Thanks to the affordability of air travel nowadays, an increasing number of us have the opportunity to visit exotic locations around the globe. Back in my student days, I was enthralled by the idea of attending conferences in cultural centers like Paris and Edinburgh, as well as remote villages like Les Houches in the French Alps, or Cargèse in Corsica. The idea of pitching a tent next to the beach and spending a week learning about the latest developments in theoretical physics made me feel like I was the luckiest person in the world. Back then I didn’t think twice about the unintended consequences of my travels, but now that the scientific case for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is firmly established, we scientists can no longer ignore the externalities of our summer gatherings.
A comprehensive analysis of the evolution of scientific consensus for AGW was published recently in Environmental Physics Letters . The study identified more than 4,000 abstracts that stated a position on the cause of global warming out of 11,944 in the peer reviewed scientific literature over the last 21 years. Out of these 97% endorsed the view that human activity is the unambiguous cause of such trends. The study found that “the number of papers rejecting the consensus on AGW is a vanishingly small proportion of the published research.”
Unfortunately, the degree of consensus within the academic community is poorly represented in the popular media, and there continues to be widespread public perception that climate scientists disagree about the significance of human activity in driving these changes. Indeed a 2012 poll showed that although an increasing number of Americans believe there is now solid evidence indicating global warming, more than half still either disagree with, or are otherwise unaware of the consensus among scientists that human activity is the root cause of this increase .
The ability to implement effective climate policy is noticeably impaired by the public’s confusion over the position of climate scientists. In the Pew Research Center’s annual policy priorities survey, just 28% said that dealing with global warming should be a top priority, ranking climate policy last amongst the 21 priorities tested .
Since becoming involved with MPE2013, I’ve tried to develop a better understanding of the work of climate scientists, as well as the economic and technological challenges we must face to meet future energy demands. Although many of my colleagues share similar concerns about the urgency of addressing AGW, very few have made any significant changes to their personal/professional life choices. As members of the academic community, the intellectual milieu in which we work exposes us to trends and ideas far ahead of their widespread adoption, just think of our use of information technology and the Web. But various lunchtime conversations on the topic soon made me realize how difficult it will be to bring about the kind of awareness necessary to meet the challenges of global issues like climate change, even amongst the educated elite. On this point I must say that I’m personally grateful to everyone who has worked so hard to make MPE2013 a success.
Before last year I’d never estimated my carbon footprint, let alone compared it to those of my friends and colleagues from abroad. But after attending an MPE planning meeting, I started following activities and some of the topics kindled a sense of personal responsibility quite beyond the usual intellectual curiosity I might feel for other disciplines. I hope one of the legacies of MPE2013 will be an influx of new talent into the wide-range of intricate mathematical problems highlighted in the lectures, workshops and conferences currently taking place around the world.
But I also hope that many more of us will take note of a science that connects us back to the world in which we live, and a greater personal awareness of the energy choices we make in our lives. So if you’ve never taken the time before, I think you might enjoy playing with one of the various carbon calculators available on the Web. The US Environmental Protection Agency has one on their web site, or National Geographic has a personal “energy meter” that is both educational and easy to share with your neighbors and friends. You might be surprised to see how you measure up to your non-academic peers. Are you part of the energy avant-garde, or lagging the national average? How you fare may crucially depend on whether you frequently visit international colleagues, or have a penchant for traveling abroad to conferences and workshops. In an article on January 26 this year, the New York Times suggested “your biggest carbon sin may be air travel”. Have you ever purchased carbon credits to offset your flights, or would you consider declining an invitation for a professional meeting to reduce your score? Some airlines and several of the popular online travel agencies offer the opportunity to purchase offsets when you buy your air tickets. If your haven’t adopted any such scheme, you are not alone, indeed you are in good company! As reported in the January New York Times article cited above:
Last fall, when Democrats and Republicans seemed unable to agree on anything, one bill glided through Congress with broad bipartisan support and won a quick signature from President Obama: the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme Prohibition Act of 2011. This odd law essentially forbids United States airlines from participating in the European Union Emissions Trading System, Europe’s somewhat lonely attempt to rein in planet-warming emissions.
Under this program, the aviation sector was next in line to join other industries in Europe and start paying for emissions generated by flights into and out of EU destinations. After an uproar from both governments and airlines, as well as a slew of lawsuits from the United States, India and China, the European Commission delayed full implementation for one year to allow an alternative global plan to emerge.
But already back in 2007, the most contentious matter on the 36th assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) agenda was the environmental impact of international aviation. Stratospheric ozone depletion and poor air quality at ground level are also effects of aircraft emissions, and although the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 assigned the ICAO the task of reducing the impact of aircraft engine emissions, so far the organization has resisted measures that would impose mandatory fuel taxes or emissions standards.
This set the stage for a legal dispute of gargantuan proportions between the ICAO’s European member countries and foreign airlines and governments who do not want to comply. The ICAO’s general assembly meets once every three years, and the 38th Assembly is due to begin next week on September 24. The hottest topic on the agenda is sure to be the pending EU legislation and the need to find common ground on aviation emissions standards and trading, but what position will the United States, India and China now adopt?
In his 2013 Inaugural Address, President Obama promised to make dealing with climate change part of his second-term agenda. The volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in fuel efficiency, and emissions from many other sectors are falling. The meetings taking place at the ICAO assembly next week could be some of the most significant in the fight against AGW this year, but will our government finally take the lead in bringing about the kind of binding legislation our planet so desperately needs?
 John Cook et al., 2013 Environ. Res. Lett. 8 024024
 More Say There Is Solid Evidence of Global Warming – Pew Research Center – Monday, October 4-7, 2012
 Climate Change: Key Data Points from Pew Research – Monday, June 24, 2013
David Alexandre Ellwood