We know that spending energy tends to release carbon in the atmosphere. In turn this warms up the Earth in the long run. This change might be detrimental.

Being an academic, I am surrounded by people who are seriously concerned by climate change. These same academics are often insistent that we should penalize wealthy companies that produce or use fossil fuels.

However academics themselves contribute to climate change. In fact, given that academics travel more than most people, they are likely to be contribute substantially to the problem. Indeed, academics do move around quite a bit: attending meetings, going to classes, flying to conferences…

Achtena et al. have measured the carbon footprint of academics. They find that transportation accounts for 75% of the carbon footprint of a PhD student. Achtena et al. find that conference attendance alone accounts for 35% of said carbon footprint.

I have yet to meet a single researcher urging his colleagues to stop attending academic conferences. It appears that climate researchers attend as many conferences as their colleagues.

I do ask researchers who travel a lot about their carbon footprint. Invariably they dismiss my question. Sometimes, they are argue that their footprint isn’t so large. Or they point out that it is justified by the importance of their work (compared with, say, business executives).

I expect that some type of travel has been reduced. For example, when I sit on a national grant committee, I no longer expect to have to travel to the capital. But I also observe that the number of “international” academic conferences has been booming. There are more of them and some have gotten larger.

Maybe the argument is that conferences in exotic places are essential for scientific productivity. But where is the evidence? Even if Skype meetings and online exchanges are less effective, are they so bad that we absolutely need to move thousands of researchers to Las Vegas every year so that research questions can be debated?

While this is hardly ever said, a sizeable fraction of government research funding goes toward paying expensive travel… because it is a nice perk. Lots of people love getting paid travel. And some of them like to travel to conferences where they will complain about how little is done against climate change…

How is this not cognitive dissonance?

22 Comments »

  1. If a carbon tax is put into place, as a great many of those academics would support, then travel to conferences would be appropriately discouraged to the extent it generates carbon without offsetting gains or benefits. No need to legislate bans on conferences or anything like that.

    Comment by gwern — 4/12/2013 @ 11:16

  2. @gwern

    Bans and Pigovian taxes are an orthogonal issue: if you need to increase cost or implement bans to discourage academic travel, the cognitive dissonance remains.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 4/12/2013 @ 11:29

  3. It’s no more cognitively dissonant than when saving for retirement by investing in indexed mutual funds or the like that because of market cap are inherently weighted toward “evil big corporations”. Or buying stuff from Amazon while bemoaning the death of the little crappy book store down the street, or drinking fancy coffee or eating quinoa, thereby creating very strange conditions in the countries that export these. Etc. Can you name one thing that people do that is not cognitively dissonant?

    Comment by Franklin Chen — 4/12/2013 @ 12:18

  4. Your colleagues are going to hate you. More.

    Comment by Marcel Popescu — 4/12/2013 @ 12:38

  5. @Marcel

    You might be overestimating my importance. I doubt anyone spends much time hating me.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 4/12/2013 @ 12:47

  6. It’s easy to accuse some of hypocrisy, and I’m weary of any green vision that requires us to have a worse standard of living.

    Reducing carbon emissions can’t be done by a tiny minority of people just consuming less. Asides from long-distance travel, hardly anyone has good mental models of what behaviours are most important.

    We require a systemic shift, because most of our carbon emissions are due to infrastructure first. The type of electric generation, green bin programs, public transit: all those are political. So it is with high-speed train that could replace planes on most journeys.

    Comment by Daniel Haran — 4/12/2013 @ 13:17

  7. @Daniel Haran

    So it is with high-speed train that could replace planes on most journeys.

    Modern planes are very efficient, crazily so. The carbon emissions are due to the distance, not to the inefficiency of the mode of transportation. If you need to ship thousands of people across the world, it is going to cost you lots of CO2 emissions whether you do it by plane, boat, car, bus or train. Videoconferencing is always going to be orders of magnitude more efficient in this respect… no matter which mode of transportation you consider.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 4/12/2013 @ 14:10

  8. A lot of truth to this, air travel is huge in terms of carbon footprint. It does raise the question of what is the best way to reduce your personal environmental impact. Fly less personally? Support Pigovian taxes? Stop using plastic bags at the supermarket? Shoot yourself? Support research into birth control and women’s education (both of which reduce birth rates)? I think this is a real question, and one that is hard to answer, as it involves a lot of things we have very limited control over (Pigovian taxes, birth control research, international women’s education, energy research) that might matter a lot and things we have control over (not flying, shopping with reusable bags, buying a Prius) that don’t matter much.

    Comment by Greg Linden — 4/12/2013 @ 22:56

  9. As CO2 is beneficial to flora and there have been cooler periods in history with much higher CO2-%% – where is the proof that carbon is so bad.
    Here, in Europe, the tendency exists to be very suspicious towards those who support alternative sources of energy.
    Even in Germany and the UK opinion is changing.
    Remember: we pay levies up to US$150 monthly to support “green energy”.

    Comment by Harold — 5/12/2013 @ 9:38

  10. A few points:

    1. 75% of a small number is still a small number. I am sure many academics realize that their carbon footprint is low (as are those of most individuals).

    2. The planes will fly regardless of whether academics are on them or not. I am not sure that even all academic travel in aggregate would be enough to cancel flights.

    3. Many academics *would* like to reduce their travel. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with people about how there are too many conferences that require too much travel. (Granted that for most of them “being green” is just a side bonus rather than the main point.)

    4. No matter what stage of your career you’re at, there’s a cost to not attending conferences as well. Granted that is a short-term cost compared to the long-term cost of global warming, but nevertheless there are tradeoffs to consider.

    Still, I suspect that few academics have actually done an extensive cost-benefit analysis. Most are just engaging in post-hoc rationalization rather than rational thought. I’m not sure it’s really cognitive dissonance though.

    Comment by lylebot — 5/12/2013 @ 10:51

  11. One more thing to add. I went to a bunch of different “carbon footprint” calculators and filled in a high estimate of my air travel. In none of them was air travel anywhere near 75% of my carbon footprint. My household is the biggest contributor, even though we live in close to the most energy-efficient housing possible.

    Comment by lylebot — 5/12/2013 @ 13:15

  12. > Bans and Pigovian taxes are an orthogonal issue: if you need to increase cost or implement bans to discourage academic travel, the cognitive dissonance remains.

    I don’t follow. Pigovian taxes are intended for exactly this sort of situation: pricing in the true externalized costs so only optimal amounts of the damaging behavior are followed. What is the cognitive dissonance here? You cannot price it in yourself because you don’t know all the local knowledge and ramifications of the price behavior! Any attempt to guess by self-imposing travel bans is no better than a heavy-handed government ban, and may well be worse because you make it cheaper for someone else who is not self-imposing travel bans…

    Comment by gwern — 5/12/2013 @ 13:55

  13. Herve Philippe made fairly persuasive arguments along these lines a few years ago. See e.g.
    http://www.cell.com/trends/genetics/fulltext/S0168-9525(08)00109-1
    http://www.canada.com/story_print.html?id=486d21f7-629e-4c85-9c58-7a021477cf1c&sponsor=

    Comment by Casey Bergman — 5/12/2013 @ 14:31

  14. @lylebot

    Nobody said or wrote that air travel was 75% of somebody’s carbon footprint.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/12/2013 @ 15:20

  15. @gwern

    Any attempt to guess by self-imposing travel bans is no better than a heavy-handed government ban, and may well be worse because you make it cheaper for someone else who is not self-imposing travel bans…

    The exact same argument can be used against Pigovian taxes. If Europe reduces its consumption of oil, this tends to lower oil prices which, in turn, will boost consumption in countries without Pigovian taxes. This is a partially flawed argument as I am sure you could argue. But all this is irrelevant to the point of my blog post.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/12/2013 @ 15:31

  16. > If Europe reduces its consumption of oil, this tends to lower oil prices which, in turn, will boost consumption in countries without Pigovian taxes.

    Except Europe is a huge chunk of the world economy compared to a voluntary ban by a single academic. And you only got as far as that by claiming everyone else does not implement a carbon tax, which is question begging.

    > But all this is irrelevant to the point of my blog post.

    No. It’s not. You are essentially accusing conference-goers of being hypocrites, and I am pointing out that this does not follow without extra implausible assumptions about self-imposed travel bans striking exactly the optimal level for which there is no reason to expect them to strike.

    Comment by gwern — 5/12/2013 @ 15:43

  17. @gwern

    As a side-remark, Pigovian taxes don’t lead to optimality for the simple reason that nobody knows what the external costs are. Pigou himself made this exact point in his work. E.g., see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pigovian_tax#Measurement_problem

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 5/12/2013 @ 17:19

  18. An argument which proves too much. If it is impossible to so much as estimate the externalities, then how do you expect academics flying to conferences to estimate the externalities, estimate their personal impact, calculate the optimal tradeoff, calculate the elasticity of their personal boycott, and implement it…?

    Comment by gwern — 5/12/2013 @ 17:54

  19. I think when you say travel is a perk you’re exactly right. If you want to get rid of most travel how about replacing it with another perk: you get to keep unspent travel funds Or maybe some percentage of those funds.

    Comment by abak — 6/12/2013 @ 10:16

  20. A discussion of uncertainty in cost should lead into a discussion of an estimate, error, and what market distortions occur if you set the tax too high or too low. But it can’t possibly be correct that, just because the cost of externalities are hard to price with a high degree of precision, we should set Pigovian taxes at zero. Zero clearly is not the right cost for pollution.

    Getting back to the original question, I still would be very interested in hearing what people think is the best way through their personal actions to minimize climate change. I myself struggle with the obvious triviality of personal actions like using reusable bags versus the painful inability to do anything more than miniscule nudges toward collective action. And, really, the only thing that is going to matter is a worldwide change in energy consumption and energy sources?

    Comment by Greg Linden — 6/12/2013 @ 12:24

  21. Greg: as far as personal decisions that can have an impact, one obvious discretionary one is diet. Less meat or grass-fed is the way to go; getting to know a local farmer and buying in bulk can be affordable.

    Pigovian taxes generally require national or international coordination; I’d rather tackle coordination at the city problem. For more information on going beyond individual solutions at that scale, I recommend this book: http://grist.org/carbon-zero/

    Comment by Daniel Haran — 6/12/2013 @ 14:01

  22. @Greg Linden

    it can’t possibly be correct that, just because the cost of externalities are hard to price with a high degree of precision, we should set Pigovian taxes at zero

    Are you replying to me? I never wrote that the tax should be set at zero. I wrote “As a side-remark, Pigovian taxes don’t lead to optimality for the simple reason that nobody knows what the external costs are. Pigou himself made this exact point in his work. ” Where does it say that the tax should be zero? I wrote this because the @gwern stated twice that Pigovian taxes were optimal. They are not.

    I myself struggle with the obvious triviality of personal actions like using reusable bags versus the painful inability to do anything more than miniscule nudges toward collective action.

    Academic conferences are hardly “personal actions”. They are, by definition, social and political event. They are funded by governments, and often specifically supported by large organizations. Lots of people feel compelled to attend conferences for political reasons: if you don’t, review committees will ask hard questions…

    Telling someone that you are not going to fly to their conference because of your carbon footprint… I don’t know what could be more political than that. Yes, it is an individual action, but the purpose is political. It is political activism.

    Stopping academic conferences is very much a political endeavour.

    The very act of having stopped these conferences would be intensely political as a gesture. I mean… can you see climate scientists telling the world that they are no longer going to attend conferences at remote places because they feel that climate change is so urgent? Yes, it would not stop climate change, but it would entice others and so on.

    But that is not what we get. Instead of get climate scientists spending a good chunk of their time traveling.

    I do understand the logic. The logic of climate change activism is that it is up to governments to solve the problem. It is an abdication of individual responsibility. But it is still cognitive dissonance. How can you advocate government action when you are not willing to take action?

    (I should clarify that I am not urging people to stop academic conferences.)

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 6/12/2013 @ 14:11

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