I have lost my job as a climate researcher because I chose not to fly. However, I believe it is a sacrifice that is justified. – Gianluca Grimalda
My employer recently gave me a firm choice: either go back to my workplace in Kiel, Germany within five days or risk losing my job. I am a climate researcher and have been conducting crucial research on the societal effects of climate change since March 2023, traveling over 15,000 miles by land to the island of Bougainville near Papua New Guinea.
My research project encountered unexpected difficulties, ranging from environmental disasters to safety concerns. As a result, my employer was understandably dissatisfied with the delay in my return, which lasted for several weeks. Their urgent demand for me to come back required me to make an immediate decision, but I was unable to take a flight due to my conscientious objection to flying. I have been actively avoiding air travel for over a decade and my employer has previously accommodated my preference for slower modes of transportation. While I do not completely abstain from flying, I only choose to do so when there are no other viable options available.
Over the weekend, I will embark on a cargo ship to make my way back to Germany. My journey will take me to East New Britain in Papua New Guinea, and from there I will continue my travels to Europe using a combination of cargo ships, ferries, trains, and coaches.
Numerous individuals have inquired as to why it is imperative for me to prioritize low-carbon travel. I have three justifications for this decision. Firstly, I strive to stay true to my ethical dedication to reduce air travel. Aviation is the primary contributor to climate change among all modes of transportation, playing a significant role in the escalation of temperatures and the occurrence of severe weather phenomena that are becoming increasingly common globally.
Flying from Papua New Guinea to Germany for 32 hours generates 5.3 tonnes of CO2 per passenger. Opting for slower modes of transportation results in approximately 12 times less emissions (420kg). Given the urgent need to address climate change, I find it ethically unacceptable to produce 4.9 tonnes of CO2, which is equivalent to the average yearly emissions of an individual, in order to quickly return to Europe.
I made a commitment to the 1,800 participants in my Bougainville research to maintain low-carbon practices. It is important to me to uphold this promise. In Tok Pisin, white men (of which I am one, as I am often reminded) are commonly referred to as giaman, meaning liars or fraudsters, likely due to the country’s tumultuous colonial history. I do not want to be viewed as a giaman.
Ultimately, I believe that my situation may serve as a small step towards breaking down the barriers of “selfishness, greed, and apathy” that climate lawyer Gus Speth has identified as the primary obstacles to addressing catastrophic climate change. While some may view it as irrational to sacrifice their dream job in order to avoid taking a single flight, I view it as madness to continue with our usual ways of doing business in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence that major ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.
I do not enjoy dictating to others, but I would like to encourage individuals to challenge the norms within their own spheres of influence. Placing the burden of responsibility on the average person may seem like a way to absolve those who are truly accountable. According to Oxfam, the top 10% wealthiest individuals in the world are responsible for more than half of global emissions. Just 90 companies are responsible for 63% of the world’s historical CO2 emissions. Air travel continues to be a privilege reserved for the elite, including researchers from western countries who are likely part of the top 10% responsible for the majority of emissions. However, empirical research shows that leading by example is crucial. One study found that scientists who have reduced their carbon footprint are more effective in persuading the public than those who have not. Even though individual actions may not have a significant impact on reducing carbon emissions, they can have a powerful ripple effect as others are inspired and influenced by their positive example within their social networks.
Currently, I am anticipating boarding a cargo ship as the first step of my environmentally-friendly trip to Europe. Once I reach Europe in approximately 45 days, I will be unemployed. However, if I am successful in convincing others that our planet is in grave danger and drastic measures are necessary, then losing my job will have been a sacrifice worth making.
Gianluca Grimalda, previously a lead researcher at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, is a researcher who focuses on issues of societal unity and adjusting to the effects of climate change.