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16 Sep 2019
Taken from the October 2019 issue of Physics World.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Matthew Jones and Charles Adams say physicists need to change the way they work to make physics more sustainable

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report last year that starkly laid out what was needed to limit global warming to 1.5 °C. It pointed to the overwhelming evidence that irreversible climate change was already occurring and that many of the changes were happening faster than previously thought. At the report’s heart, however, was a message of hope and optimism – we can regain some control and avert disaster if we act quickly.

While we all need to act individually, we also feel that physics as a discipline needs to come together to avoid the impending climate disaster. We therefore call on the community – students, scientists, industrialists, publishers and funders – to declare a climate emergency and commit to placing emissions reductions at the heart of our work. This means placing emissions reductions at the heart of everything we do. For inspiration we should look to the Pugwash movement, which sought a world free from weapons of mass destruction, and to the founding ideals of organizations like CERN, which harnessed the collaborative, evidence-based approach of physics to deliver peace and prosperity.

Climate Change chart

Many physicists are already working on the science and technology of emissions reduction – and this effort will continue to grow. We are instead concerned with community-wide action that changes the way we work and demonstrates to the wider public that global, collaborative activities like science may be sustainably carried out. It is essential that physics plays its part in a wider and growing call to action from across the scientific community.

In late August, the climate activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic via a zero-emissions sailboat to speak at the UN Climate Action Summit on 23 September. She travelled that way to draw attention to the environmental cost of air travel, which many of us ignore. We’re all familiar with the senior scientist who jets in to give a conference talk before leaving for another event that evening or the next day. Given the carbon cost, it is hard to argue that this model of nomadic superstars who spend their summer in airports is justified, especially in an era where live-streamed TED talks can be watched by millions. In fact, a recent study by the University of British Columbia in Canada suggests that, beyond a low minimum level, more travel does nothing to improve scientific productivity. To put things into perspective, a recent investigation by the leading research Swiss institution ETH Zurich found that flights accounted for a staggering 50% of its emissions. Clearly urgent action is needed.

Physicists – who led the world developing better ways to collaborate, from the telegram to the World Wide Web – should show leadership when it comes to cutting their travel. Making more use of online technology at physics conferences would also have wider benefits, such as allowing people who have to care for family members – or who find it hard to travel – to take part remotely. It would also help physicists from countries with less funding for science. A grassroots campaign to cut the amount of academic travel has been running since 2015.

We have already begun to ask organizers about giving our talks remotely, stimulating high-level discussions with the American Physical Society and at leading US universities. As a result, one of us will trial a “virtual visit” to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this winter, which will include remote presentations and discussions. Indeed, at a recent meeting we hosted at Durham University in the UK, the stand-out talk was delivered remotely from a national laboratory in the US, demonstrating the potential for high-quality scientific collaboration that does not compromise the quality of the meeting.

As well as action at an individual level, we must also seek policy changes from funding bodies, learned societies and hiring committees. For example, rules set by UK Research and Innovation – the umbrella organization of the seven UK research councils – currently favour the cheapest (rather than the most carbon efficient) means of travel and expressly forbid the use of funds to pay for emissions offsetting. In 2004 Kevin Anderson a climate scientist from the University of Manchester, UK, proposed the idea of a “carbon credit card” to properly account for carbon emissions. Such ideas could enable funding agencies to cut the number of international conferences we attend, reducing our dependency on air travel.

We also recommend that sustainability should become an explicit criterion when funding bodies assess grant applications, on a similar level to ethical considerations and impact. So any attempts to assess the academic and societal impact of our research and teaching – such as the UK’s Research Excellence Framework – should include an assessment of its climate impact too.

Some might argue that any change we make is a drop in the ocean. The same, of course, is true of most of our individual contributions to scientific progress. Yet physics shapes all our futures. Let us use this incredible privilege to act on climate change and hand our children a world where they can still follow their physics dream.

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