Highlighting different experiences in palaeontology. This issue’s palaeontologist, Catalina Pimiento (Swansea University), discusses “Using our large-scale vision of the world to fight climate change”.
As scientists, we attend meetings and conferences around the world. A lot of us love that. Last year I was invited to a meeting in Sweden on biodiversity and ecosystem services in a changing climate. This was another meeting I wanted to go to. As such I provided the organizers with my passport details and they booked a flight and a hotel for me. I was very busy so I was relieved they were taking care of that. At the meeting, climate change was of course a main theme. We discussed mitigation and a paper (Wynes and Nicholas 2017) that had been published not long before on recommendations for individual actions: have less children, live car-free, avoid flying when possible, eat a plant-based diet. During the coffee breaks I talked with people. One international participant I talked with casually mentioned how long his journey had been as he had traveled by train. I immediately felt embarrassed to admit I had flown—we are discussing ways to mitigate climate change and I took a plane to do so?—I justified my travel choice by clarifying that I had come all the way from Wales. Yet, I felt like the biggest hypocrite of the Anthropocene.
The train is more expensive than the flight, the train takes longer, flying is not the biggest contributor to climate change. There are many reasons to justify flying. But the thing is, all these excuses stem from one determining issue, one that has taken us to this climate breakdown: business as usual. I knew that we needed to reduce our carbon emissions to mitigate global heating and I had already made changes in my personal life (although I admit I could do more), but I had not realized that I also needed to change the choices I make when it comes to my work. Flying less1 is just one of the many things we can do as individuals to decrease our carbon emissions. But international travelling (e.g. to conferences, workshops, courses and fieldwork) can also be an important component of our jobs, especially for early career scientists. As such, some have published tips2 to change our work-related travel habits. Personally, as an immigrant from South America, I cannot renounce seeing my family and stop flying altogether, but I can become more mindful about my work-related travel habits by not attending meetings that require transoceanic flights and by taking the train to conferences and workshops in Europe (even if it takes me longer and can be expensive). These choices are, however, very personal and some may find them hard to follow, e.g. some of us cannot afford traveling by train and some others may not even have an alternative to flying. So, what are we, as a community, doing to facilitate life-style changes for the sake of the planet?
As palaeontologists, we have a deep understanding of the consequences of global heating on biodiversity. Yet, perhaps because the time-frame of our work is in millions of years, some of us might perceive the consequences of the climate breakdown as less alarming than our fellow neontologists. Maybe in the back of our heads, what happens in a 60- or 100-year time frame is somewhat irrelevant. This doesn’t mean that we cannot fully appreciate the catastrophic consequences of the current crisis. After all, we study mass extinctions. But perhaps we can be somewhat buffered against panic because we constantly deal with extinct species, collapsing ecosystems and recovery. Is it possible that we, as a group of humans with arguably the deepest understanding of a changing climate, are not contributing enough?
I think we can do more. Since travelling internationally can be an important aspect of our careers (although it has been shown (Wynes et al 2019) that reducing air traveling does not impact our productivity), we should, as a community, seek for ways to reduce the impact of it. A series of recommendations especially related to palaeontological conferences have been published (Sánchez-Villagra et al 2017), which include: 1) reducing the frequency of meetings, 2) combining conferences and 3) promoting virtual participation. Other ideas come to mind, like awarding green travel grants or rewarding those who produce less emissions. These practices can be extrapolated to workshops and courses. In general, I think we can make more of an effort to send a message to society on the need for a cultural change in times of crisis. We can even go beyond flying and join civil disobedience movements (Gardner and Wordley 2019) to fight the climate breakdown. Our individual actions may not have the impact needed to change the course of the climatic crisis, but community-level actions may more effectively lead to large-scale shifts. Large-scale is in our work description as palaeontologists, so we should use that vision when it comes to fight the climate crisis we are facing. After all, we should know more than most how enough drops of precipitation can erode a mountain range.
Gardner, C. J. and Wordley, C. F. R., 2019. Scientists must act on our own warnings to humanity. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 3, 1271-1272.
Sánchez-Villagra, M. R., Aguirre-Fernández, G., Chinsamy-Turan, A. and Badgley, C., 2017. The environmental and socially engaged palaeontologist – suggestions for action at conferences and beyond. Palaeontologia Electronica, 20.3.4E, 1-7.
Wynes, S. and Nicholas, K. A., 2017. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letters, 12, 074024.
Wynes, S., Donner, S. D., Tannason, S. and Nabors, N., 2019. Academic air travel has a limited influence on professional success. Journal of Cleaner Production, 226, 959-967.