Climate Change: What Are We Going to Do?

From flying to meetings to running data centers, scholarly publishing is not carbon-neutral

Climate Change: What Are We Going to Do?

Note: Today’s missive is by guest author David Smith, Head of Technology Strategy at IET. Smith raised this issue at a meeting recently, and kindly agreed to explore it further in an essay for “The Geyser.”

By David Smith

I entered the world of scholarly publishing in March 1999. That month, the measured CO2 level at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was 369ppm.

As I write this in the last days of 2019, atmospheric CO2 is at 410ppm.

I drove home to a news item on UK national radio about an article to be published in Nature describing the frankly terrifying acceleration of the ice melt in the Arctic after 50 years of heating.

Our industry publishes the science of manmade climate change. We’ve benefitted from the carbon economy in many ways. The energy released by burning fossil fuels has powered the advances in health, and standards of living that have moved global life expectancy and quality of life indicators firmly up and to the right. And the carbon economy has  powered the globalisation of our business.

However, if humanity is to limit global temperature rises to 2°C, we have about 40ppm of CO2 to play with. That’s 20 years or less. The question then is: What contribution are we scholarly publishers going to make to this endeavour?

It’s not an easy question to answer.

Now, there are few corporate responsibility statements out there. Here’s one from Reed Elsevier [] and another from Springer Nature [] and another from John Wiley & Sons (from 2008) [] Note: their current corporate responsibility page does not contain any info the author could find. So far, so good for those three organisations.

But then the same search for a selection of society and not-for-profit publishers turned up very little indeed. Not so good.

Earlier this year, a fiercely motivated 16-year-old named Greta marched in to Parliament here in the UK and excoriated the assembled MPs. (She’s done the same over in the US.)

Don’t nod to yourself. Don’t think “About bloody time.” Read her speech []. Now read it again.

Here’s the quote:

Every time we make a decision we should ask ourselves; how will this decision affect that curve? We should no longer measure our wealth and success in the graph that shows economic growth, but in the curve that shows the emissions of greenhouse gases. We should no longer only ask: “Have we got enough money to go through with this?” but also: “Have we got enough of the carbon budget to spare to go through with this?” That should and must become the centre of our new currency.

That sounds like the beginning of an answer to the question we should be posing ourselves.

Here’s another quote from Peter Mather, Head of BP UK and Europe ( :

“The world is on an unsustainable path. . . . We have to rethink how this all works. . . . We have to change or we won’t exist in 20 to 30 years.”

Those corporate responsibility reports are something at least, but it is by no means clear that buying carbon credits and offsets or certificates of green energy is actually bending the curve downwards.

I took a look at what some of the consequences of a 2°C rise might mean. It’s not good for the places where we’ve globalised our business.

Vast tracts of Mumbai are at risk of flooding (and at 4°C, it’s devastating); Manila is similarly affected; Chennai looks to be not too badly affected, but then look at the surroundings, the places where the people who work for us ‘over there’ actually live.

You can plug in your own location of interest here []. And of course a warming globe brings weather disruption in the form of altered patterns again affecting the lives of the families who work for us around the world, where it’s cheaper . . .

I think we have to ask of ourselves why we don’t all have a corporate responsibility statement that explicitly deals with how we use carbon in our industry. But then we must go further. We need to understand where the carbon is being emitted across the whole of our environment. Truly understand it. I think that’s a research programme itself. And then it’s time to rethink what we do on the basis of the carbon that will be emitted by the things we do. What’s our responsibility to the people we employ around the world in places where it floods and the winds come and flatten everything.

I’m a technologist. I don’t know how “green” all those lovely powerful cloud things are that I and my team get to play with. I asked Microsoft about their Azure platform. Apparently, 60% of the compute has been done with renewable energy in 2019. Now I could say, job’s done there, Microsoft are all over this. But are they? How do I know for sure that the curve is heading downwards? It’s similar for AWS. There’s a massive difference between being very energy efficient and not actually putting carbon into the air (what about the manufacturing and supply chain footprint of those data centres?).

To what extent do the efforts of the organisations where people work help those individuals bring their carbon footprints down? It’s easy to throw around concepts such as home working, but those are non-trivial change management programmes to implement. And there’s a carbon cost to that implementation. We work in buildings with lifespans of hundreds of years, many of which were never built with carbon neutrality in mind. Refitting is again a distinctly non-trivial task further fraught with uncertainty about the efficacy of the various options that are available to reduce a carbon footprint, not to mention that challenges of cost (and benefit). We fly. And so do the people who’s scholarship we publish. Sure, we could plant some trees, but again, is that really taking the carbon back out of the air?

Yet, we must. Here’s Greta again:

Avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.

She’s right.

So, what are scholarly publishers going to contribute to this endeavour?

What am I going to do?

What are you going to do?

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