Highly intelligent people gathered today at the University of Manchester to discuss imminent peril to the planet from greenhouse gas emissions. In scenes that no satirist would dare to make up, the assembled throng of professors, PhDs and post-graduates then ignored a fire alarm that should have alerted them to… imminent peril. Even after a person (1) finally spoke up, there was a suggestion that the seminar continue. Fortunately enough people voted with their feet, and the slow process of evacuation started. This process of moving somewhere safer is not, of course, an option for our species as a whole.
A seminar called “Emission: Impossible”, on aviation and climate change had been running for twenty five minutes or so. It was presented by Michael Traut, a PhD student at the Tyndall Centre. His main work is on shipping, but in return for a grant to attend a German symposium on “Climate Compatible Air Transport Systems” he gave reported back, both on the event and more broadly.
He started out with the standard accounting of facts that – if we were serious about surviving as a civilisation – would now be part of Key Skills 1, 2 and 3, and considered mandatory training for any job under the sun – the build up of “greenhouse gases” over the last 200 years as a result of the burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, gas). He alluded to sea level rise and the methane burp.
He said that only the most ambitious (and least likely!) of the scenarios around how much fossil fuels we will burn could lead us anywhere near the “two degree temperature rise above pre-industrial levels” that we say (see the Copenhagen Accord) that we are aiming for. All this will be standard for anyone who has seen any Kevin Anderson presentation in the last 6 years.
Traut then decided to focus on carbon dioxide emissions from aviation (while acknowledging that there are other – shorter-lived – impacts, like contrails). He cited various “not us, guv” claims by the International Air Transport Association (think of it as a trades union for airlines and airplane manufacturers.”
“Aviation is 2% – small.”
“Fuel efficiency has improved by 70% over the last 40 years.”
Since the seminar was abandoned, I didn’t get to ask if these clowns have heard of Jevons Paradox.
Traut then turned to the new programme “WeCare” -which is utilising weather information for climate efficient and eco-efficient aviation.”
He said there are three various ways they are looking more systemically at reducing the weight of planes (composite materials etc), fuels (especially biofuels – mental note to self; don’t live in food poverty) and airplane design.
Traut was expanding on how slow and expensive innovation is in “mature” systems with path-dependency and lock-in when the aforementioned alarm started going off. And continued to go off while we all sat there like stunned mullets (it was muffled by the thick wooden doors).
So, here’s the thing. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. That room was full of people who have written books, theses and delivered high-powered lectures. What matters is how attuned you are to signals that you don’t want to hear, aren’t expecting to hear, and whether you are then willing to act upon those signals. From the evidence of the last 25 years – and the evidence today – “we” aren’t, and will continue not to be.
One final point – aviation represents “freedom” and “modernity” – we have gotten used to being able to zip around the world at great speed. And we think of it as a human right. It isn’t. But when you declare you are not going to fly, you get the reaction vegetarians get, only more so. What reaction am I referring to? The suspicion, fear of being judged and getting-retaliation-in-first from people who know that what they enjoy is probably wrong but don’t want to do anything about it until forced to do so. It’s a bugger of an issue to campaign on, and maybe I ought to have more compassion for the complete and utter catastrophic failure of aviation campaigning in Manchester and beyond. But then again, maybe not.
(1) Not, to my shame, me. On reflection, it reminds me of that famous Darley and Latane study where a room fills with smoke and the experimental subjects look around at other people to see what they should do. When all the other people in the room ignore it, the experimental subjects sit there choking away. When even one other person (an ally of the experimenter) goes “what’s going on, there’s smoke,” then most people have enough basic common sense to raise the alarm/leg it.