Climate action for (neuro)scientists: a concrete guide

Climate change is the most urgent problem currently facing humanity – including a subset who call themselves (neuro)scientists. While many academics still consider (political) activism far outside their comfort zone, the broader scientific community is slowly waking up to the urgency of the situation and the role we can play as a community of evidence-minded individuals. I believe there are few excuses for not engaging with this issue, and there are many ways to productively do so.

Since many scientists seem reluctant to speak up or unsure where to start, I’m collecting a short list of concrete things you can do (in approximate order of effort/difficulty). Pick one, get started and join the global effort necessary to tackle this problem; after all, aren’t we problem-solvers?

Know the science. Read the IPCC report, familiarize yourself with the scope and urgency of the problem. Know what solutions are most impactful, and direct your energy wisely.

Talk to your colleagues, students and collaborators. Make climate change a normal topic of conversation. Join climate marches together (e.g. Ma lab), and assess the environmental impact of your work and travel (see below).

Be a good citizen. Vote. Encourage your students and lab members to vote; if you teach, consider giving students time off to vote in elections. Reduce your (red) meat consumption, drive less, buy green electricity for your house or install solar panels.
Join political advocacy groups. Donate to climate charities (e.g. here) or climate activism organizations (e.g. 350, Union of Concerned Scientists).

Examine your travel and conference habits. Consider that most scientists’ footprint is massively dominated by air travel. Replace flights with more sustainable modes of transport, go to fewer meetings, and combine multiple/longer meetings if you must fly (see examples of Chris SummerfieldRuss Poldrack, Leslie Voshall, @flyingless). Combine multiple meetings and visits to get more science out of a single trip (e.g. list your trip on OnNeuro). Invest in video conferencing technology (e.g. 1, 2) to virtually host people in your lab. For the travel you must do, purchase carbon offsets.

[side note] Think about the long-term incentive structure for academic hiring. You’ll have noticed that those who’ve quit flying altogether tend to be tenured professors. Current academic incentive structures basically require young scientists to do research projects in famous labs (often abroad), give invited talks, travel to conferences and do plenty of networking. This is not only bad for the climate but also for those who can’t travel much for other (e.g. family, health) reasons. Senior researchers should seriously consider how to make academic practices less travel-heavy, for themselves but more importantly for their trainees.

Reduce waste and emissions in your lab. In wet labs, see if you can reduce the energy usage of your freezers, fume hoods etc (see e.g. MyGreenLab).  Consider the energy impact of computational work, especially in Machine Learning, and push your community to take AI model’s carbon footprint into account for benchmarks.

Hold your institution accountable. Get your administration to commit to concrete sustainability goals, and divestment from fossil fuels (e.g. Johns Hopkins, Stanford). Get certified so you can track your progress. Demand a sustainable travel policy, that emphasizes overland travel (e.g. Ghent University). Offset the travel-related emissions generated by your department (e.g. Fitzwilliam College; but see here).

Organize meetings wisely. Formulate a sustainability policy (e.g. ASSC). Offer remote conference participation, talks through videoconferencing and tele-posters. Plan your meeting in locations that are easily accessible by train or direct flights (e.g. here). Schedule related meetings together so participants can combine their trips. Ultimately, consider reducing the frequency and size of mega-meetings, for example by simultaneous local meetings connected through video.

Use your scientific skills to work on solutions to the climate crisis. Computer scientist or machine learning expert? Work on climate-related ML projects. Cognitive scientist or human factors researcher? Develop better VR conference systems. Psychologist? Find out how to mitigate the impacts of climate change on human behavior. Social scientist? Design better policy. Join scientists advocacy groups (e.g. ScAAN) that help policy-makers by preparing curated information bulletins.

Further reading

And finally, if this doesn’t convey the urgency of the situation I don’t know what does. Happy climate action!

3 thoughts on “Climate action for (neuro)scientists: a concrete guide

  1. nickgladman says:

    This is a great article for those trying to find their place in a world undergoing climate change. I’d like to add another resource too.

    I began using the Skeptical Science website (https://skepticalscience.com/) when I wanted to learn more about climate science and refute common claims promulgated by climate change deniers. It has a great repository of climate denier myths and why they have been debunked by the primary scientific literature. The site includes levels of explanations based on the readers expertise on the subject as well as in-article links to the primary scientific literature.

  2. Emmy says:

    Hi, thanks for this! I especially like the last recommendation. I’ve hit the Follow button since we’re both on WordPress. These posts were hastily written and were from years ago but some people may find them more palatable than studies (most have research links within, though some are broken).

    I might add a second comment since WP does usually object to 2 or more links in one comment.

    https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0167880916303097

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