Opinion: Time to Act Like It’s a Climate Emergency

Physics 12, 128
Our actions as physicists matter in the public eye, and we should use that prominence to stand up for the climate emergency.
Physicists could make a concrete and meaningful statement about the climate emergency by flying less.

If you’re becoming terrified of climate breakdown, or if you’re already there: good. You’re paying attention to the wildfires, cyclones, floods, heat waves, droughts, and rising seas that pose a mounting danger to ecosystems and to global civilization. You’re allowing the scientific facts to light up a deeper part of your brain. It’s one thing to know something about the model projections, but it’s another to translate them into emotion, into their effects on the places and people that you love.

If you’re now ready to turn that reaction into action, my proposal is this: use your platform as a physicist to help wake the public up to the reality that we’re in an emergency situation. Use all the resources at your disposal to do everything you can. In particular, one concrete and meaningful action is to fly less, and to persuade your colleagues and institutions to do the same. Aligning actions with words is the key to communicating emergency to the public.

In a special 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provided a rough and ready prescription for limiting climate disaster: halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (below 2010 levels), and get to net zero by 2050 for a 50-50 chance of staying below 1.5C of mean global heating. The report also quantified many of the additional climate impacts that humans and other species will experience at 2C of global heating. And everything gets much worse with that additional half-degree. To take just one example, the proportion of the world population projected to lack access to fresh water increases by 50%. The potential suffering behind that dry statistic is hard to overstate.

Significant uncertainty surrounds the IPCC prescription, and many climate scientists feel it is too optimistic. But in any case, humans are charging in the wrong direction. From 2000 to 2017, global CO2emissions grew on average by about 2.5% per year. In 2018, annual CO2 emissions grew by 2.7%, including 3.4% growth in US emissions. Halving emissions by 2030 would now require at least a 7% average annual decline globally. Developed nations like the US would need to go faster since more of their fossil fuel usage is for “wants” as opposed to “needs.”

The scale and pace of this transition, in terms of shifting investment and infrastructure—to say nothing of shifting norms and politics—is breathtaking. But incremental changes such as electric vehicles, while good, are far from enough. And other ideas such as carbon offsets and over reliance on speculative “negative emissions technologies” may lull us into accepting the status quo. As a society, we will need to make sweeping collective changes that completely remove fossil fuel as the basis for our energy, food, housing, transportation, and industrial systems. But before we can move rapidly at the policy level, the public needs to accept that this is an emergency, as opposed to just another “issue.”

When professional groups stand up collectively for climate action, it sends a powerful message. Recently, the coalition of Australian engineering organizations publicly vowed to “evaluate all new projects against the environmental necessity to mitigate climate change.” Similarly, physicists and other academic communities could organize to communicate the climate emergency. They could then back up these words with action by pioneering ways to collaborate productively while flying less.

Flying contributes only 3% of global carbon emissions. But hour for hour, there’s no faster way to warm the planet, and the carbon emissions from universities and academic societies are dominated by flights. This is why flying less is arguably the most important symbolic action any academic institution or individual can take to communicate climate emergency. Furthermore, because there’s no carbon-free alternative to flying, its symbolic power becomes that much greater. By flying less or refusing to fly as scientists, we’re stating that the crisis is bad enough to merit moving away from business-as-usual practices to address it.

The movement for flying less is gaining traction as individuals, universities, and professional societies experiment with alternative modes of travel and travel policies. Petitions by members of the Society for Neuroscience and the European and American Geophysical Unions have garnered thousands of signatures, leading to high-level discussions, and similar efforts are ongoing in other fields. But to push this movement forward, we also need to develop tools for virtual reality collaborations and advocate for low-carbon conferencing. For example, meetings could be designed around connected regional hubs or even be entirely virtual. These changes would not only level the career playing field for those of us currently choosing not to fly, but they could also help early-career scientists and scientists from developing nations, who typically already fly less than more senior scientists.

Decades ago, physicists were leaders in adopting email and teleconferencing. Today, they are in a position to accelerate climate action by developing new methods and models for communicating from afar—and rethinking that next flight.

–Peter Kalmus

Peter Kalmus is a climate scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab, the author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, and the founder of noflyclimatesci.org. Twitter: @ClimateHuman. He is speaking on his own behalf.


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