Thursday, 29 December 2022

Hypocrites in the air, and Barnabas Calder

Since travel by plane is one of the main sources of carbon emissions by researchers, climate scientists who take the plane have been called hypocrites in the air. The expression could be applied to many other researchers, who worry about climate change (without necessarily working on the subject), but fly much more than is really needed.

But what is “really needed” plane travel for a researcher? Surely, we could eliminate much plane travel without compromising our work, by renouncing useless or marginally useful meetings, conferences or visits. Videoconferencing can be helpful: it is often profitable to save the time and expense of travelling, by accepting some loss in communication quality. However, if we take the climate seriously, this cannot be enough. Emissions need not just be halved, but be brought close to zero, and quickly.

Taking the climate seriously implies reducing emissions even when this is detrimental to research – or other activities. Some researchers are already doing it. Barnabas Calder, author of Architecture: from prehistory to climate emergency, explains in his introduction that he did not visit many of the buildings he discusses:

Parts of the book might have been better with first-hand experience of the buildings, but in a world that can ill afford the carbon burden of jet-fuelled travel, the move towards sustainable energy consumption will involve bigger and tougher compromises than this.

Unlike most research subjects, Calder’s work is relevant to addressing climate change, and yet he accepts the handicap of travel restrictions. How does one call the opposite of a hypocrite in the air? A honest scientist on the ground?