Recently, "Nature Climate Change" published a new study about how climate change may cause more turbulence in air travel over the Atlantic. Obviously, the study raised attention and was published all over the place (the world maybe?), also in Germany on spiegel-online. I was asked by a journalist from Associated Press what that might mean in terms of what kind of impact that will have on people’s habits. He said that environmentalists have struggled for years to get people to curb their flying habits and if there is any chance that a bit turbulence might make the problem a bit more concrete for flyers?
This here is what he made out the story, with a quote selected from my written answer. Here is my long version:
Maybe this study
confirms what most people already know: air travel contributes to
climate change. But to use bumpy air travels as climate pedagogy doesn't
work. For decades now, environmentalists and climate scientists
confront us on an almost daily basis
with doom scenarios. Climate change will flood our lands; extreme
weather events will devastate our landscapes; climate change will cause
diseases, depressions, and even wars - there is no scenario not yet
studied by scientists and used as "dark pedagogy"
(education by fear) by well-meaning environmentalists. Do people still
listen? I am not sure, and I am afraid bumpy air travels in the middle
of the century won't come as a shock. This study is maybe of use for the
air industry, but its potential to educate
people is of limited value, if at all.
Besides the danger of overselling, the pedagogical use of these studies
brings also a problem for the credibility of climate science. Those
projections are made under the assumption that everything keeps the same
except climate. But how will we travel in 40
years? 40 years ago, there was no mass travel. We have no idea how we
will live and travel in 40 years. Around the turn of the 20th century,
the German climate researcher Eduard Brückner projected consequences of
climate change for agriculture, economy, transport
and so on. But he could not anticipate the emergence of railways, which
made most of his scenarios obsolete. We should keep this in mind and
focus on more immediate ways to decarbonize our societies, to improve
our life-styles and to learn how to cope with
a permanently changing climate. This approach is totally different from
the old environmentalist discourse, which has penetrated climate
science. What we need today is a new climate realism and pragmatism in
order to face the challenge of climate change.
Of course, today many
people fly, and this is why this study is framed didactically to educate
people; in turn, science journals like "Nature" can sell the news to
the world wide media. What we really learn
from this study is how knowledge is produced in the 21st century; when
institutions, scientists and publishers have to compete on a knowledge
market, where public attention is crucial for surviving the next
evaluation and assessment.