Climate Advocates Must Check Themselves Against Moral Licensing

Ignoring the carbon footprint of conference travel misses opportunity to lead by example

I’ve got a solution to an insidious carbon emission problem. Well, an interim solution anyway. You see, I’ve been troubled for some time at how the emissions from conference travel is being ignored, particularly among conferences specifically addressing climate change solutions.

No doubt these conference organizers are well intentioned, but they’re ignoring the opportunity to recognize and mitigate the air travel emissions of participants (flying has the largest CO2 footprint of all human activity).

It matters. Three loosely-related events affecting Iceland over the past couple of weeks illustrate:

1) This week, an impressive gathering of more than 2,000 global climate experts took place during the 5th annual Arctic Circle Forum in Reykjavik, Iceland. Dozens of important topics were discussed, including “Sustainable Ocean Resource Management” and “Adapting Power Production to a Changing Climate.”

2) This morning, my local NPR station was promoting a trip to Iceland as part of its fundraising drive.

3) The Arctic Sea ice has hit another record summer low and is warming at a faster rate than any other region (see this article from The New York Times).

I’m not claiming a causal or even corollary relationship between these events. But the Arctic Circle Forum will add roughly between 2,000–6,000 tons of CO2 to the atmosphere. [A roundtrip flight from NY to Reykjavik produces roughly one ton of CO2; the carbon footprint for the average tourist is between one and three tons, depending from where they’re flying.]

This isn’t to isolate the Arctic Forum. It’s one of dozens, if not hundreds, of climate-related conferences taking place each year. Heck, the budgets for many environmental associations and NGOs rely heavily on funding partnerships and sponsorships that conferences bring in.

For a while I’ve been stumped at the radio silence on the issue. Surely, I reasoned, organizers and participants recognize the irony of thousands of people flying to sensitive areas (which is just about everywhere these days — from Miami to Iceland) to discuss the effects of carbon emissions on sensitive areas.

Then I realize that these experts and dignitaries are only human after all. Social science tells us that we have an innate desire to fit in, so maybe no one wants to bring it up or they believe it’s just too hard a cultural nut to crack.

It could also be that the work they do to help the environment gives them a sense of moral licensing; they justify the emissions they’re producing as worth it because they’re solving knotty environmental problems on a global scale. That was the sense I got, indirectly, from a couple of conference organizers who dismissed my question of whether and why not mitigate the emissions.

It may also explain why I didn’t offset the emissions I produced flying from San Francisco to Denver to participate in the Climate Reality Project’s Leadership Corps training earlier this year.

Whatever the reason, it’s an oversight at best and cop out at worst.

The organizers of climate-related conferences in particular have a prime opportunity, some might say responsibility, to reinforce the fact that everyone’s activities matter and to model a new norm.

This is especially true now that there are means to offset emissions. Sustainability architect and carbon thought leader Bill McDonough will say, correctly, that offsetting emissions is not ideal and not the same as not producing them in the first place. But it’s a trade-off that’s better than the status quo and could be done pretty simply.

Here’s how: create an event sponsorship category for emission offsets. That’s it. It doesn’t have to be an exact science — but it can be done credibly: estimate the number of people, create an average travel distance per person, and calculate.

I can see it now: “Carbon Emissions Offset brought you by CocaCola.” It has the added benefit of elevating offset projects like those created by TerraPass. NGOs, public agencies and individuals all could be Carbon Offset sponsors (COS’s anyone?) and recognized for it.

It’s an easy fix to an important issue that can be applied to all event and corporate travel. Society can’t afford to ignore it anymore and I trust those organizing and attending climate-related conferences know this better than most.