Climate scientists try to cut their own carbon footprints

Seth Borenstein

AP – For years, Kim Cobb was the Indiana Jones of climate science. The Georgia Tech professor flew to the caves of Borneo to study ancient and current climate conditions. She jetted to a remote South Pacific island to see the effects of warming on coral.

Add to that flights to Paris, Rome, Vancouver and elsewhere. All told, in the last three years, she’s flown 29 times to study, meet or talk about global warming.

Then Cobb thought about how much her personal actions were contributing to the climate crisis, so she created a spreadsheet. She found that those flights added more than 73,000 pounds of heat-trapping carbon to the air.

Now she is about to ground herself, and she is not alone. Some climate scientists and activists are limiting their flying, their consumption of meat and their overall carbon footprints to avoid adding to the global warming they study. Cobb will fly just once next year, to attend a massive international science meeting in Chile.

“People want to be part of the solution,” she said.

Georgia Tech professor Kim Cobb poses for a photo at her home in Atlanta. PHOTO: AP

“Especially when they spent their whole lives with their noses stuck up against” data showing the problem.

The issue divides climate scientists and activists and plays out on social media. Texas Tech’s Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist who flies once a month, often to talk to climate doubters, was blasted on Twitter because she keeps flying.

Hayhoe and other still-flying scientists note that aviation is only three per cent of global carbon emissions.

Executive Director of the climate solutions think-tank Project Drawdown Jonathan Foley limits his airline trips but will not stop flying because, he said, he must meet with donors to keep his organisation alive. He calls flight shaming “the climate movement eating its own”.

Over the next couple of weeks, climate scientists and environmental advocates will fly across the globe. Some will be jetting to Madrid for United Nations (UN) climate negotiations. Others, including Cobb, will fly to San Francisco for a major earth sciences conference, her last for a while.

“I feel real torn about that,” said Indiana University’s Shahzeen Attari, who studies human behaviour and climate change. She calls Cobb an important climate communicator. “I don’t want to clip her wings.”

But Cobb and Hayhoe are judged by their audiences on how much energy they use themselves, Attari said.

Attari’s research shows that audiences are turned off by scientists who use lots of energy at home. Listeners are more likely to respond to experts who use less electricity.

“It’s like having an overweight doctor giving you dieting advice,” Attari said. She found that scientists who fly to give talks bother people less.

In science, flying is “deeply embedded in how we do academic work,” said Steven Allen, a management researcher at the University of Sheffield, who recently organised a symposium aimed at reducing flying in academia. He said the conference went well, with 60 people participating remotely from 12 countries.

Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann, who flies but less than he used to, said moderation is key.

“I don’t tell people they need to become childless, off-the-grid hermits. And I’m not one myself,” Mann said in an email. “I do tell people that individual action is PART of the solution, and that there are many things we can do in our everyday lives that save us money, make us healthier, make us feel better about ourselves AND decrease our environmental footprint. Why wouldn’t we do those things?”

Mann said he gets his electricity from renewables, drives a hybrid vehicle, doesn’t eat meat and has one child.