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.

Is it the climate itself that makes climate change communication so difficult?

At the recent AGU Chapman Conference on Communicating Climate Science, scientists, artists, journalists and others offered many new ideas and fascinating perspectives on engaging with different audiences about climate change. There was much discussion of the question posed by fellow fellow Andy Dessler: “Do scientists have a moral obligation to speak out?”

One argument for scientific obligation to “speak out” is that confusion about some public issues is derived, at least in part, from the complexity of natural systems, the very thing scientists study. I devoted my 15 minutes of fame at the Chapman Conference to the confusion about climate change that is caused by the variability in the climate itself. The talk is based on research in North America, and in the distant Pacific Island country of Kiribati, where I’ve been conducting field work and contracting tropical viruses on and off since 2005.

Do scientists have a moral obligation to speak out?

As Leopold Fellows, where do you draw the “advocacy” line?  What do you tell your graduate students about advocacy? Where do you encourage them to draw the line?  Below is an excerpt of a blog I co-authored with John Abraham.

John Abraham:  We scientists talk to each other…a lot. Usually it is about breaking studies or techniques that can help us better understand the world around us. On occasion, however, we talk about how to communicate our science to the world. We believe that our research is critical to helping us all make better decisions now to preserve the future for all of us.

During one such conversation I had with a colleague, Dr. Andrew Dessler, we got onto the topic of how scientists should advocate to the general public. In particular, we focused on a shortsighted article recently published in the Guardian. After our conversation. Dr. Dessler wrote his thoughts which are contained below as part of this blog post. Take it away Andy…

Andy Dessler: “In a recent Guardian post, Dr. Tamsin Edwards argued that scientists should scrupulously avoid advocating for particular policies — going so far as to say that this is a “moral obligation”.

The foundation of Dr. Edward’s argument is that the general public is too dumb to understand the difference between a scientist talking science and one advocating policy. While it is certainly true that most members the general public are not scientific experts, they are experts in figuring out who the experts are and in discerning what the practical importance of expert opinion is. Arguing that we must filter what we tell the general public so as not to confuse them is patronizing and greatly underestimates their intelligence and abilities.

Given that values play a huge role in policy debates, it is certainly true that scientists have no special claim to authority in policy debates. And the fact that, decades after scientists recognized the global-warming problem, we still don’t have a climate policy in place, is evidence of this. But this does not mean that scientists therefore have NO authority. The values held by scientists are as legitimate as the values of any other citizen and scientists have as much of a right to advocate for policy as anyone else. The argument that I gave up my rights to engage in the policy debate when I became an expert in the science is, to me at least, both offensive and absurd.

A more interesting question is whether, from a practical standpoint, scientists do more harm than good when they advocate for policies. For example, Dr. Edwards claims that “much climate skepticism is driven by a belief that environmental activism has influenced how scientists gather and interpret evidence.” She certainly may believe this, but it’s wrong. Cognitive research has shown that views on climate science can be almost entirely explained by an individual’s values — e.g., their view on the proper role of government.
The argument advanced by skeptics that “scientists are political advocates” is simply a post hoc rationalization for rejecting the expert opinion of the world’s scientific community, thereby allowing the skeptics to reach a conclusion consistent with their values. If scientists stopped advocating for policies, skeptics would simply come up with another excuse to reject expert scientific opinion. Blaming scientists for skeptical irrationality is hopelessly naive.

So what do I think scientists should do? First, I think it is up to every individual scientist to decide where to draw the line. If Dr. Edwards is uncomfortable talking about a carbon tax, then she should certainly not talk about it. When I talk in public about climate change, I’m comfortable saying that, as a citizen who happens to know a lot about the science, I strongly support action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. If people want more details, I add that the policy experts agree that the key policy action we need to take is a price on carbon, which could be accomplished to either a carbon tax or a cap and trade system.

As a citizen in a democracy and as a father of two young boys, I feel I have a lot invested in getting the policy on climate change right. Sitting on the sidelines and refusing to answer questions about policy is simply not an option. For me, speaking out is the moral obligation.”

John Abraham: And I agree with Dr. Dessler. It truly is absurd to argue that the people who know most about the problem should be silent about potential solutions. It is also incredibly naïve to not acknowledge the role of funded sources who systematically attack and harass scientists. When the history books are written (they are being written right now), we will all wish the climate scientists had spoken out more, not less.