Thursday, June 27, 2019

Why I will be flying less

Since reading David Wallace Wells’ “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming” earlier this year, followed by some deep discussions on the issue of climate change with my friend and colleague Adam Aron from UCSD,  I no longer feel we can just sit back and hope someone else will fix the problem.  And it’s becoming increasingly clear that if we as individuals want to do something about climate change, changing our travel habits is probably the single most effective action we can take.  Jack Miles made this case in his recent Washington Post article, "For the love of Earth, stop traveling”:

According to former U.N. climate chief Christiana Figueres, we have only three years left in which to “bend the emissions curve downward” and forestall a terrifying cascade of climate-related catastrophes, much worse than what we’re already experiencing. Realistically, is there anything that you or I can do as individuals to make a significant difference in the short time remaining?
The answer is yes, and the good news is it won’t cost us a penny. It will actually save us money, and we won’t have to leave home to do it. Staying home, in fact, is the essence of making a big difference in a big hurry. That’s because nothing that we do pumps carbon dioxide into the atmosphere faster than air travel. Cancel a couple long flights, and you can halve your carbon footprint. Schedule a couple, and you can double or triple it.

I travel a lot - I have almost 1.3 million lifetime miles on United Airlines, and in the last few years have regularly flown over 100,000 miles per year.  This travel has definitely helped advance my scientific career, and has been in many ways deeply fulfilling and enlightening.  However, the toll has been weighing on me and Miles' article really pushed me over the edge towards action.  I used the carbon footprint calculator to compute the environmental impact of my flights just for the first half of 2019, and it was mind-boggling: more than 23 tons of CO2.  For comparison, my entire household’s yearly carbon footprint (estimated using is just over 10 tons!  

For these reasons, I am committing to eliminate (to the greatest degree possible) academic air travel for the foreseeable future. That means no air travel for talks, conferences, or meetings -- instead participating by telepresence whenever possible.  I am in a fortunate position, as a tenured faculty member who is already well connected within my field.  By taking this action, I hope to help offset the travel impact of early career researchers and researchers from the developing world for whom air travel remains essential in order to get their research known and meet fellow researchers in their field. I wish that there was a better way to help early career researchers network without air travel, but I just haven’t seen anything that works well without in-person contact.  Hopefully the growing concern about conference travel will also help spur the development of more effective tools for virtual meetings. 

Other senior researchers who agree should join me in taking the No Fly pledge at  You can also learn more here:


  1. You are a hero. Wishing much joy, adventure, and accomplishment to you in this time of change.

  2. I couldn't agree more. This will make a big difference.

  3. Thanks for this post Russ. If it helps, there is research that shows that number of flights does not correlate with academic influence or career success

  4. I have broken my record of largest carbon footprint when flying in three of the last four years. In 2016 I got 30.9t, breaking my 2012 record of 22.6t, in 2017 it was only 12.1t, but in 2018 it increased yet again to 38.7t and it reached 43t in 2019 thanks to three flights in Business Class with my family.
    However, 2020 may be my first no-flight year since 2009, as my only possible trip is a school trip to Japan, which is not sure that whether it may go ahead or not. If the trip does not go ahead, and we do not fly out in summer (I will not fly out in Christmas for mock revision), 2020 will be my first no-flight year in a decade.