The Climate Change Hypocrisy Of Jet-Setting Academics?

Via Sou, who sources WUWT and HuffPo. I recall discussing air travel recently, but can't see where1 (Climate Chickenhawks probably applies). Somewhere during that discussion came the assertion that global flying is only 2% of global CO2; I can find that sourced in wiki from 1992; and via ATAG to current-but-unclear. Can it really not have grown, as a proportion, in more than two decades? Theconversation, whilst linking to the 2% figure from ATAG, nonetheless says 2.5%, and worries that it will increase. Never mind. I think I shall assume that whilst globally small it can be a significant factor for some individuals or groups, and that academics are one of the groups that it could be significant for.

Aanyway, I don't want to rehash the whole conversation, but I do want to comment on Sou's
Now I don't know about you, but I've never tried to hold a phone or Skype conversation with more than about 15 people at a time, twenty max I think. I've attended lots of teleconferences and web-based discussions lately, and with almost all of them there have been communications difficulties. Even today one cannot be confident that simple telephony will work for everyone for a couple of hours. Most of the electronic meetings involving 10 to 15 people have suffered with static/hiss, drop-outs, difficulties with web-documents and so forth. To hold a conversation with upwards of 30 people is quite a challenge, let alone gatherings of hundreds or thousands or tens of thousands of people.
This is classic "perfect substitution threshold" stuff: we won't accept your new way of doing things, unless it does all the old things, and better. But why would you want to do this? The current way of holding conferences - correct me if the world has evolved in the ten years since I left Science - is that a pile of people turn up in a place and so you have to work out what to do with this pile of people, and the obvious thing is to dump them in a lecture theatre and have them be lectured at. There are usually poster sessions, coffee breaks, breakout sessions and so on; but conferences are usually built around the armature of lectures.

And yet time after time people report that the most productive part of conferences is meeting and talking to individuals. Sometimes because you've been sparked by something in their lecture, sometimes by some other chance or design. The idea, in this day and age, that you need to go to a conference to read someone's presentation is absurd; they are all online, or could be, far more conveniently.

And so if you were going to re-invent conferences online, there's no reason why you'd want to replicate the current format, or anything close to it. There are various obstacles in the way of Nirvana, of course. The linked articles note that going to lots of conferences is one marker of status. Not mentioned - but the reason that I mostly went - is that it is of course fun to go to foreign places with someone else paying. There's also the huge academic inertia of the current conference circuit.


1. Probably chez ATTP, though I didn't join the conversation.


How much would we have to adjust our lifestyle to stop global warming?
* [2016] Yes, I Get on Planes to Fight Climate Change - Alex Steffen. "People will always find excuses to do what they wanted to do anyway".


Tom Fuller said...

I've seen the level of attribution of CO2 emissions to air travel as high as 5%, and quite a while ago, too. I wonder if inclusion/exclusion of military flight explains it?=.

Anonymous said...

If you do not buy a ticket, somebody else will. Anecdotally, airplanes are "fuller" now than ever. The people behind this nonsense just want to prevent society from ever doing anything by weakening the effectiveness of scientists and scientific bodies. Generals take up seats in the rear of the front; scientists fly. It's just the way things are.

Millicent said...

According to passenger surveys, over 50% of flights from Heathrow are for leisure. Perhaps, in a saner world, the first thing to do would be to stop flying for no good reason at all.

Ned said...

WMC writes: "Not mentioned - but the reason that I mostly went - is that it is of course fun to go to foreign places with someone else paying."

Well, that varies. I don't particularly enjoy traveling for work and would prefer to stay home with my family, and I always dread the mountain of work that will be waiting when I return. So I force myself to go to conferences when necessary, but would never describe it as "fun" and generally try to minimize it.

As with so much, it's perilous to generalize from one's own experience.

Arthur said...

One thing to note is that airplanes are actually a pretty efficient form of transportation on a per-mile basis - certainly much better than single-occupancy cars, if you are comparing that to the usual sardine-packed commercial airlines. The problem of course is they rack up miles much faster than a car would.

On conferences - at least for what I do, I have found it very hard outside of a conference to actually organize a bunch of people to work on something together (online, conference calls, etc.) Sometimes only the threat of an upcoming promised presentation is sufficient to get actual work done. And when you are working with people from other continents, scheduling something everybody can attend together (online) is really hard - the Australians, Europeans, and Americans don’t really have any common working hours, and if they’re at home they have family or other responsibilities that won’t reschedule their lives around a long meeting. There are lots of tools that supposedly allow you to work together remotely, but I find essentially none of them are noticeably any better than email was 30 years ago for actually getting things done. All that said I certainly have deliberately limited my travel in the last decade - generally only 1 or 2 conferences in a year now. Some of my colleagues seem to spend half their time in the air.

William M. Connolley said...

> I have found it very hard

Yes, agreed. I didn't wish to imply that change would be easy. I agree it will be hard. Perhaps academics should all pay a 5% levy on the travel budget to fund remote-presence research :-)

Nick Barnes said...

With regard to Millicent's comment:
According to passenger surveys, over 50% of flights from Heathrow are for leisure. Perhaps, in a saner world, the first thing to do would be to stop flying for no good reason at all.
Clearly leisure is a much better reason for travel than business.

William M. Connolley said...

This is where I'd like to avoid second-guessing people. We're back to Hayek (and Timmy's) point: we don't know why people do things, and we don't know how much those people value those things. We could just ban, or severely restrict, or exhort against, leisure (or, at your option, business) travel. But a better option is to raise the price to take account of the damage aka externalities, via carbon taxes; and then allow people to decide whether they still want the thing at the new higher price.

Anonymous said...

Google Scholar was just inundated by a papers that were published for AGU 2017. Searching for "Cloud Feedbacks", I waded through ~22 pages of AGU 2017 paper links before finally hitting a paper that was actually published at the end March 2018. Since 9-11, I have taken two airplane rides, and one was one way. I am not stupid enough to think Al Gore could, or should, do that.

Tom Fuller said...

I think the point at issue seems at risk of being neglected in this thread. Should academics (or anyone else for that matter) who push for a change in societal behavior because of climate change change their behavior as an example or inspiratiob to others?

I don't claim to know the answer. But that is the question we are asking.

William M. Connolley said...

It is a question but actually it *wasn't* the one I was intending to ask (it is an interesting question though, so don't let me stop you). What I was intending to do was to point out that changing from flying to Skype-or-whatever doesn't mean replicating conferences over Skype, because that would be silly. You could get something *better* with Skype, even though getting there would be hard. You could have, ooooh, I don't know, a permanent "meeting room" that people knew would be "more open" at certain hours (maybe 3 one-hour slots scattered throughout the 24) and people would get in the habit of dropping in to talk about subject X, facet Y. This would be harder but (IMHO) more valuable than conferences.

The valuable bit comes from the fact that it's harder... it's easy to turn up to a conference, show your poster / give your talk, and then quietly slumber through a number of other lectures and talks and dinners, and everyone will agree you've done your duty.

David Appell said...

Good thoughts. For an online presentation, you don't really need a true many-to-many teleconference, but a one-to-many broadcast, which is simpler technically. Then you could have a telephone-only call-in setup for questions, or even textual, which the questioner could repeat if necessary. There are all kind of outlets doing live streaming now, including YouTube. Though you'd still lose some of the personal touch, which, when I go to conferences, I find to very valuable. And you meet people you didn't know you were going to meet.

But I think the idea that climate scientists should refrain from flying because they're the ones researching AGW to be misplaced. It alone would do little to solve the problem, and everyone should do it then, too. But it could begin to set an example. But enough of one?

"Today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible. This is a new problem." -- Dale Jamieson

JamieB said...

"Millicent said...
According to passenger surveys, over 50% of flights from Heathrow are for leisure."

Leisure represents >70% of UK passengers out of Heathrow (and nationally).

Business flights have been trending down steadily since 2000, rendering the business-oriented justifications for a 3rd runway a load of bollocks.