Meet The Climate Scientist Trying to Fly Less for Work : Short Wave A few years ago, climate scientist Kim Cobb had a brutal realization about how much she was flying for conferences and meetings. Those flights were adding lots of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Host Maddie Sofia talks with her about her push to get scientists to fly less for work, and what happened when the pandemic suddenly made that idea a reality.

Meet The Climate Scientist Trying to Fly Less for Work

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In 2016, Kim Cobb jumped into the Pacific Ocean near Christmas Island to check on the coral reefs she'd been studying for decades.

KIM COBB: And the water's crystal blue. Everything looks perfect.

SOFIA: And then she looked down at the coral and saw a layer of red-brown algae. The coral had died.

COBB: It was like a gut punch. I mean, I was just shocked. I literally couldn't believe what I was seeing.

SOFIA: A record-breaking marine heat wave had killed almost the entire reef.

COBB: Seeing that level of devastation for something that's so precious to you that you've grown up with for decades, I was just crying into my mask.

SOFIA: Then came the presidential election. The nation elected an administration that is openly hostile to climate solutions and the Paris Agreement.

COBB: But the really horrifying reality that I realized was that even if Clinton had won, it would never have been enough. We were so late.

SOFIA: Kim realized she needed to push the reset button on her climate priorities. And part of that meant meticulously calculating her personal carbon emissions.


COBB: I mean, I have this all tallied on an Excel spreadsheet (laughter).

SOFIA: I bet you do, Kim Cobb. I bet you do.

And when she crunched the numbers, she had to face the fact that her carbon emissions as a climate scientist were quite a bit over the national average. And 85% of her emissions were due to air travel, which makes sense because flying releases a lot of carbon.

Why were you flying so much, Kim?

COBB: Well, the vast majority of that is for my job as a professor and a climate scientist.

SOFIA: Kim is a professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech. Her lab focuses on uncovering the mechanisms of global climate change. She travels a lot, gives a lot of talks, goes to a lot of conferences. She's testified before Congress. But after seeing the carbon cost of all this work, Kim had a new mission to get academics, especially scientists, to fly less.

COBB: There's no other option but to ask yourself how you, if you care that much, which I do, how you can begin to move the needle so that we can meet this challenge at the scale required, at all scales required.


SOFIA: So today on the show, a conversation with Kim Cobb about joining the movement to fly less and what happens when a pandemic suddenly makes that idea a reality. I'm Maddie Sofia, and this is SHORT WAVE, the daily science podcast from NPR.


SOFIA: So, Kim, you made a decision to fly less a couple years ago. What does that look like in practice for the work that you do and how much you've been able to cut your carbon emissions?

COBB: So it didn't happen overnight. I mean, it began slowly. It began with a pledge to reduce my emissions from flying by about 30% from 2017 to 2018 and then another 30% into 2019. And then in fall of 2019, I pledged to stay on the ground completely for 2020, of course not knowing that the entire world would practically be joining me as well.

SOFIA: Right, right. So what kind of responses have you gotten from folks in your field and academia at large around this? I'm interested.

COBB: Well, there's definitely kind of a generational divide that you might predict. People who have grown up only knowing one way, which is you got on a plane to go to a workshop in China and you stay there for 2 1/2 days and you come back - duh (laughter) - that's the only way we can do this. And then there are all the younger generations of scientists, who are saying, you know, wait a minute. You know, this is not consistent with what we know we need to do with our emissions. And then, unfortunately, there are always some people who are so vocally opposed to individuals being vocal about flying less.

Certainly, I think there's a lot to build in terms of alternative infrastructure to help us work as scientists in a way that is fluid and effective in a remote and virtual platform, but that doesn't stop us from advocating for starting something today. We just can't afford to wait.

SOFIA: One thing I was thinking about, Kim, is, you know, you are advanced in your career by now. You're established. Do you think these are - you know, the costs of not going to conferences are something that a less senior scientist could afford? I'm thinking about, like, when I was a young graduate student in academia, these conferences were huge as far as, like, finding jobs, potential collaborators, sharing your work, especially if you didn't work on something that everybody cares about a lot. You know what I mean?

COBB: Yeah, I do think that it could potentially be a cost that is too great to bear for early career researchers to stay on the ground and forfeit the opportunity to participate. But I have two things to say about that. One is that we certainly don't make it easy for them to make this choice because their cost function is so steep and there are very, very limited virtual and remote possibilities for them to join a key career conference like that. And the second thing I would say is that, you know, more and more and more, early career people, along the same lines, are asking themselves if they really want to be part of this institution which only allows scientific work to be conducted in this specific way, requires so much travel, is so kind of formalized around these events.

Frankly, many people can't afford it anyway, and so there's an accessibility issue here that I think is critical. It's not just about making sure that those people who choose to fly less are accommodated. It's recognizing that when you build effective remote and virtual infrastructure, there are so many other people that will benefit, including people with obligations to family members that forbid them from traveling, including people who don't have the funding, disabled people who can't go on trips like that. So all boats rise when you do this right.

SOFIA: OK. So, of course, the pandemic hits, and suddenly nobody is flying to conferences and this fly less movement becomes kind of a reality immediately. Tell me a little bit about that on your end.

COBB: Yeah. Well, it's really complicated. This is not a climate win. We aren't happy about this at all. The world that we want to build is not rife with inequities that are killing people. It's not plunging the world into a global recession for possibly years. There's really so little here that's analogous. I think it's important to state that straight-up.

SOFIA: Right. Of course. Of course. But I do want to talk a little bit about how the virtual meetinghood for science is going right now. I mean, I have to imagine you've had some frustrating experiences.

COBB: Yes. I mean, you know, it happened so quickly. And I think right now, as much as people face technical glitches and there are all kinds of issues related to time zones (laughter) - you know, concurrent versus not concurrent sessions of international meetings - and whatnot that's driving many of us crazy right now, and so I think when we look back on this period, we can take some lessons in that even as bad as it was, there was still value there. And there's immense value in doing this even better. And it's worth the investment.

SOFIA: Yeah. OK. But, you know, Kim, I'm putting myself at a scientific conference right now, and I'm trying to think about the things, you know, that will work really well remotely. Like, I think talks could still work really well. But then there are those conference moments where you get introduced to somebody by somebody else. Like, you meet somebody you wouldn't have met otherwise. I feel like that would be tough to replicate, you know? Like, what about you? What do you think is a thing that's going to be hard to replace in a remote setting?

COBB: Well, I think what's hard to replace remotely are those actual - the happenstance occurrences.

SOFIA: Yeah.

COBB: And I think those are extremely valuable and very, very difficult to reproduce but not impossible. And the other thing I wanted to stress now is that the world that we may build for the future may not look as different from the world that we had before in the high-carbon before times because we're not talking about never traveling or never coming together. We're actually maybe just talking about not flying (laughter).

SOFIA: Right.

COBB: And so one of the things that I think is immensely exciting is to think about developing regional hubs for large national-level conferences where people could get there in less than a day's drive or by train, of course. And then we could all have a conference with much lower carbon footprint and enjoy many of the benefits of in-person interactions without having to gather 25,000 people from around the globe for five days in San Francisco.

SOFIA: So I'm curious. Are you thinking about, like, OK, there are times that it's OK to fly, like politicians and government officials flying to make - you know, to work on these international agreements that, you know, help us fight climate change, or are you thinking, like, generally speaking, we can do this remotely?

COBB: I mean, I'm not an absolutist almost on anything, and I'm not absolutist about flying - not for myself and certainly not for anybody else. And that's, I think, really important about lifting each other up and supporting each other for the decisions that each one of us makes. I think it's great to set some intentionality, to be strategic, to write your own playbook for when you fly and when you don't fly. And I write my own playbook as well. My husband's from Italy. We have family over there. Can I sign myself up for a future where my kids never see their grandparents? No, I'm not signing on to that future. And so everybody will have their own balance of professional and personal flight choices that are theirs to make, and nobody else should be judging them for that.


SOFIA: All right, Kim Cobb, I appreciate you. Thanks for coming on the show.

COBB: Sure. Thanks so much for having me.


SOFIA: This episode was produced by Yowei Shaw, fact-checked by Rebecca Ramirez and edited by Geoff Brumfiel. I'm Maddie Sofia. Thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


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