Bigfoot: On being a climate scientist that flies

Flying around the globe to attend climate change conferences that discuss the importance of flying less has got to be one of the most ironical parts of my job. On the one hand, the research world is moving towards being more connected. We’re in an age of multi-country studies and collaborative, international research teams; North-South and South-South partnerships; and shrinking timelines to build those partnerships. On the other hand, there is a growing call for climate change researchers to introspect on their own carbon footprint from flying.

Personally, this dilemma [wanting to fly and grab all the opportunities (!) vs. seriously confronting and addressing my Big(carbon)Foot problem] has troubled me for several years now. There is a growing online conversation on ways to solve this dilemma (see here, here and here). However, the articles I come across on flying less or no flying are often written by researchers in contexts far different from mine. The conversations I’ve had on low/no flying have often been with colleagues in Europe who have options of trains and buses to cross countries. You can’t attend a conference in Thailand (from India) by taking an overnight bus. Getting from one end of India to another by train itself takes 3 days! So when I heard of Peter Kalmus‘s amazing initiative ‘No Fly Climate Sci’, I decided to chime in with my experiences as someone who enjoys being part of a multi-country research project and is concerned about her carbon emissions.

My piece from the No Fly Climate Sci website

As a researcher examining the interface of climate change and livelihood transitions, reducing my carbon footprint is a professional and personal issue for me. I try to do so by walking to work, carpooling, recycling and eating less meat. However, these options are difficult to engage with when the systems and institutions in a country disincentivise them. For example, Indian cities are not particularly known for being walkable or having cycling tracks, making these options perilous (a few years ago, noted environmentalist, Sunita Narain was run over while cycling to work in Delhi).

Flying less is often put forth as a positive behavioural change with a large impact on individual emissions. I have consciously started flying less, either clubbing meetings to reduce multiple trips or taking the train if that is an option. However, again, being a researcher based in the global South, there are some challenges that are seldom recognised in narratives around ‘climate researchers must walk the talk’. First, with distances as large as they are in India, train rides can last well over 12-15 hours (and up to 24-36 hours if you are traversing the country). Taking such options might often mean travelling over the weekend, eating into time one reserves for family or self-care. Second, important conferences in my field are often held in America or Europe (e.g., the Adaptation Futures 2016 was in Rotterdam, the Cities and Climate Change Conference 2018 is in Edmonton). Getting to these and showcasing one’s work is usually only possible by flying, often at a large financial and physical cost.

An argument I hear often is to not attend these conferences at all, thus eliminating the need to travel completely. Often, such suggestions come well-established researchers, with strong networks and an extensive body of work. To young researchers in my team, many of whom will use conferences to travel abroad for the first time in their life, the pros of presenting their ideas to an international audience, getting feedback on their work, and experiencing a different culture, outweighs concerns of carbon emissions. This is why, while I applaud my European colleagues who choose to take the train instead of flying from say the Netherlands to Sweden or France to the UK, I am unable to provide similar stories of restraint.

I continue to make small amends – offsetting some of the miles, using social media and livestreaming to learn of new advances in my field, and sharing with my team, opportunities to present closer to home. And though I try to fly less, as a researcher based out of South Asia and presenting on international platforms, I find it hard to do.


In March this year, I was scheduled to travel to the IPCC Cities Conference in Edmonton. It would be the farthermost I’d have travelled, from my current base in Myanmar, with a large carbon footprint and great financial cost. It was an important conference in my field, would provide a great networking opportunity, and my panel on urban adaptation case studies across Asia, Africa and Latin America had been accepted and fully funded! In the end, I never got my Canadian visa on time and ended up presenting remotely. The thought of speaking through a computer to an audience far away wasn’t particularly exciting. But it worked! I pre-recorded the presentation to avoid hiccups and the panel managed audience questions brilliantly. Yes, I missed meeting colleagues and researchers in person, but Twitter helped update me on key presentations. As a first timer, I was pleasantly surprised with how easy remote-presenting can be and have since then taught classes remotely, slowly chipping away at my Bigfoot!

Further reading on flying less

Published by Chandni

Environmental social scientist @iihsin Research climate change adaptation, livelihoods, development. Book hoarder, plant lover, doggo devotee.

4 thoughts on “Bigfoot: On being a climate scientist that flies

  1. This is very engaging Chandni and will perhaps be applicable to explain many nuances of difference in contexts when we talk about solutions for addressing climate change in a one-size-fits-all manner. Insightful read, indeed.


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