As It Happens

Climate scientist calls out 25,000 colleagues for flying to conference

Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, hasn't taken a flight since 2012. He hopes other researchers will think more about their carbon footprint when travelling to events like conferences.
Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, says he hasn't flown on an airplane in years to reduce his carbon footprint. (Alice Goldsmith)

Story transcript

This weekend, 25,000 scientists from across the U.S. and the world boarded planes to New Orleans for the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

The annual event is for scientists who study the Earth, the sun and the planets.

However, one climate scientist has decided not to attend the conference. But it's not because he's against the event itself.

Peter Kalmus says he's not going because flying there is bad for the environment and he wants other scientists to think more about their carbon footprint when boarding a plane to conferences.

Kalmus works with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, but wrote about his decision in the Guardian in a personal capacity. He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about it. 

This is a pretty big science conference you're missing out on this week. What stopped you from getting on that plane to New Orleans?

I stopped flying in 2012. I haven't wanted to fly since then. Over the course of two years, I reduced my flying and then, in 2012, I was on a plane, I realized very clearly the harm that it causes to fly to my own kids and to all of the children in the world. The bar was very high for what would justify a flight for me and I haven't reached that bar yet since then.

Kalmus says around 25,000 colleagues have flown to a conference this week in New Orleans, which will leave a large carbon footprint. He says this makes the warnings of scientists less credible to the public. (Mike Hillman/CBC)

What do you make of the climate scientists who did go to New Orleans this week? What is your estimation to how much CO2 they might have contributed?

The average round trip that they're making is a little bit over 7,000 kilometres. So it's roughly on the order of the one tonne of CO2 emissions per person.

I'm absolutely not trying to shame the scientists that are there. That's not my intent at all. I think they're doing absolutely critical work. I understand that better than anyone.

But what I'm trying to push for is that our house is on fire right now. The planet is on fire, it's flooding, there's fires. The effects of climate change are really obvious. I think that we need a cultural shift. We have to wake up as a society that fossil fuels is causing real harm.

And one way that we can do that, for people to get how serious this is, to start modelling change in our own lives and shifting what we view as normal in the society.

I think climate scientists do know better, but we tend to feel that our work is justifying our flying.- Peter Kalmus, climate scientist

Do climate scientists tend to fly a lot?

All scientists and academics fly a lot. I used to fly a lot myself. In 2010, I flew 50,000 miles and that flying made up about 75 percent of my own personal emissions. There's a culture of flying to conferences, there's a culture of flying to meetings. We get work done best, frankly, when we're face to face.

Is your view that climate scientists should know better?

That's a complicated question. I think climate scientists do know better, but we tend to feel that our work is justifying our flying. More and more, as each year goes by, I personally feel that there's more than enough science to tell us what we need to do, which is to stop burning fossil fuels. And, as individuals and also as a society, we're not doing that.

Peter Kalmus says most scientists burn more than the average American, simply because they fly more. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

Part of the reason why, in my opinion, is it's very normalized to burn fossil fuel. So when thought leaders — climate scientists, climate activists — are burning more than the average person, that sends the message that maybe it's not that serious or maybe it's too hard to stop burning fossil fuels.

So I'm urging thought leaders, not necessarily to go cold turkey, but to really consider how their personal actions might play into the message that they're trying to send to society and that they have a leverage to change what we view as normal.

But as a scientist, you're not an activist. You do have work to do for your institution, for your own career.  For you to make a decision not to go to these conferences, what are you sacrificing?

My career in science would frankly progress a bit faster if I flew. But we all have a lot of roles in our lives. I'm also a father and a citizen. In those roles, I feel a need to sound the alarm that this is more serious than the average person thinks. 

You said at the beginning that you weren't doing this in order to shame the other scientists. But it sounds like you are doing a bit of that, aren't you?

Everyone is going to have their own path. I have a lot of friends who are doing a lot of amazing work in climate science and they still fly. I hope they keep doing it as long as it helps spread the message. As a group, I think we can do a little bit better. I think we can fly less. And I'm not convinced that our science would suffer for it.

Peter Kalmus is the author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For more, you can listen to our full interview with Kalmus above.