- Professors, especially senior, wealthy, white men, should fly less for work.
In this post, I will argue that professors should fly less for work in order to reduce their carbon footprint. And I will argue that senior, wealthy, white, male professors should curb their flight-related carbon emissions the most because they travel the most and the farthest for work, and their carbon emissions disproportionally harm Communities of Color, women, children, and the poor. After making my case I will consider some likely objections to this proposal. My analysis in this post is consistent with the method of analysis that I defend in my recently published book, An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility.
2. Flight-related CO2 emissions
Presently, commercial air travel accounts for only about 2-3% of global CO2 emissions. However, the rate of commercial air travel is accelerating quickly, and is expected to more than quadruple by 2050 (Tabuchi 2019). This means that by 2050, flight-related emissions could comprise a quarter of the world’s carbon budget, or the CO2 ceiling needed to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels (ibid). Although emissions are increasing rapidly in emerging economies, flights from the U.S. are still responsible for a quarter of all passenger flight-related emissions, 2/3 of which come from domestic flights (Graver2018).
Commercial air travel is responsible for a large proportion of campus CO2 emissions. Scholars at the University of California, Santa Barbara “estimate that air travel for academic conferences, meetings and talks accounts for about a third of the campus’s carbon footprint, ‘equal to the total annual carbon footprint of a city of 27,500 people in the Philippines’” (Levine et al. 2019). Research on air travel at the University of Montreal shows that the average professor produces as much CO2 through air travel alone as the total emissions generated by the average Canadian household (Arsenault et al). Professors’ flight-related emissions account for 30% of the University of Montreal’s total carbon footprint. This doesn’t include emissions from non-flight-related travel (e.g., taxis).
3. Who’s responsible?
Not everyone travels at the same rate. Research on air travel conducted at the University of British Columbia shows that more senior academics and academics with higher salaries travel more, and produce more CO2 emissions, than earlier career-stage and lower-paid academics. In addition, men travel more than women and take longer flights, producing more CO2 (Wynes et al. 2019). In other words, well-off men travel more than other academics. I couldn’t find data on CO2 emissions and race, but it’s notable that three-quarters of college and university faculty are white (Flahery 2019), which means that white faculty are producing the vast majority of CO2 emissions. Since most Black academics are less senior and less salaried than most white academics, it’s a reasonable inference that the former travel less based on their rank and income.
Maybe white men are more successful because they travel to conferences so much? The UBC study found no correlation between travel and productivity (Wynes et al. 2019). The researchers speculate that senior, wealthy men are invited to more conferences, and may also have personality traits (e.g., assertiveness) that would incite someone to demand more travel time.
4. Who are the victims?
Air travel generates CO2 emissions that accelerate climate change, and climate change affects certain groups more than others. The American Public Health Association reports that children, the elderly, the underserved, and Communities of Color are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and are less capable than other groups of absorbing the costs (2020).
Black, LatinX, and Native Americans are more susceptible to displacement and climate-related diseases than white Americans, and these groups have worse access to health insurance and medical services, making it harder for them to absorb the costs of climate change (Rysavy & Floyd 2020). In coming years, climate change is expected to further exacerbate regional inequalities in the U.S. (Meyer 2017). These are just some local examples of climate racism. Globally, an estimated 24 million people per year have been displaced by catastrophic weather events since 2008, and the majority of climate refugees have been People of Color (McDonnell 2018).
Climate change also affects women more than men. The U.N. estimates that 80% of people displaced by climate change are women (Halton 2018). Their roles as primary caretakers and suppliers of food and fuel make them more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather events.
5. The direction of responsibility:
In sum, senior white male academics are disproportionally responsible for flight-related CO2 emissions that comprise as much as 30% of their universities’ total CO2 emissions, potentially generating more CO2 than the average Canadian household, and surpassing the emissions of entire Communities of Color in less wealthy nations. The flight-related emissions of privileged academics are disproportionally harming People of Color, women, and other vulnerable groups.
This is the direction of responsibility according to climate research: certain privileged academics are making discretionary travel choices that are harming the life outcomes of less privileged groups.
The implication, based on a principle of class, gender, and racial justice, is that senior white male academics should travel less, or travel by less carbon-intensive means, than they currently do.
6. Institutional solutions:
Unfortunately, there’s evidence that environmentally conscious people don’t travel less than environmentally unconscious people (Wynes et al. 2019). Thus, we need to change institutional structures and academic culture to facilitate environmentally friendly practices rather than rely on people’s own consciences. Suggestions for ways in which to reduce CO2 emissions include: cut travel funding, subject applicants to a pre-trip approval process (CWT 2020), encourage greener modes of transportation, and promote virtual conferences instead of in-person conferences (Levine et al. 2019; also see Tremain 2020).
I think that these proposals are reasonable; but I also think that most academics would reject them. In the remainder of this post, I’ll address some likely objections to the recommendation that we adopt policies that restrict academics’ ability to travel, especially amongst the groups that travel the most.
7.1 Flight-related climate emissions don’t make a difference
I’ve tried to rebut this objection by showing that flight-related CO2 emissions, particularly from senior white men in academia, contribute significantly to climate racism, climate sexism, and other climate harms that disproportionally affect vulnerable groups (e.g., children, the poor).
Recently it has become popular to argue that we’re not responsible for climate change because just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global CO2 emissions (Riley 2017). Since our personal CO2 emissions are negligible by comparison, we’re not responsible for our carbon footprint.
I think that it’s important to hold corporations responsible but it’s not clear how we’re supposed to do this if we don’t hold the members of corporations responsible. Universities are conglomerates that produce many millions of tons of CO2 per year, largely due to the discretionary travel choices of their faculty. University of Texas-Austin produced over 1 million metric tons of CO2 in 2018 (Morales 2019). In comparison, the entire state of Vermont produced only 5.6 million metric tons of CO2 in 2013 (Ballotpedia 2013). The carbon footprint of universities is not trivial.
Even if universities didn’t have significant carbon footprints, there’s a case to be made that professors should try to neutralize their carbon footprint because they’re supposed to be exemplars of social responsibility. Last year, the U.N. called on universities to be leaders of sustainability and environmental activism (O’Malley 2019). As representatives of their departments, professors should be leading sustainability initiatives and inspiring student activists, not selfishly producing one-third of their campus’s total carbon footprint through air travel alone.
Here is a third consideration: people who feel entitled to produce a disproportionate amount of CO2 for discretionary (avoidable) reasons are hubristic, meaning that they take themselves to be “above the community” and deserving of special privileges (Petit and Bolaert 2011: 266). If everyone flew as much as senior, wealthy, white, male professors, we would be facing a doomsday scenario. Professors shouldn’t think they’re entitled to fly at a rate that, if everyone flew the same amount, the planet would quickly become uninhabitable. Valerie Petit and Helen Bolaert say that an antidote to hubris is to “make the individual aware of [their] place in the world order and membership of the community of humans” (2011: 265). A healthy university community is one where no one feels entitled to consume a disproportionate amount of the carbon budget, making it difficult if not impossible for the university to achieve its climate action goals.
7.2 Traveling is necessary for professional success
I’ve tried to rebut this argument by showing that traveling doesn’t increase productivity, but one could still argue that traveling provides valuable networking opportunities.
Let’s grant this claim for the sake of argument. One still needs to show that professional networking opportunities outweigh the impact of flight-related CO2 emissions on the least well-off global citizens, including those displaced and sickened by the effects of climate change.
It will be especially difficult to show that the academics with the biggest carbon footprint, who are also the most professionally advanced and the wealthiest, are justified in traveling for work. I do not think that a good case can be made to justify the travel habits of privileged academics.
7.3 Virtual conferences are too boring
One of the top recommendations for reducing campus emissions is to shift to virtual conferences. Some corporations have already adopted this strategy, but academics don’t seem to like it. By far, the most common objection that I’ve encountered is that virtual presentations are too boring.
It’s not clear to me how the boringness of virtual presentations is supposed to weigh against our obligation to reduce our carbon footprint. Taking a child to a doctor’s appointment is boring but most parents are willing to do it because it’s a parental obligation. Professors arguably have a responsibility to lead environmental initiatives even if it means missing out on some fun parties. I also think the hubris argument applies here: why are you entitled to fly to a party as part of your job? If every worker flew to parties, climate change would be greatly accelerated.
But it’s not even clear to me that listening to a virtual presentation is boring. Just because you’re bored doesn’t mean that the presentation is boring. It’s not simply the presenter’s obligation to engage the audience: it’s your obligation as an audience member to listen carefully and give the speaker a fair chance. This is true whether the speaker can’t travel due to disability and inaccessibility, ineluctable caregiving responsibilities, financial constraints, or environmental commitments. Speakers who Skype into conferences deserve the same uptake as (typically privileged) in-person presenters. It pains me to think that philosophers regard virtual presenters as nuisances who are ruining their fun times rather than epistemic peers who deserve equal uptake. Notably, women tend to receive less uptake than men due to identity prejudice (Fricker 2007). For example, women tend to be seen as less brilliant and less funny than men (Caron 2019). Should we stop inviting women to conferences because they’re ‘less engaging’ than men?
Kamili Posey argues that audiences have a responsibility to be “good consumers” of people’s speech, which requires audience participation, active listening, and other epistemic qualities: “To participate in public performance [as an audience],” she says, “and particularly performance by socially, politically, and economically marginalized people, we owe the experience our best efforts at deeper understanding” (Posey 2019). If someone’s talk isn’t riveting to you, it might not be the speaker’s fault—it might be that you’re not a good consumer.
I have argued that we should all fly less to reduce our carbon footprint, but privileged professors should curb their flight-related CO2 emissions the most because they contribute more than anyone to climate racism, climate sexism, and other types of climate injustice.
I expect that few academics will agree with my argument, but for anyone who is persuaded, I invite you to join me on the website No Fly Climate Sci, which is dedicated to the reduction of academics’ flight-related CO2 emissions. This website was initially designed for climate scientists but it has expanded to include other academics interested in shrinking their carbon footprint.
Michelle Ciurria is a visiting scholar at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and the author of An Intersectional Feminist Theory of Moral Responsibility. Her work has appeared in such journals as The Journal of the American Philosophical Association, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, and Feminist Philosophy Quarterly.
[Description of photo below: photo of Michelle, a white woman, who is outside, looking directly into the lens of the camera, and smiling faintly. Houses and trees can be seen in the background of the frame.]