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Your Next Conference: Combat Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Stay at Home

DOI: 10.2138/gselements.13.6.371

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Friedhelm von Blankenburg ... who had better stay home.

Last year, I left a terrible carbon footprint. On top of an already travel-packed year, I flew from Berlin to San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union (AGU) Fall meeting. With my >18,000 km round trip to San Francisco, I emitted ~2 tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere (which alone amounts to the global per capita emissions required by 2050 to meet the 2 °C warming goal, not even counting my energy consumption for everyday life). The mood of the meeting, coming just after the US presidential election, was gloomy, amid grave concern over the future of international efforts to combat climate change. One attendee tweeted: “25,000 other geophysicists at #AGU16 in San Francisco. Zero of whom ask whether anthropogenic climate change is real.” Just one month earlier, I had learnt from an article that appeared in Science by Notz and Stroeve (2016) that, with the 2 tonnes of CO2 emitted by my trip to Fall AGU, I was responsible for the loss of 6 m2 of Arctic summer ice cover. Scaling this to AGU’s 25,000 participants, the Fall meeting resulted in the reduction of ice cover by about 70,000 m2. Yet many of us flew there. Do we all reflect too little on the link between our individual actions and the consequences of climate change? Maybe most of us, but not all: see Dwyer (2013) and the “Flying Less” blog for scientists who do consider that link and act upon it.

Obviously, such thoughts are dwarfed in the face of our good reasons to attend international conferences: we stay informed of the latest developments in our fields, we gain exposure for our own work, we cultivate and maintain networks, the young advance their careers, and the more established attend important business meetings. We enjoy social activities, receptions, and meeting and making friends. At the institutional level, the organising societies generate revenue from these meetings. Not attending a conference would leave us at a disadvantage relative to those ‘competitors’ that do attend. More generally, I ask myself why I should save these 2 tonnes of CO2 when they pale into insignificance against the 35 billion tonnes of anthropogenic CO2 emitted each year. We find ourselves in a classic dilemma of moral philosophy: as individuals, we collectively contribute to a problem at a global scale. Yet, we feel that changing our individual behaviour in isolation would contribute nothing towards its resolution.

Let’s think about the responsibility that we, as Earth scientists, bear, because it is we who know best of all about the consequences of climate change. We in the industrialised nations are driving an Earth-system perturbation unrivalled in scale and rapidity (at least over the Cenozoic). We are also contributing towards “global structural injustice”. In moral philosophy terms, this concept refers to the fact that we live in a system in which some benefit from this structure at the cost of disadvantages suffered by others. Benefitting are those who are in the economically privileged position of being able to attend international conferences. Suffering are those who are living in low-income countries and communities that do not have the resources to deal with the consequences of droughts, floods, storms, and rising sea levels. Because we, as individuals, contribute to climate change, we all bear a personal moral responsibility for such structural injustice.

Being part of the privileged group that caused the problem, I can think of urgent initial steps that could be taken at three different levels, and in doing so, begin to face up to these moral responsibilities. First, as individuals we can begin by doing nothing more than omitting every second international conference that comes our way. Second, as academic organisations this behaviour can be fostered by limiting travel through CO2 budgets to be shared within research groups (for example, ETH Zürich is currently developing greenhouse gas reduction targets at the departmental level). Scientific societies could schedule their conferences only biennially, and offer virtual attendance options (Le Quéré et al. 2015), thereby setting an international ethical precedent – if done pointedly and publicly. Third, when copied multiple times, such measures could begin to trigger responses at a scale that will ultimately bring us to the required solution of the problem: the level of politics. Remember: concrete actions taken by the Earth science community have added gravitas because we are already the communicators of climate change.

Personal advantages may present still better motivators for action than all these scientific or moral arguments. May I advise the “staying home” (in)action as actually being beneficial for us? Let’s face it, aren’t the advances between two annual conferences often so incremental that holding meetings biennially instead could serve to make us much more aware of true progress? One could use the three weeks otherwise required for conference preparation, attendance, and recovery to read a few seminal papers or, better yet … write one! For my part, I took action. This year, my furthest science trip led me from Berlin to the Goldschmidt conference in Paris – practically around the corner. As to whether this self-imposed travel ban has impaired my ability as a geochemist, the jury is still out.

Friedhelm von Blanckenburg, Principal Editor

Dwyer J (2013) On flying to ethics conferences: climate change and moral responsiveness. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 16: 1-18

Le Quéré C and 9 coauthors (2015) Towards a culture of low-carbon research for the 21st century. Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research Working Paper 161, 35 pp

Notz D, Stroeve J (2016) Observed Arctic sea-ice loss directly follows anthropogenic CO2 emission. Science 354: 747-750



  1. Jodi Rosso on December, 2017 at 1:27 pm

    Elements welcomes your comments on this editorial.

  2. Johny Jackson on January, 2018 at 6:05 pm

    Yes! Finally someone writes about health.

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  4. Ken Towe on February, 2018 at 7:14 am

    I’ve finished reading the editorial… “Stay at home”. It is quite similar to many such beliefs. I would like to take this opportunity to add some reality that has yet to reach the public’s and policy-maker’s understandings. What is rarely mentioned are the enormous problems that exist for humans in our attempt to alter the direction of the climate. Following the Paris Accord climate agreement we are obliged to (1) lower carbon emissions to near zero while we transition to alternative energies, solar and wind. This alone will take hundreds of years. After having done that we are (2) obliged to capture and safely store geologically some of the CO2 that we have emitted into the Earth’s atmosphere…using these alternative energies. The plan outlined by NASA’s James Hansen calls for the removal of at least 50 ppm CO2 in order to bring us back to the climate of 1987… a safe 350 ppm. This is an enormous amount of oxidized carbon… 50 ppm is 100 giga-tons, 100 billion tons to technologically remove and safely store…forever. Even if this were possible it would add hundreds of more years and mega-currencies to our already stressed economies, especially in those countries least able to afford it. Do the math.. multiply any per-ton estimate (in any currency), by those hundreds of billions of tons. The technology required is untested at global scale and the geological storage is very risky (IPCC). Given this seldom discussed problem, worrying about “carbon footprint” emissions seems a bit awkward…especially as two billion more “feet” have been added since 1987 when CO2 was at 350 ppm. The problem has recently been brought up in several places in SCIENCE magazine, one under the topic of “Geoengineering” 21 July 2017, volume 357. I certainly agree that we geologists should explain the hazards and risks of attempting to alter the Earth’s climate. The economists can address the huge costs.

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