Think grey

Recently someone has told me that she believes in the climate change but isn’t doing anything to help the planet because she doesn’t want to sacrifice everything. That there are things she couldn’t possibly give up. Conclusion? She can as well change nothing.

To prevent the climate change or at least to reduce its negative impact, we have to work together. In the ideal world, every inhabitant of our planet would change her behaviour and live an environment-friendly life. However, it isn’t going to happen. We have too many climate sceptics and people who, while accepting that the climate change is a jeopardy, don’t believe it should worry them too much. Their main argument is that next generations will suffer most of the consequences – so why should we care?

Explaining to climate sceptics that they might be wrong is one of the main goals of climate scientists. I’m not a psychologist but to my mind the second group will be also very hard to persuade. In this post I’ll focus mostly on the majority of the society: people who believe in climate problems, would like to change something but don’t want to sacrifice their whole life to save the world. Please bear in mind that when I say majority, I base it only on my observations, not any data. Even if I’m wrong, it is still a large group that should be targeted.

Where does that black and white thinking come from? Why cannot we accept that we don’t have to be perfect? Perfectionism has been researched in numerous psychological studies. Yet, still so many people have to deal with consequences of this character trait in many areas of their lives. Instead of helping us to do an amazing job, it hinders all our efforts. Better is the enemy of good. Even when we’re saving the planet.

You might think that we, climate scientists, young researchers who care a lot about the dire situation in which the Earth is now, are doing everything right. It’s not exactly true. Yes, we are trying to do what we can – but not more. We are still human beings, with all our flaws.

Remember that we work together. This often means commuting quite far, many times even flying. What can I do about the fact that the conference relevant for my research takes place in Philadelphia? I have to use the plane, no matter how badly I want to avoid it. Because planes are one of the worst enemies of our planet, this is the fact. However, in order to do my research, I need to know about results of other scientists all over the world. In principle we could use video conferencing. And we do but it’s far less effective than meeting other researchers in person, because most of the ideas are created when we talk outside the official conference events.

Some universities have tried to introduce travel funds not according to the money one spends on the travel but on the carbon footprint produced by the journey. I hope they’ll forget about such ideas soon. Yes, we should encourage alternative ways of travelling when they’re feasible, for example one can get from London to Paris in a reasonable time by train. However, if one is unlucky enough to have a meeting in the U.S., it just isn’t fair.

Let’s assume that we’re already in the meeting. We switch on the lights, the computer, the projector, the air conditioning… There’s coffee and water served in plastic cups. There’re biscuits prettily wrapped in plastic bags. Another coffee break, another cup (because I managed to lose mine). And it continues…

These little things are what matters. I’m not happy that they happen and I think we should change them. However, I still attend these meetings because I find them valuable for the climate research. Also, in my everyday life I try to waste as little as possible, save electricity etc. I know I could carry a mug with me and use it instead of plastic cups. But you know what? I’d rather carry my laptop so that I can do some work on the train. Especially now that I cycle to the train station (which means that I produce way less greenhouse gases than if I used a car or a bus) and I don’t want my backpack to be too heavy.

Later we go to have lunch. I don’t remember a meal without any conversation about vegetarianism and its impact on the climate. I believe that reducing the meat consumption is an important part of helping the planet. Veganism is even more environment-friendly. Having said that, I don’t think that meat eaters are doing anything wrong. Especially when they’re aware of how much greenhouse gases are released in the process of meat production and they try to reduce the amount of meat they consume. Cultivating the myth that we have to cut out everything in order to make the positive impact doesn’t help out planet. Of course if we all went vegan, the release of CO2 would decrease but a traditional in some countries meat-free Friday has a good impact too. Why would we condemn people for indulging in a favourite steak once a week? Every little step counts!

When it comes to the actual research, there is no weather and climate prediction without computers. Supercomputers. Super-power-hungry-computers. We cannot forget that every weather prediction releases large amounts of greenhouse gases. Should we then stop doing our research to prevent it? I doubt it would do us any good. Work is being done to develop more effective and less harmful algorithms, but the problem will persist.

Can we be fully environment-friendly then? Yes and no. There are people who take it to the extreme. They eat only unprocessed plant-based foods, they live completely waste-free, don’t travel, don’t use electricity… It seems to be doable and if this lifestyle works for them, then it’s great, but… I refuse to live like that. I’m sure that we can live quite relaxed and pleasant lives and still avoid doing too much harm to the planet. The point is that we all have to do that. We all have to make some changes, no matter how small they would be.

You don’t have to be perfect. If you feel that you can change something, then go for it! Don’t beat yourself up for taking a superlong shower because it was so pleasant. Don’t feel like a failure for using a car when you were too tired to cycle to work. Just think about what you can do to reduce the harm that we, the whole of society, do to the planet. Listen to Paul McCartney: Don’t carry the world upon your shoulders. Do what you can – and enjoy what you don’t want to sacrifice.

5 thoughts on “Think grey

  1. — I’ll comment here rather than leaving 100 tweets!

    I feel you make far-away conferences sound more unavoidable than they are. You always have the option of not registering for a particular conference(!), and many people don’t go to a conference because they’ve used up their travel budget, or they already have family events planned, or young children to look after, etc. Does your field really not have meetings in Europe, or smaller national events and so on?

    Regarding conference refreshments, just an anecdote: a few months ago I was organising a workshop here at Bath. I was ordering tea/coffee/biscuits for the breaks, and I was given the choice between disposable cups + wooden stirrers at 25p each and teacup + saucer + teaspoon at 50p each (on top of £1.70 for the actual drink).

    A great way to discourage waste, not!

    At some level, this can clearly be justified: the latter option takes much more time to set up and clear away, items need washing, and so on. Though, interestingly, I have *absolutely no idea* which option is better for the environment when looking over the entire lifecycle… making the cups and spoons, mining the metal, and so on.

    One final nitpick: compared to cars, plane CO2 emissions aren’t so terrible. Per passenger-mile, they’re close enough that you need to ask how full the plane is, how many passengers are in the car, what type of car, etc., to know which one is worse. I think the main factor is just that plane journeys are so long! I think trains comfortably beat both, unless you’re in the “nearly-empty, very-high-speed train” regime. Again, no idea about the full lifecycle.

    On a lighter note, “now that I cycle to the train station (no greenhouse gases produced!)” — you hold your breath all the way? 🙂


  2. Thank you for the comment:)
    I’m not saying that we have to go to far-away conferences, I just believe it can be beneficial. I don’t like the idea of not going to important meetings only because of the flight. However, I’m aware that flights are problematic, this is why I point this out as a potential problem.
    I actually think that increasing prices of disposable stuff is a great way to discourage waste! Just look at what happened after many shops started charging for plastic bags. Yes, it’s just 5p but it makes one think twice. Many people don’t care about the environment but do care about their wallets.
    Two good points about comparing disposable utensils etc. to metal ones as well as cars vs planes. I’ll do my research on it but if you have any sources, I’d be happy to take a look.
    Haha, so right, I’ll rewrite the cycling sentence, thanks! 🙂


    1. The plastic bag charge is a wonderful application of psychology. People will do a lot to avoid a loss (“unnecessary cost”), even of just 5p… much more than they will to “get a 5p refund” (see the work of Kahneman, etc).

      There was no need to rewrite the cycling sentence! Actually, searching for ‘cycling co2 emissions’, there’s a silly Guardian piece from 2010 that tries to include the CO2 emissions of food production to come up with a more complete figure, as well as some more sensible links.

      Anyway, I think I’ve drifted a long way from your original piece now, so I’ll stop writing!


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