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A passenger jet lands at Berlin Tegel Airport. Photo: Bernd von Jutrczenka/picture alliance via Getty Images

A study published this month found climate scientists fly more often than researchers in other fields, though they're also less likely to fly long distances for leisure.

Why it matters: Flying is in general the most carbon-intensive way to travel per mile, and the fact that even climate scientists have a difficult time cutting back on their air miles underscores the dilemma that can exist between fighting climate change and adding to it.

By the numbers: The survey — done before the pandemic brought air travel to a halt — asked more than 1,400 scientists in 59 countries across multiple disciplines how often they fly and why.

  • Climate scientists took five flights a year on average, compared to four for researchers in other fields.
  • While climate science often requires travel to remote locations for fieldwork, the study accounted for this difference and still found climate scientists flew more often, likely because the field features numerous global scientific conferences.

Yes, but: Climate scientists took fewer international flights for personal reasons and were more likely to pay for carbon offsets.

What they're saying: "I’d like to think these results are a wake-up call to scientists, and particularly climate researchers, to take significant steps to reduce their professional carbon footprint," says Lorraine Whitmarsh, an environmental psychologist at the University of Bath and the lead author on the paper.

My thought bubble: Air travel gets to the heart of one of the defining questions around climate action: how important is individual change to a massive global problem?

  • The fact that climate scientists appear to fly more often is less about individual ethics than the fact that it's difficult to work in the modern world without adding to climate change.
  • Altering that calculus will require major political and technological changes that go well beyond what any individual chooses to do.

Of note: The longest flight I ever took as a reporter was New York to Bali, via Frankfurt and Singapore, for the 2007 UN climate change conference.

  • That was 11,277 miles one way, or a little over 2 metric tons of CO2.

What to watch: Whether the shift to online scientific conferences will last once the COVID-19 pandemic ends, as many climate scientists are urging.

Go deeper

Nov 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Airlines plot course for coronavirus survival

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Ann Ronan Pictures, Bettmann/Getty Images

With the coronavirus pandemic worsening and no more help in sight from the U.S. government, airlines and airports are scrambling to survive the worst crisis in aviation history.

Why it matters: Promising vaccines offer hope for a recovery, but not until large swaths of the global population are immunized, and that could take years. To get people flying again, airlines are pushing testing and rethinking the travel experience.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
56 mins ago - Economy & Business

New deals in the COVID economy

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

COVID-19 is the macro horror of our lifetimes, and has destroyed or severely damaged countless businesses. But, like with most horribles, it also has created some opportunities.

Driving the news: Merck this morning announced an agreement to buy OncoImmune, a Maryland-based biotech that showed promising late-stage clinical results for a therapy that treats severe and critical coronavirus cases.

2 hours ago - Technology

Biden's openings for tech progress

Photo illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images 

Item No. 1 on President-elect Joe Biden's day-one tech agenda, controlling the flood of misinformation online, offers no fast fixes — but other tech issues facing the new administration hold out opportunities for quick action and concrete progress.

What to watch: Closing the digital divide will be a high priority, as the pandemic has exposed how many Americans still lack reliable in-home internet connections and the devices needed to work and learn remotely.