Academia needs a climate change

By Bettina Moltrecht
Friday, 27th September 2019
Filed under: ESRBlog

It’s Friday, the 20th of September 2019. I am sitting in the university office, finishing the last formatting requirements for a paper that I am going to submit. If accepted, it will allow me to go to a conference in a beautiful place a long way away with palm trees and lots of sunshine.

In a few hours a couple of hundred, maybe thousands of people will flock to the streets protesting against global warming, hoping that our governments recognise that we are in a crisis and that action needs to be taken. The university was so nice to allow their staff to work flexible hours this week, so that we can all gather in the big square and march together. Everyone is eager to go, some feel that they cannot commit to the lost hours of work and stay at their desk. They will join us in spirit or on Twitter. It is a beautiful day. It is one of those last summer days, filled with warm, but light air. The streets are busy. The mood is positive. Everyone looks hopeful. So many people seem to share this view for a better world. It is a big group and right in the middle of it you find a girl holding up her bright pink sign saying:

                        “Why should we go to school if you won’t listen to the educated”

This sentence, so truthful and accurate, hit me twice. As a PhD student I could be considered one of those “educated” people and I am listening, but what am I doing?

Luckily, a young girl of only 15 years did listen and called us all out. In 2018, Greta Thunberg stopped going to school in order to protest in front of the Swedish parliament, because she wanted them to take action so that the country’s carbon footprint could shrink. When I heard of Greta Thunberg the first time, I did not only think about how brave and inspiring she was, but I wondered: Why does a young girl need to strike for climate change? I was impressed, because when I was 15 year old, I cared about sports, friends and good enough grades to become a doctor. What I also remember is my brothers and I being annoyed with my mom, because she made us sort through the rubbish bins, when we hadn’t separated plastic from paper (In some parts Germany has a very strict waste and recycling system). In other words my childhood was very different to the experiences of today’s young people - and this time the internet is not to blame. Based on my experience working with children, I have learned that young people today care and worry a lot. They are nervous about their school performance, they worry about political happenings (i.e., many children have mentioned that Brexit stressed them out) and they are highly concerned about the climate, because it is their future and we are in a crisis.

Within the last 50 years our planet has become 1C hotter, thereby towing along a whole ship loaded with natural disasters. The government’s response? A set of bad contingency plans, which will not prepare us for the floods or the extensive heatwaves that are coming our way. Scientists and many “educated” people agree that we have 11 years left to make the necessary changes that are needed to prevent a catastrophe. For some, 11 years might seem like a long time, for others, like me, this is too short. Humans and their systems do not change quickly. We need a lot of time to make decisions and implement them[1], and this time this needs to happen globally. This time, climate change means that more than 7 billion people have to adjust their lifestyles, without the incentive of receiving any immediate or personal reward. This time instead, they will perceive these necessary changes as, at best, a nuisance and at worst an infringement of their rights.

To address these changes we need leaders who care and role models who inspire. We need the support and hard work of many, many people who dare to take the first step out of their comfort zone. We need people who seriously question themselves whether they are really doing enough - to save our future, your future and the future of today’s children! (See list of ideas in the end.)

I asked myself this question, and despite living meat free, carless and using a refillable water bottle, I knew that I can do more![2] The first thing I did was to calculate my carbon footprint, the results were horrendous. As an academic it has been dawning on me for while that my biggest contribution to global warming was the attendance at international meetings and conferences. Thanks to very generous scholarships and grants, for which I am very grateful, I have been able to take 2 domestic flights, 2 international flights, various national and international railway journeys within the last 12 months, which alone added up to 3 tonnes of CO2 emission. This does not even include my flights back home to see my family and friends.

So, as I sit in my university office (without a recycling bin) I am calculating these numbers, knowing that I still have not booked my next flight to Australia (2.62 tonnes of CO2) so that I can present at a conference on Youth Mental Health. Young people and their (mental) health has always been of great importance to me. Young people are strong, but vulnerable. Will I truly support them, listen to their worries and prevent them from devastating life experiences by flying to this conference? Maybe, and maybe not!

My decision is made, I will not fly to Australia. The costs (i.e., higher emission rates leading to further global warming, which will increase the likelihood of natural disasters, and therefore young people’s worries them, which will have a huge impact on their mental and physical health) will not outweigh the benefits (i.e., an audience of max. 200 people will hear about my research, I connect with a max. of 6 researchers in the field; I will visit some beautiful parts of Australia[3]). Furthermore, there are currently children worldwide who have made the decision to skip school on Fridays, because they sincerely worry about their future. By ignoring them, we basically take away their basic rights of schooling and learning. The right that allowed me (and so many of us) to grow and become who I am, today: a researcher who loves her job and would like to make an impact on people’s life.

Academics contribution to rising CO2 levels is frequently debated. Some argue that international meetings are necessary to make progress, I agree, but only to a certain extent. Especially, with respect to today’s technology, there is so much connection and collaboration possible without flying across the globe. I am not trying to say that academics should not fly anymore, but I would like to encourage them to do at least a cost-and-benefit calculation before they take off.

When I told some colleagues about my decision of not attending the conference in Australia, some of them seemed visibly uncomfortable, and others said: “But you as an individual are not the problem! You won’t make a difference! It is the big companies that are responsible!”

All these arguments are very plausible, and I hope that our governments will put the necessary pressure on these companies soon. However, I also did some maths: In 2018, my University counted 2736 academics and 3655 researchers (N=6,391)[4]. Let’s assume that 6000 of these individuals on average attended at least to 2 conferences (or training events, seminars, collaborative meetings) abroad within the last 12 months (I consider myself as an outlier). A return flight within Europe (I am ignoring international conferences here) produces around 0.40 tonnes of CO2. Therefore, this group of researcher and academics alone produced a carbon footprint of 2400 tonnes of CO2 within just 12 months. This big footprint comes from a single university[5], and London, a little academic caterpillar, has around 40 of them (Please, do the rest of the maths yourself).

Of course, we need to acknowledge that only because of the fantastic work of these very talented and hardworking researchers and academics, we have been able to become aware and understand the causes of climate change. This group of people has contributed to a significant reduction of emission rates due to their brilliant work. However, the particularly sad aspect here is that we the “educated” ignore the work and advice of the other “educated”.

Now, I am not writing all of this to complain, because that doesn’t help us, or the young people, or this planet.

I am here, because I want to problem-solve with you. I have always put my trust in science. I believe as scientists, it is our duty to work responsibly and act on behalf of those, who were not fortunate enough to pursue a career as we do.

Thus, in the following I would like to propose some potential solutions, for which I hope that you will join in.

A) TwinLabs. In Europe it is fairly common to have twin cities across different countries. Twin cities used to facilitate cultural and student exchange programmes. I am going to set up a webpage for researchers to register, so that they can identify TwinLabs with similar research interests across the globe. These TwinLabs will benefit research collaborations and facilitate grant applications and knowledge exchange. Most importantly though, in order to reduce our environmental impact, TwinLab members can attend conferences and meetings in the local area for their foreign, far away twins. They would of course be asked to present important research for their twin and report back, for example through webinars. Please, get in touch via: bettina.moltrecht.16@ucl.ac.uk or if you are interested in becoming part of the community please share your email address with me here: http://bit.ly/TwinLabsGo

B) TED TALKS for everyone. We all know the famous TED talk series. TED talks used to be part of a conference type of event about Technology, Entertainment and Design. What made it so popular is that TED speakers were chosen and properly trained and prepared for their talk by experts. That way the organiser ensured that the talks were not only educative but engaging so that today thousands of people actively listen to TED talks every day. Furthermore, these listeners are not merely academics, they are members of the wider public, which are too often neglect in our highly academic conferences. I propose that different research disciplines could start their own line of TED talks, e.g. PECH TALK : Psychology, Education, Clinic and Health. If you don’t like being in front of the camera, you can try one of those amazing animation designers. Some of them are specialized to work with researchers (check out Mair Perkins https://mairperkins.co.uk/.) To give you an example of what this could look like, follow this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5TYSVY6y14w

[1] I have been tempted to refer to Brexit as an example, but I don’t want to distract from the main focus of this post. 

[2] I had been doing more already: shop second-hand, recycle and avoid non-recyclable plastic, using soap bars, bringing my own shopping bags, etc.

[3] As my house mate put it: I wonder if the conference was as popular if it happened in Milton-Keynes?

[4] UCL Staff numbers by occupational types

[5] I am aware that it is one of the biggest Universities we have in London, but you get my point. At the same time, this number does not even include PhD students.

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This blog was written by:  Bettina Moltrecht

Bettina is a Marie Sklodowska-Cure fellow at the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families

More about Bettina's research project is under WP2 project 3 click here.

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