There is a great deal of public concern about when, and where to, climate scientists fly.
“Why do you fly?” they ask us.
“Where do you fly?”
“If you think climate change is a crisis, how can you ever fly?”
“Don't you know,” they plead, “that the single most damaging choice to the climate system an individual can make is to fly in a commercial airplane?”
Irony notwithstanding, it is indeed climate scientists who established the carbon footprint and flagged the damage done by flying. And in doing so, we (and I mean that term loosely, because of how nebulous and overlapping the fields of climate are) have characterized the true damage of hyper-consumerist and highly mobile lifestyles—lifestyles exhibited by most of us in the developed world, including myself and my friends, neighbors, family and academic community.
Indeed, the complicity of flying is held up as a Rorschach test as to whether publicly-facing climate scientists understand the moral math of climate change. The culture wants to know: Are we crisis actors pantomiming alarmism, whilst we profiteer and jet around the globe to our fancy meetings? Or are we noble ascetics who have purified and aligned our carbon footprint with our rhetoric? This dynamic—of finger-pointing, grandstanding, condemning and shaming—is an ongoing toxic hamster wheel, which further erodes and discredits the public trust in the good-faith actions of climate and earth scientists.
No other clade of experts who hold expertise on a public health and safety crisis is held to this standard. Do we demand to know from pediatricians their vaccination schedule for their own children? No, of course not. Do we interrogate oncologists about whether they have ever smoked a cigarette? No, of course not. Then, why do we feel that it is within our purview to require the flight itineraries of climate scientists?
Perhaps because it is true that commercial flying is the most damaging decision in terms of discrete carbon emissions that an average individual consumer can make. This means that “to fly or not to fly” is one of the fundamental levers that individuals can pull to reduce their personal carbon footprint. If climate scientists truly cared about bold climate action, why would they continue to fly and contradict their public advocacy? And if climate scientists want to be public messengers about the urgency of climate action, don’t they need to align their words with their public actions to demonstrate integrity?
This is the dizzying wormhole of nuance and moral crisis through which climate scientists are interrogated. We are scapegoated by the entire culture. Scapegoating, of course, is the psychological technique of transferring guilt to a weak and easy target, so that the scapegoater herself is relieved of feelings such as shame or guilt. Climate scientists are an easy target both for political bad actors who want to discredit the science and for activists hoping to reveal the moral compromises made by seemingly ineffective public leaders.
To be direct, many scientists in the field are often bamboozled and immobilized themselves, caught between the science they communicate and the middle-class familial and professional expectations of their lives. Radical action is hard, and the payoff seems to be small. Individual actors must make complicated and personal decisions. For example, how do I tell my brother that I can’t come see his new beautiful baby in California because I no longer fly for familial reasons? How do I tell the National Science Foundation that I cannot travel to attend an elite communication summer school because I will only fly once a year for work?
I become deeply concerned when we begin to dictate who can, say, fly to their mother’s deathbed. Or who can fly to Hawaii for vacation. Or who can fly to which scientific meeting and where. My concern is not because of limitations on personal freedom. Frankly, I’d like fewer personal freedoms—for example, my freedom to buy AK-47s or my freedom to buy unchecked political influence. This isn’t about personal freedom. This is about the failure to indict the true centers of decision-making and power.
Why would we ever consider climate scientists an appropriate target for our outrage and action, when multinational corporations and gutless political leaders are making out like racketeers from heating the planet? Oil companies, such as Chevron, ExxonMobil and Royal Dutch Shell have generated multi-billion-dollar profits in the first quarter of 2018 alone. Moreover, actual elected leaders are trafficking in science denialism and propaganda in public institutions, wherein the existence of snowballs discredits climate warming and rocks falling into the ocean cause sea level rise. These are the exact targets for where our public outrage and grief should land.
There are very, very bad actors in this space of climate accountability. The problem is, these actors are some of the wealthiest and most powerful people on the planet, a cabal of mediocre and violent men who gatekeep our collective action on climate. To indict them publicly and directly is to court both the reality of the political and partisan moment of our time and the implied threat of an army of corporate lawyers. It is easier, quite frankly, to point at climate scientists as dubious and self-conflicted agents of alarmism, rather than prosecute the political and economic centers of power.
This is why climate action is about moral courage. Yes, we must have the courage to align our personal actions with our understanding of the science, through decreasing and stopping our flying. But, more importantly, we must have to courage to speak truth to power, despite how this might change our public or professional standing. Climate action is one of the most fundamental social justice movements of our time. No more and no less, our choices now to act as brave stewards of planetary life, despite political realities and institutional denialism, will change the trajectory of the planet forever. It is worth it.