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“Do We Really Need to Fly?”: Meet Climate Scientists Walking Their Talk

Above Photo:  Lauren Walker / Truthout

Last December, atmospheric scientist Peter Kalmus ruffled some feathers when he called out 25,000 of his colleagues for flying to the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting.

Being acutely aware of the worsening impacts from anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) — since it was, after all, his job — Kalmus had already made some dramatic changes in his own life to reflect some of the steps he knew the larger culture needed to take.

In 2010 he quantified his own carbon emissions and realized they were dominated by flying: More than three-quarters of his emissions were from flying alone. So, over the next two years he made an effort to fly less, and began to think of his airplane trips within the context of a warming planet.

“In 2012, I was sitting on a plane — the last flight I’ve taken — and I had this strong, visceral sense that I didn’t belong there, that I didn’t want to continue being part of the problem,” Kalmus told Truthout, speaking for himself (and not on behalf of any institution with which he is affiliated). “Flying felt like a sort of taking from my children. It wasn’t guilt; it was clarity.”

He has not flown again.

And now Kalmus is not alone. He has been joined by a growing number of environmental scientists and academics who are committing to fly less or not at all.

Flying Less

Flying Less, a petition for academics with over 400 signatories, is becoming better known by the day, as is the No-Fly Climate Sci website, where Earth scientists and other academics who don’t fly or fly less are joining together to share their ideas.

Dr. Andreas Heinemeyer is a senior researcher and assistant professor at the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, where she works on carbon cycling and ecosystem services in relation to ACD and land use.

“Flying felt like a sort of taking from my children. It wasn’t guilt; it was clarity.”

Like Kalmus, her work has impressed upon her the urgency of our global situation. She told Truthout the situation with ACD is “very urgent” and that real changes are long overdue.

“We should have curbed greenhouse gas levels about 20 years ago,” she explained. “We certainly have created the issue in the first place — all our wealth is based on this overuse of resources in connection with fossil fuel and land use impacts on rising greenhouse gases.”

In addition to the need for government action, Heinemeyer feels we are all obliged to do something about it.

“This includes assessing where we overuse resources and waste energy and limit this excess behavior,” she said. “This requires education but also leadership.”

Christoph Küffer is a professor of urban ecology in Zurich, Switzerland, and a member of No-Fly Climate Sci. He studies the ecology of the Anthropocene and ACD’s impacts on mountain ecosystems as well as restoring green infrastructure and biodiversity in cities.

“Obviously, [ACD] is a very urgent issue,” he told Truthout of his reasons for joining the group. “It affects foremost the weakest, and a small minority of us uses the vast majority of resources.”

Kalmus told Truthout he believes ACD is a far more urgent situation than the average person understands. He explained how it is affecting nearly every aspect of life on Earth.

“It threatens our homes, our livelihoods, our food supply, our geopolitical stability,” he said. “It’s happening faster than we expected. In the scientific community, we’ve had this unfortunate tendency to underestimate rates of change due to under-modeling complex processes such as permafrost methane release and ice sheet disintegration.”

He added that ACD is long-lasting because CO2 will stay in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and the injury to biodiversity will take millions of years to heal.

Kalmus believes it is time for us all to take a step back and think seriously about what we actually need. Do we really need to fly halfway around the world in a matter of hours?

“Or are things like a healthy biosphere, stable climate and reliable food system more important?” he asked. “Is a carbon-rich lifestyle for an elite few worth hundreds of millions of climate refugees tomorrow, and disruption for tens of thousands or even millions of years?”

Kalmus believes that while wind and solar energy are obviously also part of the solution, he does not see the prospect of developing renewables as enough of a fix on its own. Hence, he is taking action to spread consciousness about how we all live.

He told Truthout that his own process of reducing his emissions has been surprisingly fun and satisfying. He wrote about it in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.

“At work he studies the physics of clouds in a changing climate, and at home he explores how we can address climate change while living happier, more connected lives,” reads his “About the Author” page. “He lives in Altadena, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, with his wife and two children on 1/10th the fossil fuels of the American average. He enjoys orcharding, beekeeping, and backpacking.”

Is our fast, fossil-fueled lifestyle even that satisfying, or might we be happier if we slowed down a bit?

In our interview, Kalmus said that we all need to be asking ourselves some challenging questions.

“Can we get by with less electricity?” he asked. “If we cut our use in half in the US, we’d only need to build a quarter as much wind, solar and storage to decarbonize our grid. Is our fast, fossil-fueled lifestyle even that satisfying, or might we be happier if we slowed down a bit?”

Kalmus thinks what is required is a cultural shift to bring about the rapid, large-scale change that is our only hope for some mitigation of the impacts of ACD. In addition to institutional action, that cultural shift will require individuals to push the bounds of what society views as normal.

“We need to get to a point where burning fossil fuel is no longer socially acceptable,” he said. “I know we’ll get there, I’m pretty sure I’m on the right side of history here, but the question is how long will it take? Time isn’t on our side.”

Living What They Preach

Küffer, who has managed to go a year without flying, decided to affiliate himself with the No-Fly Climate Sci group because, he says, while humans invented the airplane, the pursuit of “non-flying” is its own form of innovation.

“Innovation happens only if we try, experiment and learn by doing,” he said. “There is a belief in our society that we can have everything together, that we can fly as much as we like and have simultaneously all the benefits of non-flying. But there are opportunity costs. My experience is that non-flying brings lots of benefits.”

Heinemeyer decided to affiliate herself with the no-fly group because of ACD’s impacts on society’s underpinning ecosystem services, including food security.

She does not see her efforts to fly less as an inconvenience.

“It might be an inconvenient truth, but it is quite convenient to stop flying … just do it!” she said. “However, I have to admit that there are some downsides and consequences one has to consider: lower international profile (no conferences over the pond), less involvement in conference attendance overall … and potential issues with promotion.”

However, Heinemeyer has three children and is working to be truthful with them about ACD issues and the urgency of changing their lifestyle, as well as how to do so.

“I feel that I have to live what I preach,” she said.

Kalmus thinks scientists and academics should be taking on the role of “cultural leaders.” He points out that Earth scientists, in particular, have front row seats to multiple, connected Earth system catastrophes unfolding in real time, from dying coral reefs to record-breaking wildfires — and they need to share that perspective with the public.

“We know that this isn’t the ‘new normal.’ It will get steadily worse until we stop burning fossil fuel,” he said. “Doesn’t this knowledge come with some responsibility? Studying climate change isn’t like studying astrophysics: Earth science has revealed a clear and present danger to civilization.”

The scientists behind the no-fly campaigns are not calling for individual change in a vacuum.

Kalmus feels he can’t separate being a scientist from being a concerned, responsible citizen and father. One way to communicate the urgency of the climate emergency, he says, is to live his life like it’s urgent — to model the transition away from fossil fuels.

“I don’t expect every Earth scientist to do this, but I do hope more start to see it this way, because we need all hands on deck,” he said, going on to add that he hopes that as a community, Earth scientists and climate researchers will embrace the seriousness of what their science is telling them. “A good place to start would be to find ways to systematically reduce our flying, like more teleconferencing, more local conferences. Doing this can only enhance our credibility.”

Küffer echoes the belief that “walking the talk” should be part of how credibility is evaluated among scientists and academics.

“As environmental scientists we can’t call upon the world to stop all CO2 emissions within the coming few decades while we ourselves don’t change our habits,” he said. “Maintaining credibility of scientific facts, academia and experts has become a key challenge of the sciences in our time.”

Reflecting on the kind of science that is needed today, Küffer added, “Flying even affects how we do science.”

Heinemeyer wants her colleagues to know that it is indeed possible to fly less, or even to cease flying altogether. Her hope is that her efforts will inspire people. She says she wants to “create a feel for ‘it does matter what I do,’ because simply put, it does — but only if enough of us do it! ”

Too often, Heinemeyer said, people in her research area and institute work on the issue but then ignore the fact that they themselves can also be part of the solution. Many of them refuse to change their own emissions practices.

“Justifying flying by doing good is no good per se, mostly just a simple excuse for not trying alternatives,” she said. “Certainly flying less, if not stop flying, should be part of any research project.”

The scientists behind the no-fly campaigns are not calling for individual change in a vacuum. Kalmus, for example, also points to many ways we can all push for large-scale change, such as voting out those who attack science, and advocating sensible policies such as an annually increasing carbon fee and dividend. However, he also thinks a key tool in the individual toolbox is conspicuous non-consumption: cultural shift through individual change.

“This isn’t a hopeless situation,” he said. “Yes, climate change is here, and it’s a shame we didn’t start dealing with it 10 years ago. I’m not optimistic that we’ll keep global mean surface warming below 2 degrees Celsius. But 3 degrees of warming will be much worse than 2 degrees. And 4 degrees of warming will be much, much worse.”

There are worst-case warming projections that exceed even 4 degrees Celsius, and there are many factors that will continue to drive warming under the current global economic system. However, Kalmus and his colleagues are working to bring their lives in line with Mahatma Ghandi’s code of “being the change” they hope to see in the world. It is a heartfelt and dignified stance in a time of environmental uncertainty, violence and strife.

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