Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences II

In a recent post,  we discussed whether researchers can justify jetting across the globe for their research (in particular for environmental research). We collected three reasons that could be adduced for the justifiability of “conference tourism”. We now add three further strategies for defending airmiles:

A fourth and prominent reason is this: the carbon emissions can be offset. If offsetting actually works and is actually done (by the university or by the researcher herself), then there is no overall environmental effect from flying to workshops.

Fifth, even if it might be a moral imperative to shift the whole research culture to more local interaction or, if international cooperation is deemed very valuable, to more electronic versions of international interaction, it might still be said that it is unfair to expect single researchers to go ahead with that shift if there is no joint action by the whole research community. There is no duty to be the lone “hero” who takes up large personal costs that others refuse to take up.

A sixth way to defend conference flights is based on doubt about the effectiveness of individual, small actions. If refraining from single flights does nothing to prevent — or not even diminish — climate change, then the reason for restraint vanishes according to many moral theories (even according to some non-consequentialist theories).

For some objections to the last two strategies, see the paper by Sabine Hohl and myself in Analyse&Kritik. Note that even someone agrees with our objections might still think that political action is a more effective and a more fair means to protect the climate than personal, small, voluntary actions such as a refusal to participate in conference travel.

The next post in these series collects reasons that speak against flying to workshops and talks. Any suggestions are welcome. Also, I need to collect a list of ideas for making international cooperation in research cooperation greener that anybody can agree on: no-regret-measures, first steps, creative solutions we haven’t thought of, etc.


5 responses to “Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences II

  1. Let me suggest two further justifications:

    (a) Going to conferences is good for scholars’ careers, and helps them to disseminate their ideas. If those people who believe that flying is wrong stop going to conferences, then people with no objection to flying will get more of the good jobs, and more easily spread their ideas. Garrett Hardin warned that if only the people who believe in population control stop having children, that group will tend to select itself out. Similarly, voluntary restraint in going to conferences is likely, over the long run, to be self-defeating.

    (b) Global warming isn’t the only big environmental threat we face, or even the only risk of climate change. Another threat comes from nuclear war. Integration theorists have long argued that increasing international contacts–among others, international scholarly contacts–make greater international integration and co-operation possible. The poster child for this theory, of course, is the European Union. If integration theorists are right, any kind of international conferences–and increased exchange among countries more generally, reduces the risk of war, including nuclear war.

    The sixth justification that Dominic lists–while common–is, I believe, a philosophical mistake, for reasons that are too complex to explain here. But I’ve drafted a paper on the topic–‘F’SOT, Moral Mathematics and Climate Change’–which I’ll present next month at the MANCEPT Workshops in Political Theory. I’m happy to send a copy to anyone who’d like to see it.

  2. Thanks for these remarks! They are most interesting.

    Could the first of these also be understood as a refinement of the general consequentialist argument? If an ecologically minded scholar foregoes conferences this might not only have opportunity costs (in terms of foregoing the benefits of promoting her ideas) but also positive costs in terms of giving more space to the ideas promoted by people with less ecologically beneficial theories?

    The second point is an eye-opener, too. Also in connection with Dieter Birnbachers thoughts about ways to overcome motivational obstacles to action on intergenerational issues. More international exchange will definitely contribute to more mutual concern. One might think that “international bonding” might also be achieved by other means than travelling (facebook, simultaneously watching olympics on television, etc.). Of course, for some type of international connecting, meeting face-to-face is very important and I guess research conferences belong to this type…

  3. Pingback: Criticizing Conference Flights | Ethics for a Green Future

  4. Pingback: Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not) | Ethics for a Green Future

  5. Pingback: Environmental ethics of research travel (discussion) | Roundtable

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