I recently received an invitation to Google/O’Reilly’s Science Foo Camp, for 2017 at the Googleplex in Mountain View later this summer. I’d so love to go. But I just can’t bring myself to do it, and this is the letter I sent to them in reply.
Dear Tim, Chris, and Daniel,
Thank you for your invitation to Science Foo Camp 2017. Alas I cannot come. This is a plea that you organize satellite Foo camps in other countries and develop platforms to link them up.
I cannot tell you how sad I am that I cannot join you. It breaks my heart. This is not because I don’t want to – I would LOVE to be there – I have heard so much about the Camps and how creatively energizing they are. Nor is it that I have other commitments. I don’t. My diary is free.
But to come to the Science Foo Camp would requires me to fly half way round the globe. The emissions from that single return flight would be around 2 tonnes CO2e (see the ICAO Carbon Calculator, including the IPCC’s suggested factor of ~2 to account for radiative forcing).
Let me put this into context.
I am married and I have two children. We live in a typical British “terraced” house. Our gas consumption from cooking and keeping the house warm in 2016 amounted to ~750 m3, equivalent to 1500 kg CO2. Although I have solar panels on my roof, I still draw electricity from the grid. The 1700 kWh that we drew in 2016 are equivalent to about 900 kg CO2.
After subtracting what electricity our panels produce and export to the grid, my single flight to Science Foo Camp comes very close to my annual direct domestic energy emissions. To fly to the Camp would negate all the energy saving measures that I have put in at some effort over the years. It would also undermine my position on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group which has spent the past few years battling to hold our institutions emissions steady, let alone reduce them.
I cannot tell you how painful it is to find myself in this position. I would dearly love to come to Sci Foo Camp. It is, in fact, the third time that you have invited me and the third time that I have, very reluctantly, felt forced to decline. But having young children my time horizon extends to the end of the century.
Again, some context. I was born when CO2 levels were around 315-318 ppm. We are well past 400 now, not simply the highest in our lifetimes, but the highest level in the entire course of our species’ existence. That CO2 is a key determinant of planetary temperature is uncontroversial – we have known this since the 1850’s. Sea levels are rising steadily and ice is melting. It is now expected that the Arctic will be largely ice-free in the summer by the time my children graduate from high school – the mid 2020’s.
To someone who grew up with the idea of the Inuit hunting seals (“Nanook of the North”), and reading adventure stories about the North West passage, this is a jaw-dropping development. I draw your attention to these two graphs, courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit, and based on NSIDC data, that sit of your own servers:
Both of these plots are striking indications that our planet is changing at astonishing speed while we continue with a business as usual mindset. The situation in the Antarctic gives little room for comfort.
I know that I am preaching to the converted – you are all aware of the issue and its magnitude. It surprises me, therefore, that Google, with large headquarters in the heart of London and and other cities, and with its dominance of worldwide communications technology, does not organize satellite events across the world in an effort not simply to minimize its CO2 impact, but also to draw attention to the reality of how our world is changing. Could you not devote more effort to find ways to link the Foo camps together virtually through some kind of virtual/augmented reality platform?
Perhaps it is the fact that bringing a few hundred people together seems so insignificant in comparison to the many millions who fly every day. Let me therefore ask you a question. Do you buy your loved ones jewellery made from ivory? You don’t? Surely one little ivory trinket is tiny in comparison to the vast worldwide market that is decimating elephants across Africa… So why do you not buy ivory? Is it a matter of principle?
For the UK, the 3% annual growth in air travel means that by 2050 if the country meets its Paris Agreement commitments, air travel on its own is expected to account for 50% of the UK’s carbon budget, an issue that has enormous implications; it is something that we need to start to address now, not in 2030, or some other arbitrary date.
It is time for Google, O’Reilly and other big digital players to help us to give us alternatives to having to make these difficult choices. The ethical dimensions of this are huge given the enormous percentage of the world’s population that lives within 5 m of sea level and on flood plains. I am thinking of Miami, of New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and London, all cities that will need to be protected in the coming years if we remain as we currently are – myself included – in denial about the severity of the situation.
Please, Google, wake up. You have enormous reach. Enormous power. Don’t talk. Act.