Three years promoting low-carbon birding

By Javier Caletrío

In March 2018 British Birds published my article entitled ‘Are we addicted to high-carbon ornithology?’ I would like to share a few reflections on the origin of the article and how it has been received.

Some climate and sustainability scientists had been discussing the need to align their academic practices with climate science since at least the early 2010s, but to my knowledge conservationists and birdwatchers were largely oblivious of this conversation. Being a birdwatcher myself, I decided to write an article to highlight the need to move towards a birdwatching culture that acknowledged the reality of a rapidly diminishing carbon budget and could face up to the moral responsibility of sharing it equitably. I argued that if birdwatchers and conservationists wanted to grant credibility to their message of an ecological and climate crisis, it was important to act in line with climate science.

When I sent the article I had little hope, however, that it would be published. I had trodden cautiously but the article is essentially a call for a shift away from a form of doing birdwatching in which organisations, businesses and many individuals, some of them influential, had invested their money, identity and reputation. To my surprise, the response was positive. All reviewers ‘agreed strongly’ with the basic points and wanted the article to be published as an editorial. 

This was encouraging, yet when I opened a Twitter account to promote the article and encourage a conversation about birdwatching and the climate crisis, the response was at best timid and in the first few months my tweets only found a small audience thanks to Tim Allwood who retweeted almost everything I posted. At the same time I began receiving enthusiastic emails from British Birds readers happy to see the subject finally being mentioned. British Birds was also receiving such emails. Two months after the publication of the article Roger Riddington told me that, as far as he could remember, no other editorial since he became the editor in 2001 had received so many comments from readers, all positive except two which were published in the June issue along with my response. An email from Tom Wall captures the overall tone and content of these messages: ‘Dear Javier Caletrío, Good to read your well argued piece in BB. It has long needed saying. And well done BB for publishing it.’

While the response from British Birds readers was encouraging and unexpected, the silence in Twitter was actually reflecting a wider trend. Advocates of flying less in academia had frequently noted that mentioning the climate impact of aviation when talking with friends and colleagues created an odd feeling. Advocates of flying less were torn between what they believed was their moral responsibility to end the silence about climate change and the knowledge that raising the issue would make friends and colleagues feel uncomfortable. I knew this wouldn’t be different amongst birdwatchers. Along with emails encouraging me to speak up, I also began to receive emails from individuals sharing their concerns about speaking publicly about the climate impact of birdwatching. One of the emails was from an anguished mother of two toddlers despairing at the gap between the gloomy prospect for her children and the dominant narrative among nature enthusiasts that if we ‘connect’ with nature and show others our enthusiasm everything will be fine. Another young conservationist wondered how she could talk about low-carbon birding and the climate crisis at work when, on the day when the IPCC released its report on 1.5 degrees, her superior was enthusiastically tweeting from the airport about her latest long-haul birding holiday.

Now, to me one of the interesting things about the climate movement is how quickly things are changing. The British Birds article was published in March 2018, six months before Greta Thunberg started the school strike and eight and thirteen months before the first and second Extinction Rebellion occupations in London. Since autumn 2018, there have been literally hundreds of media articles about the climate impact of aviation and the rise of the flying less movement. These developments have made it easier to talk about climate change.

These developments are also being reflected in the wildlife tourism industry. In 2019 Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert invited me to participate in a panel about climate change at Birdfair with Melanie Coath from the RSPB, climate activist Holly Hillybrand, and Tony Juniper from Natural England. After the panel and during the following two days people approached me to express their concerns about the ongoing celebration of high-carbon birdwatching. More revealing, though, were conversations with staff at birding holiday companies. For the first time they were being asked about no-fly holidays and they were under no illusion that the sector had to change in fundamental ways, not just cosmetically. When I asked whether they meant offsetting emissions from flying, a seasoned tour leader chuckled with irony: ‘Offsetting … yes, that makes people feel better. In that respect, yes, it is highly effective.’ And then he added: ‘We don’t do offsetting.’ In the most surreal moment of my three days at Birdfair, staff at an organisation selling offsets told me in a whisper after looking over her shoulder that she wasn’t convinced at all that they actually work. I also talked to small companies from the south of Europe interested in and excited at the possibilities of long-distance train travel.  Although I spent three days talking to as many people as possible, I’m not claiming that these views are representative of the birding scene. They do show, I think, that change is coming.

As low-carbon birding has gained visibility, criticisms have also grown. I was expecting this right from the beginning and I can understand the uneasiness that a call for driving less and flying less would cause especially among those who make a living out of wildlife tourism. My father worked for British Airways for 22 years and after that he owned a small family travel agency for another 22 years. My three siblings work in the tourism and hospitality sector in Spain. I know how vulnerable some small companies can be in times of change. Most of the criticisms, I’m glad to say, have been based on misunderstandings, and this is one of the reasons why I created the website with detailed accounts about different ways of understanding and doing low-carbon birding, so that birdwatchers with an honest interest in learning about it could access more information. There have also been a few misrepresentations. Low-carbon birding is not, as some have claimed, the end of travel or a retreat into parochial attitudes. As I understand it, low-carbon birding is ultimately about helping to bring about a different birding culture, one that can be enjoyed by alland not just a select fewin a liveable planet. There are obviously dilemmas involved and I have acknowledged this from the beginning.

Final reflections

The idea of low-carbon birding was in the air well before 2018 and the climate movement and particularly the school strike and the Extinction Rebellion protests have created a favourable context to talk about it. As the climate crisis worsens and more people become aware of how dire the situation is, the desire to enjoy birds without burning fossil fuels will increase. Without being aware of it, I put in writing an idea that some people were already practising and many others were already thinking about. It is encouraging to see a growing number of birdwatchers in every corner of the country becoming climate activists in their own ways, by talking about climate and showing others through their own actions that, even within current systemic constraints, a different birding culture is possible. In the last few months I have received fewer emails from people expressing concern about difficult conversations and more from individuals sharing their joy at knowing that they are part of something bigger.

In the last few months I have also had conversations with individuals who came to realise that, at a time of growing economic inequalities, the notion of low-carbon birding offers a positive narrative to those who cannot afford to participate in styles of birdwatching requiring long-distance driving, frequent flying and large travel budgets. It offers a positive narrative to those who know that reducing travel, making an effort to travel low-carbon, and staying local (while remaining connected to global social movements) is a responsible thing to do in a carbon-constrained world.

When my wife read the first draft of the British Birds article she smiled and noted that I was not going to make many friends in the birding world. Three years later, I’m glad to say that it has been a pleasure to have met so many decent people. Thank you all and please keep talking about climate.

Photo by Rikki Chan.

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