‘Full of hot air’: climate experts exposed as academia’s most frequent flyers

Study results trigger calls for environmentalists to ‘look in the mirror’

A fleet of British Airway planes sit on the runway at Glasgow Airport as an EasyJet plane takes off.
(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

Climate change scientists take more flights more than other academics despite global warming fears, a new study has revealed.

The anonymous survey of more than 1,400 researchers from countries worldwide found that scientists specialising in the climate crisis travelled by air for work around five times a year on average, while researchers in other fields took four flights. And “levels of flying rose with job seniority”, with climate change professors taking around nine flights, compared with eight for their academic peers, according to Cardiff University, which coordinated the study.

“Even when trips for fieldwork were removed from the comparison, climate scientists still flew more than scientists from other disciplines,” The Times reports.

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The study findings, outlined in a paper in the journal Global Environmental Change, show that climate scientists also took an average of three international flights a year for personal reasons, the same as other researchers, even though they had “higher levels of awareness and concern about the impact of aviation on climate change”.

But the climate experts were also more likely to take steps to reduce or offset the emissions from their flights, according to the results of the survey, which was conducted before the Covid-19 pandemic. And almost 30% of climate researchers said they had chosen not to travel to a work event because of the associated carbon footprint, compared with just 5% of other researchers.

Kevin Anderson, a University of Manchester professor of climate change who was not involved in the study, said the report made for “uncomfortable” reading and “must be a catalyst for rapid change”.

“We need to take a long, hard look in the mirror,” added Anderson, former director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research.

Study leader Professor Lorraine Whitmarsh said the findings were “unexpected” but suggest that “knowledge alone is not enough” to tackle global warming.

“Crucially, our research demonstrates the need for policies and ways of working to encourage and enable low-carbon travel and use of virtual alternatives – something which is already happening in light of Covid-19,” she noted.

Flying is widely regarded as the most polluting form of transport, with some climate campaigners, such as Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, shunning air travel because of the environmental impact.

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Chas Newkey-Burden has been part of The Week Digital team for more than a decade and a journalist for 25 years, starting out on the irreverent football weekly 90 Minutes, before moving to lifestyle magazines Loaded and Attitude. He was a columnist for The Big Issue and landed a world exclusive with David Beckham that became the weekly magazine’s bestselling issue. He now writes regularly for The Guardian, The Telegraph, The Independent, Metro, FourFourTwo and the i new site. He is also the author of a number of non-fiction books.