An Environmental Scientist’s Confession: Why I Burn Fossil Fuel

My research vessel (Photo by Sarah Bagby)

My research vessel has a 267,000-gallon fuel tank (photo by Sarah Bagby)

Several years ago, my sister created a website, I was delighted.  Finally, a friendly place where I could seek absolution for my carbon sins! She even had a phone-in option. I was excited because I had long lived with the guilt of a double life. In my daily existence I commuted by bike, taught university courses about climate change, and interrogated bacteria that produce and consume greenhouse gases. But when away from my daily life I binge-burned. I burned diesel in oversized rental trucks, jet fuel when I traveled to conferences, and on special occasions I burned Bunker fuel oil when I directed large oceanographic vessels on tortuous paths through the high seas. Have you ever pumped fuel into a 267,000-gallon tank? It stings more than a little.

A certain “fair and balanced” news outlet has pointed to hypocrisy such as mine as evidence that climate change is not a serious concern. If it were, surely we highlighter-green-liberal-academic-environmentalist-science-leader-types would never tempt global annihilation by burning that black juice of death! But I do, and that makes me a hypocrite. If you are among the 50% of the US population looking for validation of your opinion that climate change is not a concern, then read no further – you have my admission of hypocrisy as ammunition. But if you are interested in getting to the bottom of this, let’s dialog.

Human behavior can be baffling, but the explanation for my hypocrisy seems rather simple: I am a scientist who is a product of a modern society. Like everyone else, I depend on the many benefits of fossil carbon – transportation, electricity, heat, and plastics – to fulfill my responsibilities as a member of society.

This realization struck me unexpectedly a few years back. I was leading a fuel-hungry expedition off the California coast when devastating news came that a crew-member’s mother had suffered a massive stroke and had only hours to live. I faced a decision – do we cease operation and drop him off at port for the chance that he might say a final goodbye to his mother? Yes, this was a no-brainer. How about speed – do we burn an extra 500 gallons of fuel to get him to port an hour earlier in hopes that he might catch a flight that same night? Of all the considerations that crossed my mind, carbon footprint was not one of them, and we put the pedal to the metal. Like everyone else in the decision chain, I was guided by one thing: doing everything we could do help our crew member get home as fast as possible.

What this experience forced me to recognize is that as leaders we sometimes need to separate our humanity from our knowledge. What I know through study is that our collective actions are continuing to change Earth’s environment in a way this is likely to cause massive upheaval and strife for future generations. In the face of tragedy it was easy to set aside this long-term environmental concern. But in truth it is just as easy to set aside environmental concern in the face of more mundane priorities like getting to work on time. So I pose these questions to the ether of LL 3.0: as environmental leaders, where do we draw the line between our actions and our goals? How about convenience and sacrifice?  I’m not suggesting that anyone boycott their upcoming trip to Wisconsin or tear apart their driver’s license, but I am curious how others maneuver their way through this issue.

I am sorry to finish by announcing that I don’t know exactly where the grey area ends. Some interesting guidance can be found here, and you can calculate your carbon footprint here. And if the results of that exercise cause you foreboding, don’t worry, I can help fast-track your absolution request.

David Valentine, a 2013 Leopold Leadership Fellow, is professor of Earth Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Read more about his research here.

4 thoughts on “An Environmental Scientist’s Confession: Why I Burn Fossil Fuel

  1. David, I admire your uncomfortable honesty. I wonder if one line amidst the grey is the carbon we burn for personal pleasure vs. that we burn for life necessities and, as you say, basic humanity. Thus, carbon expensive vacations and recreational pursuits, as well as hot tubs, large houses, expensive pets (e.g., horses), and rustic homes that require large commutes, would count as greater sins than others. Is this at all helpful? At least for me, it does not reduce the guilt budget a whole lot, but perhaps clarifies the thinking some.


  2. Steve, I think your logic works well with people who accept the severity of the problem and are prone to guilt. But for everybody else we have a ‘path’ problem. Somehow we need to make low carbon = cool.


  3. Dave. Thank you. Great post. i’ve also thought about this a lot, and figure that of course yes, we climate change scientists are a product of modern society just as any other person is. And I’ve also thought about how we make choices – commute or not? etc. There has to be some level of game theory and strategy here in how humans made decisions. We have to play the game of the society we live in, and let’s face it – if we all went off the grid and only rode bikes and never airplanes…. well, we probably wouldn’t have successful careers or raise children to be members of society the way we want to. Your work would not be very effective, and how successful would anyone ever be at getting the message out there about climate change if scientists didn’t go out to sea or use energy-burning computers or travel by plane to conferences?
    Thank you. Erika

  4. Hi Dave – Yes thanks for writing about an important topic. We are product of our society – and because of that I do believe in the idea that if there was $ associated with carbon pollution (for downstream costs) then we too would shift our actions either deliberately or through the bills we have to pay. The money system is a such a powerful motivator in the world – its clear that it has to be used for action in this case, so that it is not just up to individuals to find inner motivation to do the ‘right’ thing. Best regards, Ted Schuur

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