Museum Conferences, Air Travel and Global Warming – A Modest But Necessary Proposal

Today’s Guest Post is by Robert R. Janes. Dr. Janes is an independent scholar and served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship from 2003 to 2014. He is the founder and co-chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice

The Problem

Air travel is the world’s fastest growing source of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide (CO2), which cause climate change. Globally the world’s 16,000 commercial jet aircraft generate more than 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. Indeed, aviation generates nearly as much CO2 annually as that from all human activities in Africa. In short, air travel is now the fastest-growing contributor to global warming.

Plane Wing
Unsplash / Trust “tru” Katsande

Not only do planes generate large amounts of CO2 per passenger, but they also create heat-trapping vapour trails and contribute to the rise of tropospheric ozone. The release of CO2 at high altitudes has a far more detrimental effect on the atmosphere than at lower altitudes, due to a phenomenon known as radiative forcing.

A paper published by Environmental Science and Technology asserts that planes accounted for more global warming in 2010 than all the cars on the world’s roads. The authors found that per passenger mile, flying is 50 times worse than driving in terms of a five year warming impact, ( ;

For many of us who travel for work, air travel is our most difficult and personal environmental challenge. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe creates a warming effect equivalent to two or three tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average Canadian about 15 tons, and the average European, 10.

The overall impact of aircraft emissions is a warming effect that is 1.9 times that of carbon dioxide alone .

My carbon footprint for a return flight from Calgary to Auckland, via Los Angeles, would be 5.52 metric tons. Calculate your flight here.

Why Stop Flying Professionally?

Although it is clear that flying is damaging the environment, most academics, scientists, and museum professionals continue to fly – regionally, nationally, and internationally. It is commonplace for museum academics and practitioners to fly all over the world on short trips to present papers and keynotes at conferences, to do research, meet informally with colleagues, etc.

Conference Presentation
Unspash / Teemu Paananen

Knowing what we now know about the environmental impact of jet travel, flying long distances to participate in meetings and conferences may well have become the “elephant in the room.” Bluntly speaking: Don’t be fooled: Every time you get on an airplane, you’re helping to shove a Bangladeshi’s home under water”. Yet, jet travel continues its alarming growth, apparently because doing the responsible, or “green” thing, requires an actual sacrifice or a substantial change in lifestyle and professional ambitions (above and beyond recycling, low flush toilets, and hybrid cars).

Sacrificing our personal interests and professional aspirations is where most of us draw the line, and to do so we adopt some form of denial.

There are at least three forms of denial. These include

  • Existential denial – as in “there’s no problem, it’s not happening”
  • Consequential denial – as in “it doesn’t really matter – there are more important concerns”
  •  Fatalistic denial – as in “there’s nothing I can do about it anyway.” [1]

Or perhaps most of us are simply sleepwalking into the future in the unthinking “me/now” mode.

None of these reactions, however, will help us to learn, change, and adapt to the spectre of climate change. In addition, giving up air travel is personally more costly for the public intellectuals and museum professionals who write and speak about these critical issues.

Conference Session
Unspash / Antenna

Giving up speaking invitations at conferences in very interesting places is also very difficult – in fact, the vast majority of us do not make this sacrifice.

The Question

Robert Janes at Climate Change session
Robert Janes at CMA Conference

I have spent the bulk of my 41 year museum career writing and speaking about the social responsibilities of museums as key agents of civil society, ranging form the repatriation of indigenous collections to climate change activism (Museums and Climate Change; Museums in a Troubled World)  If I am going to be serious about greenhouse gasses and climate change, then I must be serious about air travel — recognizing the ever-increasing importance of individual responsibility in lowering our collective carbon footprint. Governments can’t do this; industry can’t do this – it is up to each of us as individuals in our professional and civic communities to accept this responsibility.

There is admittedly great value in having people in the same room to present papers and discuss ideas, but this opportunity and its benefits now come with a cost that is no longer tenable or morally responsible. Modern conferencing technologies are an obvious alternative. It has been said that “going to a distant conference should attract the kind of scorn among the chattering classes that is currently reserved for buying a Hummer

Can we, as thoughtful, caring museum workers, model the progressive behaviour that will be required of all professional associations if we are to mitigate the worst effects of climate change – by using videoconferencing wherever possible?


[1] Ken Steele, “Adjust Your Sails or be Blown Off Course: Emerging Trends in Canadian PSE.” Available online: (2008), 22.

Luca and BobRobert R. Janes is an independent scholar and served as editor-in-chief of the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship from 2003 to 2014. He is also a visiting research fellow at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester (United Kingdom). He has worked in and around museums for over 40 years as an executive, consultant, editor, author, board member, archaeologist, instructor, volunteer, and philanthropist. Janes has devoted his career to championing museums as important social institutions that are capable of making a difference in the lives of individuals and heir communities. His latest book is Museums without Borders (2016) – a collection of nearly 40 years of his writing. He is also the founder and co-chair of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice.

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  1. Eira Tansey

    Great post. I’ve found the academia-focused Flying Less blog ( to be especially instructive in learning more about this issue and how to dial back one’s flying activities while still remaining professionally engaged.

  2. Sarah Sutton

    This is a tough subject for me as I have not yet aligned my personal values with my professional practice. It isn’t cognitive dissonance; it is the reality of choosing to live on a rock in an ocean for many good reasons, and triggering one terrible carbon consequence as a result.

    I live on Oahu. Hawai’i is the most isolated inhabited archipelago in the World. I moved here on purpose to live where there is a spirit of Aloha; where I can be in nature every moment of the day (comfortably so); where I can learn more about the ocean and its ecosystems, and the many cultures here, plus an incredible island heritage, and try to understand the experience of people who must become more self-sufficient living on an island in rising seas. It has changed who I am and how I do my work, in good ways, and on every level.

    I made an uneasy peace with this when I spoke with Robert Janes about it two years ago as I struggled in advance of the move. We agreed that I do work that advances the field and society, and some of that must be done in person: some at client sites, some at conferences. I mitigate by flying direct whenever possible, not just when affordable. I chain trips to save carbon, cash, and time for me and my clients. I meet by Webex or Skype or similar systems as often as possible. I buy carbon offsets to be sure I am intentional about my impact.

    Fortunately, the electronic alternatives, and our capacity for them, are improving. Where, at first, my clients struggled with the distance to Hawai’i (can I call there, does it cost more, how is Internet there?) and the time change (would you join a 2 AM meeting? Yes, I will), now they have become easy and confident with our online meetings and presentations, and they are all a bit more aware of Hawai’i life. The opportunity and our encouragement of each other made all the difference in creating change in the way we work together.

    We – the conference-goers – may need that ourselves: opportunity and encouragement. Let’s use Robert Janes’ lead and this discussion as the opportunity and encouragement to be the ones to organize a museums and climate conference entirely online. Let’s explore, on behalf of the field and the planet, how this can be done well.

    It seems the conference habit – ours and the host organization’s – is hard to kick, but we have the creativity, ingenuity, and savvy to create and test alternatives that can become a replacement for many of the world’s conferences. Just think of how many more in the field can learn and connect through small and large gatherings this way!

    I propose we start small, with a goal of a single-day conference as our pilot, use all we know about social engagement to provide the good feelings we get from personal connections, all we know about technology to provide winning presentations, and all we know about museums and climate to share critical material that moves the field forward. And I propose a virtual Happy Hour, at the close, to celebrate, no matter what time it is in Hawai’i.

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