Reduce flying to academic conferences

(Please note: This is not a petition, it is a declaration. We are using the platform "ipetitions" to take advantage of its flexible response options.)

Please do not sign this declaration yet. This is a draft and comments are welcome (richard at parncutt dot org).

We, the undersigned academic researchers and scholars, are voluntarily restricting our contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and global warming by avoiding air travel. Communication plays a central role in modern research, so we can hardly give up conferences - but we can reduce our dependency on fossil fuels.

We are concerned about the predictions of mainstream climate science ( and the continuing failure of democratic politics to respond adequately ("Too little, too late", Editorial, Nature Climate Change 4/1, 2014). The contribution of aviation to global warming is considerable ("Climate forcing from the transport sectors", PNAS, Fuglestvedt et al., 2008; "Five Major Challenges of Long-term Air Traffic Growth", and involves much more than CO2 ("Aviation and the Global Atmosphere". IPCC Special Report, 1999). Transport (mainly planes and cars) produced 14% of global GHG emissions in 2010, and the proportion is increasing (IPCC, 2014). The counterarguments of the aviation industry ("Facts and Figures", Air Transport Action Group) are appealing but misleading; they are overridden by the urgent need to reduce, and eventually stop, all greenhouse emissions in all sectors (P. Carter, 2009-2013: "Zero Carbon or Climate Catastrophe?"; IPCC 2014).

We call on people in all places and occupations to develop strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in both public and private sectors. We call on politicians to support relevant initiatives such as for example globally regulated and harmonized carbon taxes (Ralph Nader and Tony Heaps: "We need a global carbon tax", Wall Street Journal, 3 Dec 2008) or subsidies for rail services to ensure they are always cheaper than airlines competing for the same passengers.

Colleagues in all academic disciplines are asked to sign one or more of the following pledges. Example: If you insert "1 and 2" into the pledge box on the right, you are committing yourself to both these pledges (they overlap, but do not contradict). If you write "all but 10", you are agreeing to pledges 1 through 9.

Your specific combination of pledges will depend on your geographic location and career stage. Colleagues who live closer to global centres of research (e.g. in the middle of Europe) are more likely to sign all pledges (others should still be able to sign several of them). Younger researchers may be reluctant to sign if international collaboration is important for their work; but remember that grant agencies and professorial selection committees tend to focus on papers in good journals and books with good publishers, ignoring conference presentations and even proceedings contributions.

Some airlines are currently considering biofuels (Takepart: "Nothing but Green Skies If You Fly These Airlines"). These can only be acceptable if their production does not compete with food production in countries affected by hunger. That counts out sugarcane fields in Brazil, but used cooking oil may be a promising alternative. All the following pledges may be broken for flights powered by acceptable biofuels.

Pledge 1. I will travel by train or bus to conferences whenever it is reasonably possible.

Pledge 2. I will halve my conference footprint based on my average flying budget for the past few years as measured in km, dollars or takeoffs.

Pledge 3. If I fly to a conference, I will offset the total environmental impact (not only the CO2) by contributing to a carbon offset scheme that is recognized by a reputable global organisation such as Verified Carbon Standard.

Pledge 4. If I fly to a conference, I will include other activities that do not involve additional flights (e.g. another conference, research, holiday).

Pledge 5. I will only fly to a conference if the organisers pay for the flight (an invitation usually means at least that many people will benefit from my trip). (The author of this declaration is taking this pledge and considering several others.)

Pledge 6. I will fly no more than once per year to a conference, or to a series of nearby conferences, taking off no more than four times altogether.

Pledge 7. As a conference organiser or co-organiser, I will actively promote climate-friendly strategies such as teleconferencing, live streaming, video documentation, and fee reductions for participants who avoid flying, contribute to a recognized carbon offset scheme, or take other appropriate steps to limit their environmental impact.

Pledge 8. As a member of an international research team (e.g. an EU project), I will recommend teleconferencing or meetings at central locations that most members can reach by train or bus.

Pledge 9. As an advisor to a research funding agency, I will recommend that the agency funds not only travel costs but also the total environmental impact of travel through a reputable offset scheme, and/or discourages excessive travel.

Pledge 10. I will encourage my university to reduce staff/faculty flying, finance carbon offset, and/or divest from fossil fuels.

Before signing, please note:

1. To avoid possible misunderstandings, please inform your immediate superior (e.g. head of department) before signing this declaration, and notify any other academic organisations in which you play a leading role.

2. Before we reach 100 signatures, the wording of pledge statements may be changed after consulting with signatories. Additional pledges may be added with permission from those who signed "all". Feel free to suggest changes!


The following text is not part of the declaration and may be changed at any time. To suggest improvements please contact richard at parncutt dot org.

The problem

Global warming during the past century has mainly been caused by greenhouse gases produced by human activity. The main culprit is carbon dioxide. This has been obvious to most climate scientists since the 1980s. The human contribution to atmospheric CO2 and the greenhouse effect was demonstrated by Charles David Keeling in Hawaii in 1961. Later work merely confirmed his finding and added detail. At this level, there are no "two sides" to any "climate debate".

Climate deniers refuse to accept the conclusions of climate science because the implications are so serious. But scientific conclusions are generally independent of their implications; conclusions depend only on evidence. Given the complexity of climate science, only recognized climate scientists are in a position to interpret the evidence. Thousands of leading climate scientists contributed to the 2013/2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Academics in other disciplines have little choice but to accept their main conclusions.

A billion people are living in poverty in developing countries. Their lives are threatened by hunger and preventable or curable disease. Some ten million people die this way every year. Global warming and associated desertification, deglaciation, ocean acidification, and species extinction will probably push up this global death rate by affecting food and fresh water supplies and geographically shifting disease threats. It will cause sea levels to rise and increase the frequency of catastrophic weather events. In conjunction with population growth, it will probably cause mass migration and wars over diminishing resources. These predictions are firmly based on mainstream climate science.

The present CO2 concentration is the highest for 800 000 years (see Wikipedia "Carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere"). The problem would be serious even if all greenhouse gas emissions stopped now: it would take decades or centuries for the planet to adjust to the changed atmospheric composition. The more emissions we produce in the coming years, the worse will be the future consequences.

The UN has agreed to limit global warming to 2°C, and the international community of climate scientists (IPCC) has calculated the corresponding amount of burned carbon (about one trillion tons carbon altogether since the 18th century). Even if the goal of limiting warming to 2°C goal is achieved, warming will cause hundreds of millions of future deaths over a period of several decades as the current death toll of about ten million per year from hunger, preventable and curable diseases in developing countries gradually rises. Mass migration due to famine and rising sea levels, and wars over diminishing resources, could bring the death toll to a billion over a period of about one century. That’s 10% of the projected maximum global population of 10 billion.

At the moment, the chances of achieving the 2°C goal are slim, in spite of promising developments. The emission reduction targets that are currently in force in different countries will probably not be achieved - if the consistent failures of the past two decades are any guide. Even if those targets were achieved, they would be insufficient to limit warming to 2°C. The 2°C promise will probably turn out to be as empty as the promise to raise official development assistance to 0.7% GNP, which if implemented consistently for the past two decades (as originally planned) would have saved hundreds of millions of lives in developing countries by alleviating poverty.

If we assume that (i) the total carbon budget since the start of industrialization for a mean global temperature rise of 2°C is one trillion tons, and (ii) a temperature rise of this magnitude will indirectly cause roughly one billion deaths over the next century, every thousand tons of carbon that are burned today causes one future death.

There can be only one rational response to this situation, and that is to reduce the burning of fossil fuels as quickly as possible in all areas. Whether by design or by disaster, our carbon-based global economy will radically change. Clearly, the earlier "design" option is preferable to the later "disaster" option.

"Design" means urgent action at multiple levels. "Disaster" means an unprecedented catastrophe that our children and grandchildren will have to deal with after our natural deaths. Global warming is a negative legacy to our children and grandchildren: they will be shocked that we knew what we were doing - and kept doing it. If we love them, we have no choice but to act. This is not an emotional appeal; it is a logical conclusion based on the best available evidence.

Many people don't believe that the problem could be that serious. But that, too, is easily explained. Stories about the end of the world are common, and with the exception of global warming they are mostly nonsense. People have got used to hearing such stories and laughing them off. Another reason is that nobody wants to do without their standard of living, which is based in multiple ways on fossil fuels. It is human nature to be selfish and place your own interests above those of others, even if the comparison is extreme and immoral as a comparison between daily comforts in rich countries and daily death in developing countries.

Previous serious environmental threats to humanity were solved by international agreement. In the 1970s atmospheric ozone was a serious threat to humanity, but it was later brought under control by international agreements to limit CFC production. In the 1980s, forest dieback threatened humanity, but the problem was solved by international agreements to limit sulfur pollution. By comparison, currently agreements to limit CO2 production are clearly inadequate. The margin between what has been achieved and what is necessary to solve the problem is enormous. Many believe in the ability of capitalism and technology to solve the problem at the last minute, but the simple carbon-budget mathematics tells a different story. It is clear from the predictions of climate science that "wait and see" is a recipe for disaster. It is a logical fallacy to assume that just because humanity solved previous comparable problems it will now solve this problem.

Like all other human sources of greenhouse gases, flying using current technology is a luxury that humanity can no longer afford. If flying is indeed a mortal threat for future generations, these arguments suggest that it should be reserved for matters of life and death.


Why should academics be the first to stop flying? Why not business people, for example?

1. The academics signing this declaration have more chance of influencing other academics than we have of influencing people in other professions.

2. Global agreements to reduce global warming are notoriously difficult. Unilateral action involves first reducing one's own emissions and then, on that basis, encouraging others to do the same. The process has to begin somewhere.

3. Academics know that the basic findings of climate science are correct, and that the implications are serious. We understand how peer-review procedures work, because we participate in them actively. They allow a global community of experts to establish a consensus. This socially constructed "truth" is also the only truth to which we have access. The basic truths of climate science are beyond reasonable doubt.

One might object that individuals should be reducing their total net emissions rather than focusing on one aspect. We are focusing on flying because it is a fast-growing contribution to global warming. One could declare separately to cut down on driving or eating meat, for example, which is beyond our current scope.

Changing conference culture

Over a decade ago, academic conference participants stopped using plastic transparencies and started using projection software, demonstrating that big changes are possible in a short time (if only for convenience).

It's time for the next revolution: teleconferencing. Teleconference cannot replace personal interaction, but they can complement it in interesting ways that we should be exploring more actively. Conference programs can and should feature regular teleconferencing sessions in which the audience interacts with a speaker at a distant location. There are various promising software options (e.g. teamviewer). Universities and grant agencies can save money by reducing flying, and spend it on improving teleconferencing activities and support services, public information about climate change, subsidies for local public transport and so on.

Videoconferencing and virtual reality are already old concepts, and the technology is constantly improving. We just need to try it out, which will put pressure on developers to improve and adapt their products. At the same time, we will get used to using them. The quality of communication will gradually improve.

Major global conferences can be divided into simultaneous regional conferences that are partially linked by teleconferencing. Time differences can be overcome by scheduling teleconferences for the morning, afternoon or evening, depending on the location of the remote speaker. Another interesting possibility is the virtual conference that happens entirely in the internet.

Communication does not have to happen in real time. Many people regularly watch internet videos. At conferences with integrated video-conferencing, academics communicate with each other by watching each others' videos and commenting on them, by either typing or videoing a reply. That merely extends existing forms of online and offline academic communication.

A systematic reduction in flying to conferences will not reduce the quality of academic work. Many of us need more time to write up our research; we can gain time by cutting down on travel. Many of us need to strengthen local contacts and collaborations, which we can do at regional conferences. It is fun and inspiring to fly to conferences and talk to international colleagues in person; but it is more important to save the lives of future people threatened by climate change.

Planes versus trains

There are no trains across the Atlantic (although there is a history of transatlantic tunnel proposals). But these days every major discipline, and innumerable subdisciplines, have regular good conferences in both Europe and North America - not to mention other continents. For academics in Europe or North America, it is seldom necessary to cross the Atlantic to attend good conferences, keep up to date with major developments, and maintain a good social-academic network. Besides, Immanuel Kant changed the history of philosophy without leaving Königsberg.

When people decide to fly because it's faster and sometimes cheaper than rail, they may forget the time and money involved in getting from the town to the airport at one end, and from the airport to the town at the other. In both cases, a taxi may be necessary - especially if public transport is poor, nonexistent, or not running early in the morning, late in the evening or on Sunday. Railway stations are near the middle of town.

In a night train, one may arrive at a conference destination without consuming any working time at all. Shorter flights are usually confined to daylight hours. To fly, you may have to travel to an airport (arriving 1-2 hours early), take off twice, and travel into town from the final airport, arriving at midday - whereas the night train arrived early in the morning. Night trains may allow passengers to sleep all night, whereas jet-setters may rise at 4:30 am for a 5 am taxi. A bed on a train may cost much less than a night in a hotel or the difference between economy and business on a flight.

Further advantages of trains:

- flexibility (you can usually buy the ticket at the last minute, use it for different trains, and sit where you like)

- comfort (more legroom and elbowroom, no seat-belts, no safety presentations, more space to use a laptop, often with power and internet; second class train seats are like business class flight seats)

- fewer luggage problems (no separate cabin luggage, no security checks, no weight limits, no waiting at luggage carousels, no lost luggage)

Tip: European academics often travel through Germany to conferences. For 260 Euros/year you can get a Bahncard with which you can buy half-price tickets at the last minute.

Given these arguments, the signatories to this declaration are hardly making a sacrifice. Instead, we are publicly deciding to take global warming and the rights of future generations seriously.

Reasons for signing or not signing

The main reason for signing is that CO2 pollution is having a serious impact on the world of our children and grandchildren and will indirectly cause untold millions of deaths. Flying is making a significant contribution. The world urgently needs people are willing to make personal sacrifices to solve this problem, and to be seen to be doing so. Global warming will get steadily worse in coming decades (probability according to climate science: over 99%), making it easy to keep this kind of promise in the long term. Flying at the speeds to which we are accustomed will never produce significantly less CO2 (the technology simply does not exist). Biofuels are an option if they do not exacerbate hunger (see above).

In spite of the obvious need for this declaration, many colleagues will not sign it, and their reasons should be taken seriously. The following is an attempt to document the main reasons as clearly and objectively as possible, as a step toward a future solution. The commonly given reasons (with counterarguments in brackets) include:
- honesty and reliability: we are afraid of promising something that we cannot deliver and don't want to be hypocritical (which is another way of saying: we don't care enough about this to take action)
- justice: the declaration is unfair if it is easier for people with more secure jobs or more central locations to sign it (but this problem has been solved by the different pledge options above)

- comparison: we believe that flying makes a relatively small contribution to warming, so we should focus our attention on other emission categories (but the IPCC's climate budget implies that all emissions in all categories must be urgently stopped); or we should limit flying to holidays rather than flying to conferences (but we are not doing anything about either); or collaboration is more important in sciences than humanities, therefore scientists should be allowed to fly more (but again the climate science implies that all emissions must be urgently stopped)

- crowd mentality: we don't think a majority of colleagues will support this initiative, so it is not worth trying; democracy now is more important than the lives of future people; of course things would be different if future people could contribute to the decision-making process, but they can't (which is not unlike allowing children to die so their parents can have fun); it's ok to be dishonest, immoral or merely indifferent if most other people are doing the same - there are plenty of historical precedents (and in every case, including the Holocaust, historians looked back in horror)

- money: we need as many registrations for our conference as possible, otherwise we won't break even (but again the lives of future people are obviously more important than financial questions now; in any case the number of registrations already depends on many largely uncontrollable factors and the registration fee can always be adjusted)
- arrogance, selfishness: we believe that academic work is more important than other work, therefore it is more important for non-academics to cut emissions (everyone can find arguments to justify their self-importance); we see no possibility of achieving the same quality of interaction at conferences when personal contact is replaced by teleconferencing (but that cannot be more important than the lives of future people)

- fear or cowardice: we are afraid of losing friends and colleagues, missing career chances, or losing employment security if we sign (again, this is being compared with the lives of future people)

- defensiveness: we feel personally attacked by this petition and therefore prefer not to support it (that's a reaction that peer review should have trained us out of)

- stress: I've already got too much work to do, I can't deal with this on top (another question of priorities)
- denial: we don't believe the predictions of climate scientists - or we say that we do but act as if we don't, or we merely do not care (an inexcusable reaction for academics in any discipline who are trained in critical thinking and evaluating the truth content of research documents)
- realism: we believe that the self-destruction of humanity cannot realistically be prevented (that again contradicts the findings of leading climate scientists represented by the IPCC)
- nihilism: from the temporal and spatial perspective of the entire universe, humanity is relatively unimportant (true, but if this position were pursued logically and consistently, it would justify actions that no academic today would defend, including unprovoked war and genocide)

- hedonism: it is more important to live life to the full now than to worry about the future (but if people in the past had followed that maxim, we would not be enjoying our rights, liberties, and high standard of living today)

We ask colleagues who decline to sign this declaration to identify their main reason from the above list and then think again whether that reason is adequate given current scientific consensus on global warming and its catastrophic consequences. If the main reason is not listed, please send it to richard at parncutt dot org. Please also send any other suggestions for improving this text.


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