherished US-based friends. My decision to take just one round-trip flight a year has therefore been much easier than it would be for many of my peers.

But I’m Just One Person!

When I posted the academic “flyingless” petition on Facebook, a friend countered that it’s the billionaires in private jets who should be held accountable, not the poor sods squished like sardines into economy class. Private jets are unquestionably far worse for the environment than even first-class seats. But those of us stuffed into economy class seats are still members of a tiny elite. Only a small minority of the world’s population – perhaps around 6% — get on an airplane in a given year.

Many academics will also question how much impact their individual flying reductions could possibly make.

While flying itself accounts only for a small (if growing) portion of global carbon emissions, our carbon footprints as academics are often overwhelmingly dominated by flying. Peter Kalmus found that 75% of his personal carbon footprint came from flying. Same with me.

These numbers are even more striking when scaled up to institutional levels. Annual carbon emissions from work-related air travel in the UBC Geography department were 30 times higher than the yearly emissions produced by running the entire Geography building.

Acting alone is not enough; we also need to talk. If you radically reduce your flying, but remain silent about that decision, your actions will barely matter. It is only by talking about our flight reductions that we have any chance of encouraging others to fly less. And it’s only by making such individual changes on the collective level that we can push politicians to pursue dramatic climate action.

Conversations about flying less are tough. I don’t want to discourage scholars from conducting archival research and oral history interviews in diverse parts of the world, especially at a moment when we need more global empathy and understanding, not less. I also don’t want to alienate my frequent flyer colleagues and friends. Maja Rosén, the founder of Sweden’s “We Stay on the Ground” movement, stopped flying in 2008, but only started speaking out about not-flying ten years later when she asked herself, “How is it possible I’m more scared of destroying the mood than climate collapse?”

And while individual academics’ actions matter intensely, institutional actions will matter much more. University administrators must restructure merit systems that reward academics for excessive flying and penalize those who stay grounded. Same goes for our funding agencies.

Universities also need to invest in better teleconferencing technology and foster efforts to conduct and disseminate our research in nearly carbon neutral ways.

What About Offsets?

It would be fabulous if carbon offsets actually worked, allowing us to keep flying while cancelling out the harms from airplanes’ emissions. Unfortunately, carbon offsets are riddled with problems like additionality, permanence, and leakage, and they effectively condone more and more flying. Ultimately, buying carbon offsets is like paying someone else to inoculate their children against measles, while steadfastly refusing to vaccinate your own.

Academics must instead perform a very different kind of offset calculation. We need to ask whether the social, health, and environmental harms caused by each flight we want to take are offset by the intellectual and social good that flight will foster. Sometimes the balance will work out in favor of air travel. Often, it will not.

Dr Jaymie Heilman is a full professor in the department of History and Classics at the University of Alberta.

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One thought on “Grounded: Academic Flying in the Time of Climate Emergency

  1. Bruce Douville

    Thanks for posting this. It is vitally important that we have this discussion. In the mid 2000s, I made a decision to avoid plane travel for environmental reasons. Consequently, I have opted to do my conference travelling (and purely recreational travel) by bus. As time goes by, I’m even uneasy with the carbon footprint of long-haul bus trips (especially when the buses are more empty than full). I love my annual trip to Congress, and I love visiting cities across the continent. But I’m beginning to wonder if the carbon emissions can be justified if it means more than a day’s journey by bus.

    Academic institutions AND conference organizers need to grapple with the carbon footprint of large conferences, and travel is a big part of that. So, thank you for speaking up.

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