How to Make Science and Academia Less Hypocritical and More Ecological
Science and academia in general are not only a source of knowledge but also a guide to how reason can build a better society. Although most researchers do not intend to claim an ethics for humanity, they should nevertheless set an example of behavior for the rest of the population since they symbolize the wisdom of our epoch. However, at present we observe that science and technological progress, far from being a solution, are driving one of humanity’s major problems: an ecological crisis.
A recent article referring to Sweden declares that universities and colleges account for the greatest emissions of carbon dioxide from air travel among State employees. More than half of their 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) released in 2017 originated from the Ministry of Education. The reason for so much travel is clear: researchers nowadays have many international connections and frequently travel by air, mostly to attend conferences. When querying the researcher (a physicist) with the highest number of flights at a University in Sweden (78 flights in 2018, 26 tons of CO2 released in a year) about the necessity of so many flights and how restrictions would affect his work, he answered that international cooperation is essential for research work, that one could not do things in any other way, and that the number of flights could only be reduced by roughly 20% at most.
Ironically, climate scientists tend to fly a lot. For instance, a weekend-long annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, whose scientists study the impact global warming is having on the Earth, was responsible for an estimated emission of 30,000 tons of CO2. The Paris meeting on global warming solutions in 2015 (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 21st session of the Conference of the Parties and the 11th session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol) produced around 300,000 tons of CO2 emissions. The panorama of hypocrisy is that we have "jet-setting academics" among the highest ratio contaminators, while they exert their moral authority to demand that people in less privileged groups of our society, such as coal miners, teamsters working on oil pipelines, and mining-dependent workers sacrifice their own economic well-being to fight climate change.
There are many sources of CO2 emissions, and flights produce only 2–3% of global emissions, around one billion tons out of the total 40 billion tons per year (on average worldwide, five tons/year/person). However, this contamination is growing fast (an increase of 70% between 2005 and expected emissions in 2020) and it comes mainly from the richest countries, and our scientists head the league of per capita contamination. So, if on average worldwide each person contaminates 0.1 tons of CO2 from flying, scientists and academics in general offend tens or hundreds of times more. For instance, American astronomers on average travel by plane some 37 thousand km/year, similar to a high-flying businessperson, while the average American citizen travels around 6 thousand km/year, and Americans are among the highest contaminators in the world with an order of magnitude more contamination than the world average.
Researchers have different reasons for flying, but the main one is attending conferences celebrated at great distances from their workplace. Are these congresses, symposia, workshops, schools, and meetings so important for the development of science? As said in Sect. 3.5 of The Twilight of the Scientific Age: “In the first decades of the 20th century, while discoveries of huge importance to the development of physics (for instance, in relativity, or quantum physics) were being made so rapidly, such gatherings occurred once in a blue moon, to celebrate important advances. (…) Today, there are thousands of international congresses every year, in physics alone, quite apart from small local or national meetings, with hundreds of mediocre participants at each. There are even macro-meetings, with thousands of researchers. The saddest part of the situation is that the conceptual level of development of physics today is far below what was reached in the beginning of the 20th century. (…) Holidays can be a reason to attend congresses. Many of them are held in exotic or tourist destinations, which allows leading scientists and their friends to enjoy a holiday using public funds. (…) All this has the goal of attracting the attention of an audience that is lost among the tons of information; dispensable information since there is little that is new to say at each congress, just simple technical details without too much relevance. The battle of the scientist is not in finding good new ideas, but in finding the way to sell mean, unworthy ideas. Marketing is more important than scientific tools”.
Is the exercise of marketing bread-and-butter science worth the high ratio of air pollution? Even, at present, with so many existing virtual communication platforms, is it totally necessary to celebrate so many conferences to spread incremental science results? Our impression is that it is not.
Nonetheless, one thing is clear: those who attend conferences and enjoy the benefits of prestige and networking reap higher rewards for their careers than those who do not. Hence, any measures taken regarding the problem should be taken globally for the entire scientific community because, as in all ecological solutions, sacrifices from well-intentioned minority will not save the planet, but in this case, it will harm careers of this minority. Precisely because of that, attempts to reduce flights by academics, especially by Earth Scientists, based on recommendations to kind-hearted scientists to decrease their number of flights, are doomed to failure. Approving laws that restrict flights holds better prospects among such proposals, but it is not restrictive enough. Some other suggestions to introduce extra fees in flights to compensate for the damage caused by CO2 emissions will only benefit the richer universities and research institutes that can afford to pay them.
No, for a science that aspires to be a worthy representative of wisdom and reason on Earth, there is only one solution that is acceptable for the present situation: the suppression of conferences. Not a mere slight reduction, but a total or almost total (> 95%) suppression of the number of these events. And this should be done not by appealing to the goodwill of scientists and academics, but by introducing rules/laws to govern the number of conferences. Governments, administrators, and politicians should think about it seriously, as beer-drinking with colleagues and feeding the narcissism of some researchers at conferences is an expensive luxury that we cannot afford in the times of a climate crisis.
The reality we are facing is a hard one, and it is not time to propose optimistic solutions that give false childish hopes to people about global warming while they keep their bourgeois lifestyles. A schoolgirl can understand the problem we have, but for the moment the finest minds of our time keep failing miserably. There is no good solution except to make great sacrifices on a large scale, and force our community to accept these solutions, because with our individualistic selfishness we will never accept them.
We do not expect this suppression of conferences to happen in the near or mid-term future, so we will have to accept that science has no more dignity than politics. Rather than a forum for solving the problems of the planet and the people, it is a mere scrambling up the ladder for power and benefits from the planet and the people. Certainly, the business of science nowadays has many positive aspects, but there are also other negative ones, as we point out in this article. A science more worried about the individual prestige of presenting talks in conferences than about the health of the planet is immoral. Perhaps in the far future, when the disaster of the global warming affects a large part of the world population, we might adopt this solution.