PEA Soup is pleased to be hosting the next instalment of our “Soup of the Day” series.

This discussion centres on the moral obligations of academics in the face of climate change, with contributions from Kimberley Brownlee (UBC) and Brian Wong (HKU).


When is it acceptable to fly for academic work?  

Kimberley Brownlee

According to Damian Carrington in the Guardian (November 20, 2023), ‘The richest 10% of people in many countries cause up to 40 times more climate-heating carbon emissions than the poorest 10% of their fellow citizens…’ That richest 10% includes most middleclass people in developed countries, i.e. ‘anyone paid more than about $40,000 (£32,000) a year.’ And, that group includes many of us: academics in tenure-track or permanent posts.

Philosophers are no exception. We seem to like to travel. Put more gently, our work involves receiving peer-feedback and disseminating our research, which continues to mean travelling to conferences and host institutions to engage face-to-face with communities of scholars. Consequently, as academics, our footprint is probably heavier than that of our economic peers in other industries whose work does not conventionally involve congregating for discussion and feedback. (Whether our footprint in Philosophy is heavier per person than that in other disciplines would be worth knowing.)

Our carbon footprint shrank during the COVID-19 pandemic when we had to move to online meetings. Indeed, one of the very few silver linings of the pandemic was the glimmer of hope that a culture change was afoot and that we wouldn’t be returning to the old ways of holding “in-person only” events and taking long-haul flights for two- or three-day visits. But, once the pandemic threat subsided, we returned to business as usual. Since 2022, the trend in Philosophy has been to revert to “in-person only” events, partly because online set-ups can be non-trivial to organize and partly because everyone was craving face-to-face contact again.

(The APA is preparing to host one of its three division meetings online each year, starting in 2025, and online and hybrid events certainly have continued, though they’re no longer the norm.)

The problem is, of course, that “business as usual” is unconscionable. The world is on fire – literally – and we are not helping. After scientists confirmed that July 2023 would be the world’s hottest month on record, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, stated that ‘the era of global boiling has arrived’. He said: “Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” …“It is still possible to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C [above pre-industrial levels], and avoid the very worst of climate change. But only with dramatic, immediate climate action.” Scientists have also confirmed that 2023 was the hottest year on record. And, 2024 promises to be worse.

My own country of Canada was literally on fire this past summer. (Canada, British Columbia, and Alberta featured in international news over the summer as wildfires burned out of control.) As a result, I am feeling increasingly heartsick about my own air travel.

This brief comment is intended as a call for a frank discussion about a possible principle or formula that philosophers might adopt to guide our decisions about when to fly for work or not. Most likely, a credible principle or formula would be sensitive to various factors including:

  • career stage (i.e. early career colleagues have reasons to accept more invitations involving air travel than established colleagues do)
  • the academic’s location
  • the number of days of the trip
  • the person’s other trips that year and their air miles accumulated, etc.
  • the host’s willingness to consider hybrid or online instead of an in-person event

The potentially relevant factors add up quickly, which is why I would be grateful to hear from colleagues on whether and how we might devise a method for reducing our air travel and otherwise productively change our ways.


The Inconvenient Question for Academics: To Fly or Not to Fly

Brian Wong

Introduction

Climate change is a pressing, real, and detrimental phenomenon. From the growing frequency of extreme weather to rising sea levels and ensuing flooding of low-lying areas, from unbridled wildfires to decimation of and shifts to crop yield and precipitation patterns, it is evident that global warming leaves many of the Earth’s population considerably worse-off. As Brownlee’s (2023) prompt aptly notes, “The world is on fire — literally — and we are not helping.” (p. 1)

International travel is one of the several activities through which humanity contributes towards global warming. The following response aims to sketch out a multi-pronged proposal and a tenable set of working principles that can guide us, in our capacity as academics, to plan for and reorient our travel decisions when it comes to the essential question: to fly, or not to fly?

Several assumptions must be stated before we proceed. Firstly, I focus largely on aviation – as a particularly conspicuous, carbon-emitting method of transportation for medium- to long-distance international travel, but also as the primary subject of enquiry in Brownlee’s (2023) thoughtful piece. Secondly, I am not proposing that the duties established below are to be enforced by any official state actor, or that punitive costs be implemented upon those who do not take up the relevant duties; even if there exist enforceable duties, the costs of state enforcement may outweigh the benefits of so doing on grounds of privacy violations, state power overreach, and other concerns with governmental intervention. A more reasonable interpretation is that academics should comply with these duties, or face pressure and public criticism by their colleagues for failing to do so. Thirdly, we are focusing on instances where academic conferences and exchange are the primary motivation for travel – as opposed to personally motivation (e.g. leisure and recreation) or emergency-induced travel (e.g. to see a dying family member).

Fourthly, I take as given the empirical connection between aviation-based travel and greenhouse gas and carbon emissions – within the foreseeable future, it is hard (though not impossible) to imagine a world where flights are completely carbon-neutral.[i] I also assume that greenhouse emissions do in fact cause climate change: I hope this is not controversial. Fifthly, whilst I am chiefly focusing on carbon emissions, the same argument also be applied to other greenhouse gases emitted by aviation, such as nitrous oxides. Sixthly, the primary actors (the “we”) here are the international community of academics, which I take to denote all individuals employed in teaching-track or research-track positions, and who are not graduate students, at higher education institutions across the world. Finally, I presume as a default that the duties we speak of are forward-looking and not centered or anchored in blame.

My argument proceeds as follows: I begin by explaining why carbon emissions are an instance of what Kagan (2011) and Nefsky (2012) term to be collective harms, prior to arguing that there exists a rough burden to reduce emissions that should be borne by all academics. I shall then initiate the substantive argument by exploring the reasons for which all academics are entitled to certain ‘guaranteed’ and ‘protected’ emissions – which in turn grants their tentative liberty right to travel, even if doing so produces more carbon emissions.

Beyond such entitlements, however, all academics are subjected to the two-stage test in determining the fair share of emission reduction for which they should be liable (even if in a non-enforceable manner). In the first stage, the Burden should be distributed proportionally (cf. Pasternak 2021) amongst all academics, relative to their past contribution towards, level of benefiting from, and consistency-driven aversion to travel-induced carbon emissions. In noting the contextual difficulties of applying these distributive principles, I then consider the case for having a second stage of non-proportional distribution that takes into consideration roughly individual agents’ ‘ability to bear’ the burden. I conclude by outlining implications.

Carbon Emissions and Collective Harms

Without belabouring the point too much, carbon emissions through aviation are an instance of collective harm. A helpful definition can be sought in Gunnemyr (2022), who suggests “in collective harm cases, bad consequences follow if enough people act in a certain way, even though no such act makes a difference for the worse” (p. 1). His cited examples include global warming, over-fishing, and the harmless torturers case introduced by Parfit (1984).

I take Nefsky’s (2023) view that our “collective consumer choices” can produce severe environmental and social consequences, even if – on surface – one individual act of consumption from one of us does not appear to have that much of a direct impact. Whether an individual academic travels from Oxford to Hong Kong for a conference will have a negligible impact on the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature, or number of hurricanes striking the East Coast each year. Yet when we consider the collective carbon footprint of the businesspersons, academics, and high-net-worth individuals regularly undertaking trans-continental and inter-continental long-haul trips, then the claim that significant carbon emissions can result from the travel conducted by the international academic community, would come across as less outlandish and far more conceivable.

We clearly possess pro tanto duties to refrain from contributing towards collective harms. These duties could be grounded in various ways: the Harm Principle advanced by Mill may not apply just to direct, unambiguous cases of harm, but also to cases where individuals are indirectly causing – through contributing towards a collective action – harm to other individuals. Indeed, Lawford-Smith (2016) has argued convincingly that even if no perceptible difference follows from a single flight, a single flight can trigger (by inducing a small, incremental change to the total volume of emissions) certain climate-change-centric harms and is hence morally relevant.

The following should hence be understood as a discussion over aversion of present and future collective harms. How should individuals discharge their responsibility to not contribute towards collective harms? What should their share of emission cuts be, in ensuring that the resultant distribution approach is broadly defensible?

Figuring Out the Emission Burden

Granting that as academics, we must each do our due share to minimise our present and future collective harms, we must first tackle the descriptive-empirical question – how much could our aviation-induced carbon emissions contribute to global warming? How much should each of us be expected to reduce in our current emissions? The following inevitably involves some rough approximations – I shall not engage necessarily in precise numerical calculations and prefer to leave that task to braver souls.

As a key undergirding premise, I take that significant harms would result if the Earth warms by over two degrees Celsius relative to pre-industrialisation levels, as stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Let us assume that the annual reduction in carbon emissions required for us to adhere firmly to a trajectory that would never cross the two-celsius limit, from this point onwards, is some K.

There are two reasons why I am focusing on the category of academics as compared with wider or narrower subsets. The first is parsimony: it is much easier to identify whether an individual is or is not an academic. The second is the fact that all academics operate with the same underlying role – one that is widely and stably recognised by the societies in which they are situated, as disseminators, producers, gatekeepers, and communicators of knowledge within institutions that are generally accredited and well-received as sites of authority.

Now, it is unlikely that the reduction stipulated here can be achieved through the efforts of all academics alone – the buy-in and participation of other actors are necessary, too. Yet this does not prevent us from considering the role academics can play in contributing their due share in shifting us away from the dangerous boundary. We shall hence focus on the responsibilities of academics, contra those of financiers, businesspersons, or manual workers.

How much of the K should be addressed through reducing aviation-related emissions? A rough approximation could be around 4%, given, as Ritchie (2024) argues, “aviation accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, but has contributed around 4% to global warming to date.” Indeed, it is also “one of the most carbon-intensive activities”. As such, to bring global warming within the two-celsius boundary, we are faced with a Total Emission Burden of 0.04K. As for how much of the 0.04K should be borne by academics in the world, a straightforward solution is to multiply K by the total number of all academics[ii] in the world, n, divided by the global population of 8,000,000,000. We should then end up with the per capita emission burden of 1 in 200 billionth of Kn.

Yet this figure does not factor into consideration what Carrington (2023) observes, that “the richest 10% of people in many countries cause up to 40 times more climate-heating carbon emissions than the poorest 10% of their fellow citizens”, which includes most tenure-track and permanent-position academics. Additionally, Ritchie (2024) notes that “just 10% of the world flies in most years.” Hence we must introduce further the coefficient P – one that denotes the factor by which the average (mean) academic travels more than the average-mean individual human being to fly. The base annual reduction to their emissions that the entire academic community should bear – on average – is hence 1 in 200 billionth of KnP. This hypothetical figure can be termed R, i.e. the international academic community’s Emission Burden.

Minimum Aviation Emission Entitlements

Prior to thinking about how R should be allocated amongst academics, I want to turn our attention to a valid objection to our approach: the claim that we should reduce emissions ignores seemingly valid reasons for which academics have to travel. For instance, what if the conference in question is the in-person annual meeting of one of the three American Philosophical Association (APA) divisions, and our hypothetical academic is a postdoc starting out, looking to harness the much-needed feedback to publish well-cited articles, as well as cultivate the in-field reputation to make the bid for a tenure-track position? Or what if there is a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a junior faculty member to interact in person with one of the greats in the field before she officially retires for good?

In relation to these potentially valid concerns, Shue’s (1993) seminal paper comes in handy. Shue differentiates between subsistence emissions, which are emissions “essential […] for either survival or decency” (p. 55) and luxury emissions, which are emissions that are not. Whilst agents are permitted to undertake the former, they possess a tentative duty to reduce the latter so long as their emissions exceed their fair share.

On surface, this distinction has limited applicability to academic travel, given that it is extremely unlikely that any academic travel is necessary for physical survival or decency. However, we can also contextually interpret decency through the particular lens of professional success in academia, to which academics are bound by their roles. Given the increasingly cutthroat nature of academic competition, it does not appear entirely implausible that there are certain role-specific necessities to which academics are entitled, in order for them to maintain, uphold, and remain in their roles over a more extended period of time. Tenure-track research faculty members do not need to publish to survive physically – but they do need to ‘pbulish’, or face academic ‘perishing’. We can treat these necessities as agent-relative prerogatives that impose limits not just to both consequentialist duties to maximise the good (Scheffler 1992), but also duties to avoid contributing towards collective harms.

When and how would these entitlements arise? I propose a two-pronged test: if some academic X’s travel on occasion T can be reasonably judged as 1) necessary to prevent significant setbacks to X’s academic career, in terms of her competitiveness within the job market, theoretical and academic knowledge, reputation and standing, and richness of social connections and experiences (necessity for harm-avoidance), and 2) such gains cannot be achieved through any other reasonably available alternatives (no reasonable alternative), then X’s travel for T is indeed something to which X is entitled, despite T’s emission-related harms. Should both 1) and 2) be satisfied, it may then be, all things considered, justified for X to travel via aviation.

This requires further unpacking. The necessity for harm-avoidance condition places the focus on possible harm, as opposed to possible gain. It is trivially true that most academics will want to travel to places because they hope to gain from the experience; indeed, given how pressed for time we are, we will unlikely travel to conferences and workshops that are not necessary or at least highly likely to contribute towards our career development. Such careerist attitudes may be lamentable from a puritan perspective yet are understandable and ubiquitous given the high-pressure environment that is academic philosophy. As such, to effectively pick out the individuals who truly need to travel from those who would benefit from travel, requires us to look for colleagues who would be severely disadvantaged by their inability to travel.

For instance, consider a hypothetical Institution Alpha that arbitrarily takes the number of overseas conferences and the follow-up invited articles in overseas publications as a necessary criterion for tenure approval; if a certain academic does not travel overseas to speak at and publish in compendiums following on from conferences, her portfolio competitiveness would be considerably lowered in the eyes of those vetting her for tenure. There are clear harms posed to academics in Institution Alpha who do not travel abroad. As such, they should not be, tentatively, required to reduce their aviation travel beyond the minimum required for them to remain competitive on the tenure track.

Yet in practice, the subset of academics with sizeable emission entitlements is considerably smaller than expected, as highlighted by the no reasonable alternative condition. As Brownlee (2023) notes, “the APA is preparing to host one of its three division meetings online each year, starting in 2025” (p. 1). Zoom-based interactions more than suffice in replicating the collegiate and interactive atmosphere required for sagacious feedback to be offered, and the COVID-19 pandemic has gone a long way in rendering online conferences increasingly acceptable across many fields and disciplines. Furthermore, the hosting of local conferences and turning to non-aviation alternative means of travel (e.g. cycling, train) could also enable individuals to make in-person conferences without flying. Finally, Institution Alpha academics who fail to receive tenure, can always shift to Institutions Beta or Gamma who would welcome them with more open arms. Indeed, the exact viability of these alternatives will depend on contextual factors, such as the size, diversity, and quality of one’s ‘home’ academic community, or the robustness of digital infrastructure where one is based – but these caveats do not defeat the general point: there are not that many academics who can claim absolute entitlements to travel via aviation.

Three Tentative Proportional Distribution Principles

Suppose we grant that all academics their very own emission entitlements, which clearly will vary from individual to individual. The further question then becomes: can we divide R in an intelligible fashion amongst all academics, in ways that do not contravene their entitlements? Suppose we begin with R divided by n, R/n, as the per capita default by which the average academic must reduce her aviation-induced emissions: some academics clearly should be held to higher requirements than R/n, whilst others should be held to lower requirements, if not no requirement to cut emissions at all, owing to a variety of considerations. Such considerations would lead us to pursue what Pasternak (2021) terms proportional distribution of liabilities for wrongdoings – we must look at the particular relation between the individual agent and the wrongdoing and assign different liabilities according to how closely connected the agent is with the wrongdoing (or injustice) in question.

The first principle I propose is the Polluter Pays Principle (PPP) (Caney 2005). The more an academic has previously contributed towards carbon emissions – through aviation (past trips) or other means, e.g. driving, the more reduction she has a tentative duty to accept, on grounds that she has played a greater role in causing the undesirable states-of-affairs at present.

Contrast D, an Associate Professor who travels frequently and has clocked up a fair number of airmiles, with E, a Chair Professor, who has thus far categorically refused to fly in her career: it is evident that D must reduce D’s aviation-produced emissions by far wider margins than E does, if at all. It is hence not age or seniority, but past pollution, that guides our allocation of the burden to reduce emissions in this case.

An interesting corollary – which one may find questionable from an egalitarian perspective – is that academics located in remote universities with no access to adjacent communities may find themselves flying more than those advantaged by being in highly clustered and concentrated urban centers of research (e.g. London, Cambridge in Massachusetts, the Bay Area in California), and hence ‘penalised’ by their need to cut more emissions going forward. The former group may have struggled to find jobs in more centrally located universities, whilst the latter group may have benefited from factors beyond their control. Does this not unduly privilege individuals who reside in these cities, whilst their counterparts in remote countryside towns and universities struggle? Perhaps there are cases where PPP runs into conflict with egalitarian considerations, though how to weigh between them is beyond this article’s scope.

The second principle comprises the Beneficiary Pays Principle (BPP), which is conceptually distinct from the PPP. Butt (2014) has argued that beneficiaries from wrongdoing possess tentative reasons to relinquish the benefits received, on grounds that i) individuals should be opposed to the occurrence of wrongdoing; ii) those who are opposed to occurrence of some wrongdoing, should do everything they can in offsetting the effects of said wrongdoing; iii) in failing to do as ii) suggests, individuals would be morally inconsistent and potentially fall into “moral slime territory”[iii]; iv) benefiting and refusing to disgorge benefits amounts to a case of moral slime-ness as per iii). Contribution towards emissions that cause climate change does amount to a wrongdoing – albeit one that we may be, under certain circumstances, be permitted to carry out given the strength of affirmative reasons. Individuals should indeed offset the effects of such wrongdoing; those who actively refuse to disgorge such benefits should hence be seen as behaving in a criticisable manner.

Now consider a case of pure benefiting without causation. The more an academic has benefited from carbon emissions – e.g. attending a local conference that has flown in heavyweights from far-away countries, thus acquiring invaluable feedback, insights, and friendships from these speakers, or working in a building that was built in a deeply unsustainable and high-emission manner – the more emission reduction she has the tentative duty to accept. This principle is vital in catching out ‘free-riders’ – individuals who do not themselves contribute towards carbon emissions yet have clearly profited off such emissions across sources including but not limited to aviation. Cutting down on aviation-based travel appears to be a straightforward, low-cost way for them to disgorge or refuse to benefit from carbon-emitting aviation.

The third principle – and one that builds off Butt’s rationale of the BPP – is the Moral Consistency Principle (MCP). Academics who dedicate their professional identities and research portfolios to the cause of advocating more awareness and action in response to the climate crisis, ought to be held to higher standards concerning their personal conduct.

Contrast two academics – J believes and advocates openly for action in response to the climate change crisis; L does not believe that the climate change crisis merits our attention or care. Whilst L could be held rightfully liable – in some other contexts – for her overt ignorance concerning the detriments of climate change, it is J who should, ceteris paribus, take on a greater burden to reduce emissions. This is for two reasons: firstly, it would be inconsistent of them to openly oppose anthropogenic global warming on one hand, whilst refusing to shoulder their fair share of responsibilities when it comes to such a significant component of the various causes of anthropogenic global warming; secondly, more climate change-oriented academics are likely to be more aware of the detriments and risks posed by their carbon emissions, and thus are less excusable for refusing to acknowledge their duties to avoid the collective harm caused by carbon emissions. The MCP is worthy of further exploration in future discussions.

A quick note on ordering: in this stage, the PPP, BPP, and MCP should be used in a roughly consecutive order – with the BPP being the first principle with which the distribution of R amongst academics should be decided. Only if the subset of individuals who can reasonably be deemed and held responsible under PPP, should we turn to the BPP and MCP to account for the remaining responsibility to reduce emissions. This is because our intuitions concerning responsibility track most strongly the view that perpetrators who intentionally and in a causally significant manner cause morally undesirable outcomes should take responsibility.

When we apply the three proportional distribution principles to the R/n default, we can see that: the more an individual has previously emitted, the more she has benefited from emissions, and the more morally aligned she is with the view that climate change must be stopped, the more above and beyond the average volume of R/n she is duty-bound to reduce in terms of cutting down on her aviation. On the other hand, the less pollution, benefiting, and moral alignment, the less the volume of emissions she is duty-bound to reduce.

The Case for Non-proportional Distribution

There are nevertheless two worries that render the proportional distribution approach difficult to implement. The first is the fact of non-compliance: not everyone will be persuaded by arguments such as those in this article; even if they are, they may have other overriding, non-moral reasons that render them unwilling to comply with the recommendations. A purely proportional approach would thus leave a responsibility shortfall in the face of a climate crisis that urgently requires redress.

The second is the worry that there exists far too much indeterminacy concerning the relevant facts at hand. Whilst we are not seeking a detailed policy proposal here, we are still looking for functional and tenable principles that can be readily applied in the real life. As structural injustice theorists often point out, it is often very difficult to disentangle causal contributions and identify precisely who causes how much wrongdoing or injustice – especially in instances where collective action is involved. Admittedly, it is possible to quantify our past pollution through looking at the total length of flights – as well as the carbon emission of aircrafts of – that we have flown on; yet this does not diminish the other concerns – that it would be difficult for us to determine how much individuals have benefited from prior emissions (per the BPP), or the extent to which an individual is actively opposed to climate change, and for which non-reduction in emission would be morally inconsistent.

The second worry is not insurmountable: it can be partially overcome through the development of more accurate approximation tools – as Lawford-Smith (2016) suggests, even as “the emissions associated with a single action might be far too fine-grained to be measured by our current technologies, that’s not an in-principle reason to think they cannot be measured. […Perhaps] one day personal impact trackers will be developed, and even if they’re not, that they could be.” Indeed, we may bear additional duties to devise accurate measurement counts to track carbon emissions by individuals.

With that said, the first worry remains potent. This is where the second stage of the proposal comes in: after applying PPP, BPP, MCP to all individuals, and upon the compliance by all responsive agents, the remaining duties should be distributed in broadly equally amongst all who have not discharged their duties. Pasternak (2021) terms this approach a non-proportional one. All individuals who belong to the international academic community, should thereby bear a roughly even portion of the remaining responsibility, with one distinct caveat.

This can be coupled with a rough version of the Ability to Pay (ATP) principle, which – here – holds that the more aviation-induced carbon emissions the academic can afford to reduce without significantly compromising her quality of life or professional advancement (per Section IV above), the more emissions she possesses a duty to cut. The more senior and well-endowed an academic is, the likelier it is that she will not be severely impacted by an inability to undertake an overseas trip – indeed, whole conferences may be moved or cancelled based on the attendance and presence of the anchoring keynote speaker, who is viewed to be non-fungible with other possible keynote speakers.[iv]

There hence remains an element of individualisation at this stage of the proposal. Individuals must try to find out more about whether they can cut their aviation travel. They should also hold one another individually responsible through reminding them of the need to reduce – wherever is possible – their aviation-centric carbon footprints. When in doubt, junior academics could perhaps be forgiven and excused for thinking that it is better that they attend – in lieu of missing out on – as many in-person, prominent conferences relevant to their fields as possible. Yet senior academics are likely to know – and with good reasons, too – that they will be far less adversely affected. Across both subsets, individuals must carefully weigh and consider where and when their cutting down on emissions is in fact viable. Through these steps, the hope is that the remaining burden can be adequately resolved in this stage.

However, if there are certain individuals who refuse to comply with the ATP-based proportional distribution requirements, and who refuse to reduce at all their emissions, we are hence confronted by a tougher question – how should the compliant academics respond? An intuitive thought may be that they should not be required to do more than their fair share, though Stemplowska (2016) makes a compelling case for us to think otherwise. In delineating her Responsive View, she argues that there exists enforceable duties for one to do one’s fair share, as well as taking up the slack when others do not do so. When applied to the aviation context, the urgency of the matter at hand – ameliorating climate change, given the impact it has on its victims – renders it the utmost imperative that academics bear more than a fair burden.

The two stages – both proportional and non-proportional – are complementary. The reasons why the proportional approach is insufficient, are relatively clear from the above. The reason why we will not exclusively adopt the non-proportional approach, is because doing so would leave out important, backward-looking considerations pertaining to individuals’ contribution to, benefiting from, and specific attitudes towards carbon emissions.

Conclusion

What are some of the upshots that follow from the above? The most intuitive answer is that where appropriate, we academics should aim to reduce overall emissions through pursuing i) fewer, ii) shorter, and iii) more carbon-friendly flights. We should aim to tailor our annual travel plans in accordance with the emission reduction targets we set – and ensure that at the very least, we fulfil the minimal share that is required of us.

Beyond such direct duties, we may also possess duties to host and publicly advocate online or hybrid events, normalising the trend of locally held conferences, workshops, and talks that bring in external speakers via online platforms (e.g. Zoom). Going forward, universities should invest into technology that can enable academics to replicate and simulate a real-life conference through virtual spaces – e.g. the Metaverse and virtual hallways (via augmented reality) come to mind as possible intermediaries. Finally, we possess duties to develop more precise measuring and tracking tools for carbon emissions, such that our reduction efforts can be carried out with less practical limitation and greater accuracy.

To fly or not to fly, that is the question. Answering this question requires us to be sensitive to the legitimate reasons for which academics are entitled to travel, but also acknowledge that we must each do our fair share – sometimes more than our share – in order to save our planet. We could do worse than engaging in public philosophy.

[i] Cabot 2023.

[ii] Price 2011 has estimated that this number comes in at around 6.16 million, but I remain somewhat sceptical of the methodology used, the veracity of the numbers, and also how up-to-date the calculations and data in his account.

[iii] For more discussions on the BPP, see Bazargan-Forward 2021 and Barry and Kirby 2015, amongst others.

[iv] This in fact, in turn, may generate further responsibilities (and corresponding permissions) on the part of certain keynote speakers to undertake said flight-based travel, if online presentation and conferencing is not a viable option.

References

Barry, Christian, and Kirby, Robert, 2015. “Scepticism about Beneficiary Pays: A Critique”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 34, 3, 285 – 300.

Bazargan-Forward, Saba, 2021. “Grounding the Beneficiary Pays Principle”, in Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy Volume 8, Oxford University Press, 1 – 36.

Brownlee, Kimberley, 2023. “When is it acceptable to fly for academic work?”, PEA Soup of the Day.

Butt, Daniel, 2014. “’A Doctrine Quite New and Altogether Untenable’: Defending the Beneficiary Pays Principle”, Journal of Applied Philosophy, 31, 4, 336 – 348.

Cabot, Cyrielle, 2023. “Will travelling by plane ever be carbon neutral? Researchers have their doubts”, France 24, https://www.france24.com/en/environment/20230620-will-travelling-by-plane-ever-be-carbon-neutral-researchers-have-their-doubts.

Caney, Simon, 2005. “Cosmopolitan Justice, Responsibility, and Global Climate Change”, Leiden Journal of International Law, 18 (4), 747-775.

Carrington, Damian, 2023. “Revealed: the huge climate impact of the middle classes”, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/nov/20/revealed-huge-climate-impact-of-the-middle-classes-carbon-divide.

Gunnemyr, Mattias, 2022. “Making a vague difference: Kagan, Nefsky and the Sorites Paradox”, Inquiry, online = https://doi.org/10.1080/0020174X.2022.2052351.  

John, Menozzi, Clare, Bassarsky, Lina, and Gu, Danan, 2023. “As the World’s Population Surpasses 8 Billion, What Are the Implications for Planetary Health and Sustainability?”, United Nations UN Chronicle, online = https://www.un.org/en/un-chronicle/world-population-surpasses-8-billion-what-are-implications-planetary-health-and.

Kagan, Shelly, 2011. “Do I Make A Difference”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 39, 2, 105 – 141.

Lawford-Smith, Holly, 2016. “Difference-making and Individuals’ Climate-related Obligations”, in Clare Heyward and Dominic Roser (eds.), Climate Justice in a Non-Ideal World, Oxford University Press, 64 – 82.

Nefsky, Julia, 2012. “Consequentialism and the Problem of Collective Harm: A Reply to Kagan”, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 39, 4, 364 – 395.

Nefsky, Julia, 2023. “Participation, Collective Impact, and Your Instrumental Significance”, Journal of Practical Ethics, 11, 1.

Parfit, Derek, 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford University Press.

Pasternak, Avia, 2021. Responsible Citizens, Irresponsible States. Oxford University Press.

Price, Richard, 2011. “The number of academics and graduate students in the world”, Richard Price.io, online = https://richardprice.io/post/12855561694/the-number-of-academics-and-graduate-students-in.

Ritchie, Hannah, 2024. “What share of global CO₂ emissions come from aviation?”, Our World in Data, online = https://ourworldindata.org/global-aviation-emissions.

Scheffler, Samuel, 1992. “Prerogatives Without Restrictions”, Philosophical Perspectives, 6, 377 – 397.

Shue, Henry, 1993. “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions”, Law and Policy, 15 (1), 39 – 60.

Stemplowska, Zofia, 2016. “Doing more than one’s fair share”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 19 (5), 591 – 608.

17 Replies to “Soup of the Day – Climate Change and Academic Travel, with contributions from Kimberley Brownlee and Brian Wong

  1. Thanks to Kimberley for her timely call to arms on climate change within academia, and Brian for their fantastic essay in response. I am sure this will be a topic of interest to many of us.

    There are two thoughts I had while reading this.

    First, I wondered how we should make sense of the problem of overdetermination. Put simply, it doesn’t look like any individual academic refusing to fly, nor all academics refusing to fly, will do much (if anything) to meaningfully reduce the serious harms of climate change, assuming that business as usual carries on elsewhere. If this is the case, can we really say that academics are required to bear many (any?) costs at all in the name of reducing emissions? To give a case: suppose A and B can only get to an island to retrieve a treasure chest if they each use a boat. However, both boats are very polluting, and if either A or B makes the voyage, this will cause an oil spill that will harm the ecosystem severely. (Of course, it would therefore be wrong for either agent to use their boats to get the island.) Now, suppose A wrongfully makes the journey and gets his treasure. The oil spill has therefore happened. Or suppose that A has given B *very* good reason to think the journey and oil spill will happen, given A’s words and actions. Would it be wrong for B to make his voyage and get his treasure now? Assuming this would not contribute meaningfully to the harms already or destined to be unleashed, I do not think it would obviously be wrong – the marginal contribution of harm would be negligible, and the journey would be very good for B. Maybe B *ought* to go. Of course, the empirical reality in the climate case could well be different, and things might not be as overdetermined as I am insinuating here, so I am happy to be corrected on this point. But I think this is at least a challenging idea to the intuitive view that academics should do less travelling, at least for harm-based reasons.

    Second, I thought the idea of taking up the slack was an interesting one – and it is generally a move I agree with in rescue cases and such. But I wondered whether, if taken seriously – and assuming that the marginal impact of an academic was non-trivial, flying is necessary to build a career etc. – the duty to take up the slack really amounts to a duty for academics to do exit academia before they’ve started. Perhaps, fledging academics should hang up their dreams so they can atone for their polluting and pollutant professors. Maybe this also applies to academics generally who would need to travel to make a good go of it – leave academia to take up the slack for oil rig workers, financiers, and so on. In short, I wondered whether slack taking would have quite dramatic implications for the permissibility of becoming or remaining an academic in some cases. This is a bit of a sad thought (to me at least), and I would be interested in hearing what people make of it.

  2. As someone who lives more or less at the end of the world – in Dunedin, Aotearoa, one of the few places can get a coffee and watch albatrosses and penguins – I absolutely do miss the relative proximity of other countries. (I do not miss the UK, currently locked into a reactionary death spiral, so much as the fact that Portugal (and the University of Minho’s political theory conference) was only two hours away by plane.)

    Brian’s thoughts on the distribution of burdens within academia are compelling, and I do not think I can add much, by way of comment, to the argument.

    However, something that I think also needs to be considered in all this, is the specifically communicative dimension of what academics might achieve if, collectively, they took these demands seriously and made efforts to limit their travel for work. We are – or have been – very lucky that we get to do jobs that are 1) far more enjoyable than the average and 2) offer opportunities for international travel, on the end of which we can always tack a few days extra for some R&R.

    As we saw with the Le mouvement des Gilets jaunes, there can be considerable resentment when the burdens associated with policies intended to address climate change are not proportionate in terms of their impact. There is also, rightly or wrongly, a lot of resentment against XR for the perceived middle-class demographics of their members. As an erstwhile member of XR in London, I did cringe whenever I heard well-heeled (and well-intentioned) activists describe, without irony, the ways in which they have, in contrast to Brexit-supporting Brits, benefitted from international travel.

    A self-imposed restriction on our own travel-for-work might well demonstrate an important willingness to sacrifice one of the boons of academic labour as a small gesture of solidarity with other working people. It might also help align us, in some small way, with working people against the very rich, many of whom are not just responsible for high emissions but for funding and supporting the reactionary politics of climate denial and/or putting the brakes on the radical policy changes we need toward a politics of de-growth.

    When it comes to tackling the shortfalls of online conferencing, which are real, perhaps part of what we, as “disseminators, producers, gatekeepers, and communicators of knowledge” might also need to do, is work harder to create those opportunities for ambient sociability that online conferences do not really afford. Once flying no longer features as something we are allowed to do, I am sure we will figure it out.

    What the new online academic culture will look like will require some imagination, but there are, surely, things we can do to make up for what we lose at face-to-face conferences. Indeed, for some – the shy or introverted – maybe a bit of online mediation might help them muster up the courage to grasp that “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity … to interact in person with one of the greats in the field before she officially retires for good”.

  3. Thanks to Brian and Kimberley for this interesting exchange!

    Brian. I wasn’t quite sure what you meant when referring to “absolute entitlements” to travel, and hence what just which rights you are debating. Do these refer to rights to emit without matching your emissions with corresponding removals? The moniker absolute, at least suggests this, and I take it that Shue thought that what he called subsistence emissions had this status. In that case, I think it may be very difficult indeed to justify any such entitlements for any academics at all, given that offsets are, at present, relatively inexpensive. But if you mean instead that those with such entitlements are permitted to travel, but only so long as they match their emissions with removals, then it wasn’t clear to me why a great many academics wouldn’t possess such entitlements, and why they would need to fly a lot less only when the alternative was prohibitively costly for them. If I live a carbon neutral lifestyle by always matching my emissions with offsets, why shouldn’t I be able to fly? That is, why not think that few (if any) of us have absolute entitlements to travel (without offsetting) but that most of us have conditional entitlements to emit, so long as we offset (or others do so on our behalf–say when a university commits to offsetting the travel of all its academics)?

    One way to block the sort of position I’ve just suggested is to be skeptical that emissions removals can be reliably secured (so we lack the conditional entitlements). Another way to block it would be to argue that, even though a person that matches emissions with removals does not impose risk (on balance) on climate vulnerable people, there is something else that is wrong with their conduct (for example, given that offsetting opportunities are limited, perhaps each of us has a fair share that we should not exceed as a means of reducing our carbon footprint, that living a high-emissions lifestyle sends the wrong signals to others even when we offset, and so on..) Your piece doesn’t go into these issues, so I wasn’t sure what you had in mind. My general sense, though, is that the ethics of academic travel can’t really be detached from the ethics of carbon offsetting.

    One thing that strikes me about your piece in relation to Brian’s, Kimberley, is that he seems mainly to be focused on what are the obligations of individuals with respect to academic travel, given prevailing norms and customs of academic life. You, by contrast, invite us to think collectively about how to reshape our academic practices in ways th no longer so strongly incentivize lots of travel. While both topics are important, I think the one you emphasize has received considerably less attention than the one Brian discusses. It seems that if we are indeed to reduce academic travel, we need to become much more innovative in creating alternative means of exchange. For one thing, our existing alternatives just aren’t that great—so I guess I disagree with Brian here about the substitutability of Zoom, at least in its current form, for many academic purposes. For another, the professional costs of not travelling depend in large measure on how much others are travelling. If some suitably reimagined virtual forum is how people typically meet, then the costs of reducing travel are substantially lessened. It seems quite unlikely that lots of academics are going to sharply reduce their travel if this puts them either at a competitive disadvantage and/or causes them to lose access to valuable networks (of course, Brian may be right that we nevertheless act wrongly if we continue to travel intensively as a result.) That’s why the work of groups like Philosophers for Sustainability seems quite important: they are thinking creatively about how to re-orient our practices so that the costs of reduced travel are lessened for all, rather than relying principally on moral suasion to convince individual academics that they really ought to travel less.

  4. Thank you for these engaging pieces. This is a conversation that is sorely needed in academia!

    To revise the norms in academia surrounding air travel, I think we should be stigmatising extensive flying for conferences and in-person only events, and we should praise alternative forms of travel and hybrid/online conferencing. Stigmatising flying and in-person only events is one way in which the duty not to fly could be “enforced”. When someone is organising an in person conference, it is their duty to maintain a hybrid option and encourage other forms of travel, even if this duty imposes a high cost on them, and they should be praised by the rest of us when they fulfil this duty. One reason why many (in Europe, at least) fly is because they lack time and money to afford to take more climate-friendly travel routes, such as the train, the bus, or even driving/ride-sharing. In contexts where long distance flights aren’t needed, we should be providing more conference funding (especially to grad students) dedicating to alternative travel options, and if we create a culture where flying is stigmatised people will be more willing to spend their time on alternatives forms of travel. This would go a long way to having the best of both worlds: academic engagement in person, but with minimal impact on the climate.

    In contexts where long distance flights are needed, Kimberley and Brian’s considerations will be relevant, but I agree with Christian’s comment that this is only if we consider air travel among and alongside the numerous other activities that an individual might also be engaged in, i.e. their carbon footprint as a whole (do they own and use a car? What’s their diet/do they eat animal products? How many new as opposed to used items do they buy? Do they fly for leisure trips?). This isn’t a major feature of Kimberley and Brian’s exchange, but I’m not sure we can meaningfully think about the ethics of flying for work without including considerations about a person’s lifestyle as a whole.

  5. Many thanks to Kimberley and Brian for their thoughts and generating a discussion on this extremely important issue.

    Here’s two thoughts.

    First, I think to make progress here it is important to go to first principles and consider what the point of academic research and events are and then ask to what extent emissions-intensive travelling is actually necessary to realize those. We can ask this in two ways: (a) Is the latter needed here and now given the ways things are set up? And (b) Can academics re-design academic practices in ways that realize the intellectual goods in ways that do not involve (so much/ or indeed any) emissions-intensive travelling? Or is the latter an ineradicable feature of a properly functioning academic system?

    Kimberley you wrote that “our work involves receiving peer-feedback and disseminating our research, which continues to mean travelling to conferences and host institutions to engage face-to-face with communities of scholars”. It is not clear to me why “receiving peer-feedback and disseminating our research” does always necessarily require “travelling to conferences and host institutions to engage face-to-face with communities of scholars”. Indeed, this online forum with two excellent statements by you and Brian and the ensuing comments by others is a great counter-example! Plus this has a much greater potential audience. More generally, academics can, of course, receive peer review and disseminate research in many ways that do not involve travelling. They can of course publish research; they can get feedback from others with shared interests. In addition there is a variety of different kinds of conference they can organize or attend. For example, some have held ones in which people post their paper online, a commentator then posts a response, then other participants can write comments (akin to this forum). I have participated in ones like this that were scheduled to last over 10 days. This has several advantages – speaking for myself the questions I ask are better and my answers are more considered. Then we have ones where people present online – including ones in which there are online rooms in which people can chat afterwards. We have unparalleled capacities to communicate across the world.
    My main point: I think there’s a tendency to think that intellectual engagement necessarily requires airflight whereas I think that the link between the two is often quite tenuous even now, let alone in the future.

    A second point: When considering in-person conferences and alternative ways of engaging with each other it is also worth bearing in mind not just the advantages that some find in in-person conferences but also the non-climate related disadvantages often attached to them. For example, in-person conferences penalize those who lack the research funds to pay conference fees, travel and accommodation. They penalize those with care-related responsibilities which mean that travel is not possible or requires costly alternative arrangements. They also penalize those with mobility-constraining disabilities. And international in-person conferences disadvantage those who lack what Rachel Fraser and Tushar Menon have called ‘passport privilege’ (https://blog.apaonline.org/2023/06/19/navigating-living-philosophy-on-passport-privilege/). As they chronicle, those with passports from certain countries face enormous obstacles in attending international conferences. (All the online conferences I have attended have been much more inclusive than in-person ones.) With these in mind – and the climate related concerns that have been raised here – it seems to me that at the very least major conferences ought to make far more provision for online participation.

  6. “Wong says that “We clearly possess pro tanto duties to refrain from contributing towards collective harms.” He then asks “How should individuals discharge their responsibility to not contribute towards collective harms?” I mean, not flying is the obvious answer, right?! My approach would be to proceed from this starting point and see if we can find any strong, counter-balancing reasons against this pro tanto duty.

    Of course I acknowledge that each instance of not-flying makes a negligible difference. But the flying that currently goes on, in the face of a climate emergency, has symbolic significance. Given that it is widely known that flying is a high-carbon-emitting activity, it says: “This isn’t a serious threat” and “I am not responsible”.

    I think, because people like flying, the professional benefits of flying (for the average academic) are being exaggerated. Wong asks us to imagine: “a postdoc starting out, looking to harness the much-needed feedback to publish well-cited articles, as well as cultivate the in-field reputation to make the bid for a tenure-track position?” This describes my own situation. But despite that being my situation, I have never flown for work (the last flight I took was in 2020, and I have no plans to fly this year). And I’m doing okay – I have a good network of contacts, have lots of people willing to review my work, get plenty of invitations to stuff, etc. There are costs, and, since I don’t have a permanent job, I don’t know how much of a cost these will amount to for me. But we really need to recognise, as Barry emphasises, that the costs that I face largely depend on the “prevailing norms and customs of academic life”. I’ve turned down invitations that I would have liked to accept. I’m missing out on some fun trips, where I’d make new contacts and potentially start new projects. And this affects my status on the job market. But these costs would be greatly reduced if other people were doing the same as me.
    The idea that you need to receive face-to-face feedback on a paper is just not true. And at least in countries where the discipline is well-represented in universities (I am in the UK, and I realise everywhere isn’t like this!), I do not think it is true that “flying is necessary to build a career”. Also, it is worth noting that I have formed friendships with other philosophers exclusively online, during the pandemic, which I think are comparable (and indeed have been more long-lasting) than many of the friendships I have made at conferences.

    This response has been more personal experience, rather than philosophical argumentation. But I wanted to contribute these thoughts, to open people up more to the possibilities of a happy career without flying.

    I really hope that, as well as engaging in this discussion about formulae and just distributional principles, people actually just stop flying so much.”

  7. Many thanks Kim and Brian for this very thoughtful discussion.

    On the 2 degrees target in the 2015 Paris Agreement, which Brian takes as a starting point. The scientific consensus is no longer that 2 degrees is sufficient to avoid significant harm. In 2018 the IPCC published a special report on the impacts of over 1.5 degrees heating (https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/) which concluded that there was a very significant nonlinear difference between the scale and severity of impacts at 1.5 compared to 2 degrees. If the harms associated with additional emissions beyond 1.5 are more severe than assumed by the 2 degrees target, this creates a stronger duty to avoid flying and diminishes the space for that duty to be outweighed by other considerations.

    On carbon offsetting, which Christian discusses in comments. Unfortunately the evidence is now fairly conclusive that many offsetting schemes do not deliver the benefits that they claim. The best-case scenario is that the use of (more expensive) limited high-quality offsetting schemes could be justifiable where activities really are essential for a significant public good, but this is unlikely to cover most academic air travel. Even then, one might argue that the offsetting schemes are needed in addition to direct emissions, so the duty ought to be to fund the ‘offset’ AND reduce one’s direct emissions.

  8. Thanks, Kimberley and Brian, for your thought-provoking and timely posts, and to Charlie, David, Christian, and Matt for the follow-ups.

    For what it’s worth, my sense is that insofar as we see a special problem for academics to solve here, distinct from the climate and environmental problems that we must solve as members of our polities and of humanity, the most promising way for us to go about it is to be imaginative collectively and politically, as Kimberley’s, David’s, and Christian’s posts suggest, rather than think in terms of the individual moral cost-benefit analyses and associated proposals for accountability norms that are more naturally suggested by Brian’s and Matt’s posts. And I say this as someone who: (a) like Kimberley, feels deeply uncomfortable flying at all any more, and therefore prefers to forgo it anyway; and (b) is naturally inclined to be highly judgmental and moralistic, and so would find it quite congenial to start blaming people for flying. (I should stress that I take no pride in this.)

    There may be quite a bit we can do inside our institutions to encourage policies that allow people to do philosophy and progress in their careers without having to fly. For example, university expenses policies can be reformed so that slower and more expensive modes of travel are explicitly permitted or indeed favoured; perhaps investments can be made in virtual conference set-ups that are superior to the standard Zoom format; we can perhaps coordinate our activities so that there are fewer, larger conferences and related travel needs; we can perhaps create new forums in which early-career colleagues (especially those not already at institutions or in areas with high concentrations of philosophers) have the chance to give papers or try out ideas in some way and get paper-developing feedback of the sort for which we standardly take conference and workshop presentations to provide the paradigm opportunity; and we can in other ways fight such pressure to publish as makes flying to conferences seem necessary. There must be many other ways in which things can be done differently too. Excellent philosophers in the past presumably did not need to attend lots of conferences in order to do their work, and despite the professionalisation of the discipline and what I suppose must be the greater geographical dispersion of colleagues, it’s not altogether obvious that we need to to do ours.

    Meanwhile, insofar as the climate and environmental crisis is a political problem, there may be much more that we can do by engaging with it as one—that is, by thinking about what kind of power we have, what possibilities of alliance and influence, beyond power over whether we fly and how we organise our conferences, and how we can best use it. Of course, Kimberley’s question at the outset was specifically about academics’ travel, so it’s entirely appropriate that the responses above have engaged with that question. And I don’t want to suggest that the carbon footprint of academics’ travel is unimportant. But as in other cases, perhaps there is a risk that a preoccupation here with consumer choices allows us (perhaps not without some only half-acknowledged relief) to avert our gaze from the complex political problem—perhaps even to acquiesce in some of its systematic causes—and avoid the frequently unrewarding grind of engaging with it. It seems to me likely that what Leif Wenar says in the salutary last paragraph of ‘Poverty is No Pond’ is as apt here as it is in the case of severe poverty that is his focus.

  9. Simon, Christina, and Keith: you all posted while I was still writing my post—that’s why mine doesn’t mention or engage with yours at all, despite being posted after them. Apologies!

  10. Many thanks to Kimberley and Brian for these engaging pieces.

    One thing I’m thinking about is whether there is anything to be said in favour of senior philosophers having more leeway to fly. (I write this as a graduate student, and I agree with Kimberley and Brian that the opposite is more obviously compelling.) One relevant factor here is the agent’s expected contribution to scholarship. On the assumption that, by flying to conferences and workshops, an average senior academic is likely to contribute more to scholarship than a junior one, this may be one reason to favour the former flying. When applied to some other disciplines, the point does seem plausible. If one must choose between enabling a senior vaccine researcher to fly to an important international conference, and enabling a junior researcher to attend, there may be a reason to choose the former. A junior researcher may gain more from attending the conference (which may also mean that she will contribute more in the long term); she may thus enjoy priority all things considered. But there may be scenarios – such as a global pandemic – in which the agent’s prospective contribution (in the short term) matters more than how much she will benefit by attending (Brian’s discussion focuses on the latter). Is philosophy somehow different? That seems to depend on the nature of philosophical knowledge.

  11. Greetings everyone – apologies for the delay as have been away for a couple of days, looking forward to chewing into and responding to the wonderful thoughts and contributions by everyone over the next two-three days!

    Best,
    Brian

  12. Thank you to everyone for their thoughtful contributions to this discussion.

    Thank you to Brian for proposing a two-part test to determine when one is entitled to fly for work, and for exploring various principles that could guide a productive culture change. Homing in on specifics, I agree with Brian, Christian, and Tom that identifying innovative alternatives, for both individual academics and the community as a whole, is a productive way forward. I’ve listed a few rough-and-ready ideas at the bottom.

    In response to Charlie, while it’s true that academics collectively reducing their air miles – or refusing to fly – might not meaningfully mitigate the climate crisis, a culture change in academia might trigger a cascade in other domains since revolving doors exist between academia and politics, NGOs, and business. Moreover, even in the absence of a (meaningful) cascade, there is expressive value in a community – particularly a well-educated community that takes climatology seriously – walking-the-walk of its espoused commitments. There is solidaristic value in this expression too, as David notes.

    Simon is right to stress that disseminating work and receiving peer-feedback do not require travel, but I believe we still think the gold-standard for these activities involves a face-to-face encounter. For instance, if a person lists a talk on their CV as ‘online’, it may seem less prestigious because no one footed a bill to bring them in. Such thinking – which hopefully is becoming rapidly outdated – is a concern for early career colleagues. That said, I am heartened by Christina’s comments that, despite not travelling recently, she has a good network and receives many invitations.

    Kida’s comment is a thought-provoking counterpoint to Brian’s focus on ‘title’. In some cases, what matters may be not whether an academic is entitled to travel, but whether their travel is justified based on the value of their message reaching a certain audience (in person).

    Micro-changes
    • Thank you to Christian for highlighting Philosophers for Sustainability whose online-accessibility pledge I have now signed. It would be good to see entire Departments make online-accessibility commitments. In addition, Departments might invest more in tech that improves hybrid events, and provide targeted funding to colleagues who organise online-accessible events: https://www.philosophersforsustainability.com/accessibility-pledge/
    • The Philosophers for Sustainability might create a second pledge for speakers, especially established colleagues, to ask their prospective hosts: 1) May I speak virtually with the local community congregating in-person? (This is my favourite setup, as it offers attendees the benefits of face-to-face discussion.) 2) If an online-accessible event isn’t an option, may I recommend a local person or an early-career person as an alternative speaker? 3) If I travel, what would be the most energy efficient way to do it? If this lengthens the trip, could my department accommodate that and my host help to fund it? As Matt notes, many European academics fly frequently because other modes of travel are time-consuming and more costly. 4) If I travel, could I bunch together several activities into one trip?

    For early-career colleagues, here is an example of innovative networking from L.A. Paul: ‘To get into a PhD program in philosophy after college, I had to do some philosophy. So I enrolled in Antioch’s independent-study MA program, which had no formal classes: you designed your own program. First, I went to India and studied Buddhist philosophy at a monastery. …It wasn’t for me…I came back from India intending to take a different sort of approach. Quentin Smith, who was visiting Antioch at the time, agreed to supervise me, and I worked on a paper for him on the philosophy of time. I then wrote to a number of well-known philosophers, asking each of them if they would supervise a course-by-mail, consisting of my writing letters to them about their work, getting responses from them, and ultimately providing comments on a paper I wrote. Nancy Cartwright, Lynne Rudder Baker and Nathan Oaklander agreed to do this for me. They were all extremely generous with their time, and I owe all three of them, along with Quentin, an enormous debt.’ https://www.newappsblog.com/2011/05/new-apps-interview-la-paul.html This course-by-mail use of letters fits with Tom’s observation that, in the past, philosophers managed to engage with each other and to influence public debate without too-easy travel.

    Such micro-measures may soften the ground for more comprehensive culture shifts.

  13. Part 1

    Charlie

    Charlie – thank you. I most certainly think overdetermination poses an issue to my account, and, more generally, attempts to parcel responsibilities (even in a non-proportional manner, per Pasternak) amongst individuals. The problem is somewhat blunted by the adoption of a collective/imperceptible harms framework (which I tried to do), but consider the fact that a flight is likely to take off even with one less passenger signed onto it (though will likely be cancelled or rerouted eventually if the passenger demand persistently stays lower than and is outstripped by the excess supply of flights) – it’s unclear how significant, if at all, the ‘contribution’ made by one individual to the total emissions in fact is.

    Yet even in this case, there may be supplementary principles/considerations arising from i) indirect benefits – e.g. expressive value – of my opting to not fly, i.e. norm-setting, ii) considerations of consistency and aptness – e.g. it is apt that I do not partake in an emission-contributing activity, which in turn ground my responsibilities to reduce aviation and travel.

    Agreed with what you said about the duty to take up the slack not being as important as most would like it to be – hence why I’d start with the presumption that all academics are entitled to, based on their own circumstances, *some* minimal emission quotas, and take that as the starting point. With that said, I can also see value in developing a more complete theory and account of permissible, supererogatory/suberogatory reasons for which individuals become academics. All in all, very interesting thoughts.

    David

    I think what you said about the communicative dimension is very important – how do we transform or shape norms, and alter collective beliefs (or, even, heuristics concerning how and when we travel?). Perhaps what’s needed is some sort of conceptual engineering (cf. Cappelen) that alters our understanding of academic travel – i.e. travelling can also be virtual, online, metaverse-based etc.

    Christian

    Thank you, Christian – I must confess I wasn’t thinking (and that’s a fault on my part) too much about off-setting, but would now argue that “absolute entitlements” come with a) correlated responsibilities to offset wherever possible, though b) the failure to offset would not amount to a morally blameworthy act, unlike c) the deliberate and intentional emissions beyond the minimum, i.e. not taking up the responsibility to cut emissions. I suppose that would be the primary difference between the minimal entitlements and emissions beyond these entitlements.

    The underlying problem, of course, is that my account, as it stands, does not factor into consideration the many other ways we can offset our carbon footprints (I made the tentative suggestion that we should treat each sphere of carbon emission atomistically – i.e. focus on aviation here, and then contemplate what we ought to do with recycling elsewhere, and the two need not be interlinked; this is obviously too vanilla an approach).

    I am also open to the second way of blocking this thought that you suggested, though of course the question then becomes: to what extent does my emitting beyond the minimum send out the detrimental message flagged, i.e. “It is permissible to emit as much as you want, if it’s for an academic cause!”

    And I certainly concur with the need to reflect upon the collective (and even structural) dimensions of the question. One low-hanging fruit is duties to reform existing a) institutions of academic conferencing, b) tenure strength assessing, and c) networking patterns and practices, to ensure that they are better-aligned with a low-emission/reduced-travel world that accounts for the climate crises and challenges.

  14. Part 2

    Part 2
    Matt
    I like the idea of proactive norm engineering and rewiring. I suppose the follow-up questions would be: a) who should be leading this, and b) do the identities and rhetoric with which such norm reshaping take place matter when it comes to the manifestation of the message – i.e. is there a worry that this becomes more experienced and senior academics chiding junior academics for doing things that they had previously done twenty to thirty years ago? If so, are there concerns about receptiveness and potential backlash? I also think what you said, Matt, about leisure trips and non-academic trips is certainly germane. I’d left the related considerations out of my discussion as I thought it’d be hard to do justice to these claims – one way or another.
    Simon
    Thank you, Simon. Your work on this topic – and many others – speaks volumes to the importance of philosophy in shaping public discourses and understanding of the ethics of climate change. I think your second point on the alternative considerations is incredibly fair and should point towards both duties on part of conference organisers to reform the way things work, as well as duties on the part of academics to press for subtle but important reimaginations of academic conferencing. 
    As for the first point concerning necessity – I share your view that there are fair and decent substitutes (maybe not just zoom, but also blogs, Reddit, online fora etc.), though I suppose there is an added dimension to academic conferences, i.e. the social, that individuals may find hard to replicate if they just don’t “feel” the online/post-pandemic zoom modus operandi. Maybe the solution is to train and equip academics with the skills to build friendships online – though who should do it?
    Christina
    Very fair point and I share your hope that we should take seriously the climate crisis as it stands – stopping flying so much isn’t a bad heuristic to go by at all. I also concur with you that flying is not necessary to build a career — for some academics. Though the counterpoint may be that for others who struggle with navigating a wholly flight-less career, are they permitted to, if not entitled to, flying? I suppose this is why the ‘absolute minimum emission levels’, per my framework, will vary from academic to academic. If I can co-opt and achieve most of the benefits of flying without flying, I shouldn’t be up in arms about folks telling me not to fly.
    Keith
    I stand corrected – thank you for pointing this out.
    And the off-setting empirics you raise is germane in backing up the second way suggested by Christian when it comes to blocking the challenge.
    Tom
    One question I’ve been thinking about in my own work is the different ways in which climate change presents as structural injustices that behove a Youngian solution – the kind of collective, political action required to alter not just structures of power, but also norms governing practices and routines. The worry and question by some, of course, is where we should start. But I think the answers are fairly straightforward – we begin with communities in which we have the greatest potential influence, e.g. university boards, departments, fellow colleagues, students and post-docs who work with us, and then proceed onto communities that require more coordination and elevation in power applied, in order to sway and influence. All in all, there is no reason why we shouldn’t adopt a political solution to what is clearly a political and politicised question.
    On Thu, 16 May 2024 at 08:59, Brian Wong wrote:
    Part 1
    Charlie
    Charlie – thank you. I most certainly think overdetermination poses an issue to my account, and, more generally, attempts to parcel responsibilities (even in a non-proportional manner, per Pasternak) amongst individuals. The problem is somewhat blunted by the adoption of a collective/imperceptible harms framework (which I tried to do), but consider the fact that a flight is likely to take off even with one less passenger signed onto it (though will likely be cancelled or rerouted eventually if the passenger demand persistently stays lower than and is outstripped by the excess supply of flights) – it’s unclear how significant, if at all, the ‘contribution’ made by one individual to the total emissions in fact is.
    Yet even in this case, there may be supplementary principles/considerations arising from i) indirect benefits – e.g. expressive value – of my opting to not fly, i.e. norm-setting, ii) considerations of consistency and aptness – e.g. it is apt that I do not partake in an emission-contributing activity, which in turn ground my responsibilities to reduce aviation and travel.
    Agreed with what you said about the duty to take up the slack not being as important as most would like it to be – hence why I’d start with the presumption that all academics are entitled to, based on their own circumstances, *some* minimal emission quotas, and take that as the starting point. With that said, I can also see value in developing a more complete theory and account of permissible, supererogatory/suberogatory reasons for which individuals become academics. All in all, very interesting thoughts.
    David 
    I think what you said about the communicative dimension is very important – how do we transform or shape norms, and alter collective beliefs (or, even, heuristics concerning how and when we travel?). Perhaps what’s needed is some sort of conceptual engineering (cf. Cappelen) that alters our understanding of academic travel – i.e. travelling can also be virtual, online, metaverse-based etc. 
    Christian
    Thank you, Christian – I must confess I wasn’t thinking (and that’s a fault on my part) too much about off-setting, but would now argue that “absolute entitlements” come with a) correlated responsibilities to offset wherever possible, though b) the failure to offset would not amount to a morally blameworthy act, unlike c) the deliberate and intentional emissions beyond the minimum, i.e. not taking up the responsibility to cut emissions. I suppose that would be the primary difference between the minimal entitlements and emissions beyond these entitlements.
    The underlying problem, of course, is that my account, as it stands, does not factor into consideration the many other ways we can offset our carbon footprints (I made the tentative suggestion that we should treat each sphere of carbon emission atomistically – i.e. focus on aviation here, and then contemplate what we ought to do with recycling elsewhere, and the two need not be interlinked; this is obviously too vanilla an approach). 
    I am also open to the second way of blocking this thought that you suggested, though of course the question then becomes: to what extent does my emitting beyond the minimum send out the detrimental message flagged, i.e. “It is permissible to emit as much as you want, if it’s for an academic cause!” 
    And I certainly concur with the need to reflect upon the collective (and even structural) dimensions of the question. One low-hanging fruit is duties to reform existing a) institutions of academic conferencing, b) tenure strength assessing, and c) networking patterns and practices, to ensure that they are better-aligned with a low-emission/reduced-travel world that accounts for the climate crises and challenges.

  15. Part 3

    Kida

    I am open to the thought that ceteris paribus, more senior academics have more to contribute to in-person conferences than their junior counterparts (though have found experientially that that isn’t always the case, but I’m not sure if my experience was anecdotal or in fact emblematic of any substantive trends). With that said, the rejoinder may be that these academics could also post and engage – even sometimes with numerous groups at once – via online and digital platforms. This way, many of the unique benefits of their being there could be co-opted/recreated without in-person events. With that said, I do also note that some conferences are so fundamentally anchored by one speaker (keynote) because their continued operations and hosting will depend on their drawing power vis-a-vis big names. So there comes a complex question – should we host a conference but accept that at least one big name will be flown in, or do we cancel it/not host it altogether?

    On Thu, 16 May 2024 at 09:11, Brian Wong wrote:
    Part 2

    Matt

    I like the idea of proactive norm engineering and rewiring. I suppose the follow-up questions would be: a) who should be leading this, and b) do the identities and rhetoric with which such norm reshaping take place matter when it comes to the manifestation of the message – i.e. is there a worry that this becomes more experienced and senior academics chiding junior academics for doing things that they had previously done twenty to thirty years ago? If so, are there concerns about receptiveness and potential backlash? I also think what you said, Matt, about leisure trips and non-academic trips is certainly germane. I’d left the related considerations out of my discussion as I thought it’d be hard to do justice to these claims – one way or another.

    Simon

    Thank you, Simon. Your work on this topic – and many others – speaks volumes to the importance of philosophy in shaping public discourses and understanding of the ethics of climate change. I think your second point on the alternative considerations is incredibly fair and should point towards both duties on part of conference organisers to reform the way things work, as well as duties on the part of academics to press for subtle but important reimaginations of academic conferencing.

    As for the first point concerning necessity – I share your view that there are fair and decent substitutes (maybe not just zoom, but also blogs, Reddit, online fora etc.), though I suppose there is an added dimension to academic conferences, i.e. the social, that individuals may find hard to replicate if they just don’t “feel” the online/post-pandemic zoom modus operandi. Maybe the solution is to train and equip academics with the skills to build friendships online – though who should do it?

    Christina

    Very fair point and I share your hope that we should take seriously the climate crisis as it stands – stopping flying so much isn’t a bad heuristic to go by at all. I also concur with you that flying is not necessary to build a career — for some academics. Though the counterpoint may be that for others who struggle with navigating a wholly flight-less career, are they permitted to, if not entitled to, flying? I suppose this is why the ‘absolute minimum emission levels’, per my framework, will vary from academic to academic. If I can co-opt and achieve most of the benefits of flying without flying, I shouldn’t be up in arms about folks telling me not to fly.

    Keith

    I stand corrected – thank you for pointing this out.

    And the off-setting empirics you raise is germane in backing up the second way suggested by Christian when it comes to blocking the challenge.

    Tom

    One question I’ve been thinking about in my own work is the different ways in which climate change presents as structural injustices that behove a Youngian solution – the kind of collective, political action required to alter not just structures of power, but also norms governing practices and routines. The worry and question by some, of course, is where we should start. But I think the answers are fairly straightforward – we begin with communities in which we have the greatest potential influence, e.g. university boards, departments, fellow colleagues, students and post-docs who work with us, and then proceed onto communities that require more coordination and elevation in power applied, in order to sway and influence. All in all, there is no reason why we shouldn’t adopt a political solution to what is clearly a political and politicised question.

    On Thu, 16 May 2024 at 08:59, Brian Wong wrote:
    Part 1

    Charlie

    Charlie – thank you. I most certainly think overdetermination poses an issue to my account, and, more generally, attempts to parcel responsibilities (even in a non-proportional manner, per Pasternak) amongst individuals. The problem is somewhat blunted by the adoption of a collective/imperceptible harms framework (which I tried to do), but consider the fact that a flight is likely to take off even with one less passenger signed onto it (though will likely be cancelled or rerouted eventually if the passenger demand persistently stays lower than and is outstripped by the excess supply of flights) – it’s unclear how significant, if at all, the ‘contribution’ made by one individual to the total emissions in fact is.

    Yet even in this case, there may be supplementary principles/considerations arising from i) indirect benefits – e.g. expressive value – of my opting to not fly, i.e. norm-setting, ii) considerations of consistency and aptness – e.g. it is apt that I do not partake in an emission-contributing activity, which in turn ground my responsibilities to reduce aviation and travel.

    Agreed with what you said about the duty to take up the slack not being as important as most would like it to be – hence why I’d start with the presumption that all academics are entitled to, based on their own circumstances, *some* minimal emission quotas, and take that as the starting point. With that said, I can also see value in developing a more complete theory and account of permissible, supererogatory/suberogatory reasons for which individuals become academics. All in all, very interesting thoughts.

    David

    I think what you said about the communicative dimension is very important – how do we transform or shape norms, and alter collective beliefs (or, even, heuristics concerning how and when we travel?). Perhaps what’s needed is some sort of conceptual engineering (cf. Cappelen) that alters our understanding of academic travel – i.e. travelling can also be virtual, online, metaverse-based etc.

    Christian

    Thank you, Christian – I must confess I wasn’t thinking (and that’s a fault on my part) too much about off-setting, but would now argue that “absolute entitlements” come with a) correlated responsibilities to offset wherever possible, though b) the failure to offset would not amount to a morally blameworthy act, unlike c) the deliberate and intentional emissions beyond the minimum, i.e. not taking up the responsibility to cut emissions. I suppose that would be the primary difference between the minimal entitlements and emissions beyond these entitlements.

    The underlying problem, of course, is that my account, as it stands, does not factor into consideration the many other ways we can offset our carbon footprints (I made the tentative suggestion that we should treat each sphere of carbon emission atomistically – i.e. focus on aviation here, and then contemplate what we ought to do with recycling elsewhere, and the two need not be interlinked; this is obviously too vanilla an approach).

    I am also open to the second way of blocking this thought that you suggested, though of course the question then becomes: to what extent does my emitting beyond the minimum send out the detrimental message flagged, i.e. “It is permissible to emit as much as you want, if it’s for an academic cause!”

    And I certainly concur with the need to reflect upon the collective (and even structural) dimensions of the question. One low-hanging fruit is duties to reform existing a) institutions of academic conferencing, b) tenure strength assessing, and c) networking patterns and practices, to ensure that they are better-aligned with a low-emission/reduced-travel world that accounts for the climate crises and challenges.

  16. Part 4

    (Also realised I had a formatting issue/hiccup with the last comment, where I accidentally re-posted some of my comments)

    Kimberley

    Thank you Kimberley – this is all very useful and helpfully takes the conversation in a more practical and applied direction! 

    I believe the solidaristic value is a particularly fascinating claim that could be both non-instrumentalist and instrumentalist in nature – maybe solidarity is just intrinsically desirable (and obligatory) independent of whether it is a desirable outcome/good unto its own. I also think that the points raised about thinking, evaluation, and appraisal of online speeches being purportedly less prestigious are very fair.

    Justification is likely to be needed, accordingly, not just for the actual emissions, but also the perception of the implications and political message that follows from said emissions. 
    The Philosophers for Sustainability pledges are most interesting, and I’ll look to circulating them.

    L. A. Paul’s experience is remarkable – my only worry is that the ability to build an academic portfolio by email may not be necessarily available to individuals who lack the ability to make a confident first impression and communicate successfully via online platforms; though the question of course is, why would we expect that they fare better in offline settings?
    Maybe it’s the social element of having a few beers at the pub and chatting over a pint or two, that helps break the ice – no pun intended?

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