Last month, The Daily Mail gleefully reported that Hillary Clinton had boarded a private jet shortly after unveiling her plan to tackle climate change. Clinton’s apparent hypocrisy briefly drove traffic to the British tabloid, but as you probably noticed, it didn’t torpedo the Democratic front-runner’s campaign. The polls didn’t even flinch. The irony is that while Clinton, like her fellow candidates, can shake off such contradictions, the scientists who informed her policy don’t enjoy the same luxury.
“You can’t just talk the talk. You also have to walk the walk.”
Researchers are among the most prolific carbon polluters, flying thousands of miles to attend conferences and conduct fieldwork. It may all be in the name of science, but this ceaseless globetrotting comes at significant cost to their credibility. Elke Weber, Director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, explained that when scientists fail to practice what they preach — flying abroad while encouraging others to stay grounded — they risk hypocrisy. Her latest project explores the effect on the public. Said Weber, “What we found is that it’s much worse than you could possibly imagine.”
In the study, subjects read about a climatologist who is urging consumers to use less energy and limit air travel. In one scenario, the climatologist is someone who tries very hard to cut her own energy consumption. In another, she is a gas-guzzling frequent flier. Predictably, people are more more likely to accept the findings and follow the recommendations of the scientist who heeds her own advice. The upshot? “You can’t just talk the talk,” said Weber. “You also have to walk the walk.”
According to a report from the Tyndall Center, researchers can shrink their carbon footprint by holding conferences in the northern hemisphere, where most scientists live and work, rather than flying to Australia or South Africa for meetings. Alternatively, scientists can rely more on Skype in lieu of speaking face-to-face. Meteorologist Eric Holthaus gave up flying altogether after reading the latest IPCC report. Said Holthaus, “If anything is to change, it will have to come from individuals taking ownership of the problem themselves.”
For an example of what happens when individuals don’t take ownership of the problem, see Exhibit A: Al Gore. The same week the politician-turned-advocate won the Academy Award for best documentary for An Inconvenient Truth, the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, a conservative front group, lambasted Gore for his profligate energy use. The former vice president, it turned out, was spending roughly $1,200 a month to power his 10,000 square foot home. Gore responded by pointing out that he purchased carbon offsets to balance his energy consumption, but the damage was already done. Gore suffered a sizable blow, and the impact reverberated throughout the climate community.
It’s a tough gig for climate scientists whose job doesn’t end at the office door. Said Weber, “We also have to think about what happens when we go home, when we become citizens.” Everyone has a role to play in cutting carbon pollution. As Weber explained, our individual contributions may feel like a drop in the bucket, but if you multiply that drop “by 300 million people in a country or 7 billion people around the world, or something that you do twice a day by all the days in the year or all the years that you are on this planet, it all adds up.”