I’m on a train adventure, going through California, Oregon, and Washington to the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Seattle. This post is a modified version of one I wrote for the AAS
For those of you astronomers and journalists at the meeting, you’re welcome to join us for our Special Session next Wednesday (7th January) at 12:30-14:00 in Room 4C-3. We’ll be starting the new year with ideas and plans for addressing climate change issues in class and with the media.
We encourage anyone who is interested in the Sustainability Committee to contact us and get involved. We will post resources on this website for teaching and discussing climate change with journalists.
It’s important for astronomers to try to make observatories, telescopes, university department buildings, and computer centers as energy efficient as possible, but our largest environmental impact and carbon footprint comes from airplane flights to meetings, conferences, workshops, etc. According to a New York Times article, air travel emissions account for about five percent of global warming, and that fraction is projected to rise significantly as the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency.
It would help this situation to develop better resources and technologies for videoconferencing and remote observing, and these are areas where we should continue to make improvements. In addition, long-distance travel can be difficult for some people, such as for those with families and those in relatively remote locations, and videoconferencing and webcasts can make conferences more accessible to more people.
Nonetheless, long-distance travel is sometimes necessary, including for early-career scientists who need to advertise their work and network at conferences. I joined the Sustainability Committee in 2014, and one thing I am trying to do and trying to encourage others to do is to take more trains. In the US, long-distance trains can be very useful depending on where one wants to travel. They are not always the fastest mode of transportation, but they are comfortable, convenient, have great views, and usually have wireless access if you need to work. And importantly, they save energy.
I work at the University of California, San Diego, and I’m taking the train up the Pacific coast to Seattle via Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, which we just passed, the Bay Area, Sacramento, and Portland. (It makes me think of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”) I’m traveling nearly 1500 miles (2400 km)—nearly the entire distance from the southern to northern border of the US. As I wrote in a blog post last summer, Amtrak trains expend about 1,600 BTUs of energy per passenger per mile, while planes use 2,500 and cars use 3,900. Trains are much more energy efficient than planes, cars, and buses, and by not flying to Seattle, I’m saving tons of carbon dioxide emissions. This is just a start, but I am trying to view flying as a luxury or necessary evil that I will avoid and reduce when possible.
In any case, I’m excited to be part of the new and improved Sustainability Committee, and if you’re interested, join us at the AAS meeting! More importantly, make a resolution in 2015 to reduce your and your institution’s carbon footprint.