Published in British Birds, April 2018 – vol. 111, issue 4, pp 182–185
By Javier Caletrío
In ornithological company, the concept of climate change is usually discussed in terms of measurable impacts on bird populations and habitats, rarely on the way that it may affect the practice of birdwatching itself. This is remarkable considering how carbon-intensive certain styles of birdwatching have become. The days when Horace Alexander, one of the pioneers of British ornithology, expanded his usual New Year’s Day birding walk around his home town with a train ride to Dungeness in 1910 or, after moving to the Midlands in 1918, a bus ride to the Lickey Hills, seem distant to generations of birdwatchers that have grown up taking the car and the aeroplane for granted. New Year’s Day 2019 will find many birdwatchers driving to favoured spots or enjoying colourful birds in a warmer climate, perhaps around the Mediterranean or even on a different continent altogether. It seems unlikely, however, that the coming decades will witness the continued growth of mobility that has characterised ornithology in recent decades. At least there are reasons to believe that it shouldn’t.
Growing numbers of birders feel increasingly uneasy about their carbon footprint and there are recent references to the possibility that birdwatching in the future may involve travelling less or travelling differently. But the enthusiasm with which trips to distant places and long world bird lists are still celebrated suggest that, in general, British ornithology remains seemingly oblivious to the sense of urgency in recent debates about global warming. Climate scientists argue that what matters is not so much levels of technological efficiency and emissions reduction in a more or less distant future, but cumulative greenhouse emissions, which could trigger a tipping point in climate dynamics with potentially devastating consequences. The cumulative emissions concept reframes global warming as a short-term issue, in which action taken in the next two decades could be critical. During this period, unprecedented levels of emissions reduction are necessary, and the longer we delay these cuts the more abrupt reductions will have to be in the future. The key issue here is that since the time required for adapting everyday infrastructures to new energy systems is usually measured in decades, there is no mathematical alternative but to reduce energy demand if there is a reasonable chance of avoiding dangerous climate change. This means that changes in lifestyle are unavoidable. In terms of transport this means shifting to cleaner options such as railways and cycling and, especially for those who have lifestyles with large carbon footprints, flying less or stopping flying altogether.
Initiating the debate about achieving a significant decarbonisation of ornithology is not easy. Routine short- and long-distance travel underpins contemporary economic and social life and there are strong economic and cultural inertias. Conservation organisations like the RSPB and WWT are part of the tourist economy and rely on a membership that places a high value on access to parts of the countryside that are poorly served by public transport. Similarly, over the last few decades, with the desire to watch birds abroad, there has been a proliferation of specialised travel agents covering every continent. A reduction of ‘birdwatching miles’ would affect these organisations and companies.
Questioning high-carbon travel may prove even more challenging culturally. Celebrated figures in European ornithology, both dead and alive, are generally well-travelled individuals, and a brief perusal of birdwatching literature shows that travel is an essential part of what it means to be an accomplished ornithologist today. To many people, birdwatching in distant places is an expression of a curious and caring disposition towards the world and its birds, and while this can be experienced as a deep personal feeling, it also entails a broader social dimension. In some circles, visiting exotic destinations and having long bird lists are regarded as signs of distinction and expertise.
Addressing the problem of high-carbon travel is not simply a matter of educating people. One of the paradoxes of the current environmental crisis is that educated, environmentally aware segments of the population are often among the highest carbon emitters. In Germany, Green Party supporters fly more frequently than supporters of any other party. Research in the UK and Norway shows that people are happy to adopt environmentally friendly behaviour at home but are reticent to give up their holidays abroad. Some even regard those trips abroad as a time when environmentally friendly behaviour can be suspended as a ‘well-deserved treat’ for their commitment to the environment at home. This stark dissonance between local aesthetics (e.g. buying organic and/or local food) and the global picture illustrates the challenges of promoting lifestyle change when travel has become so engrained in contemporary ways of life and touches deeply on our identity.
Despite these difficulties, it would be a mistake to frame the transition towards low-carbon ornithology in terms of sacrifice or as limiting choice. A debate on the way that climate change may redefine birdwatching should underline the opportunities that a reduction in travel would open up. We should also acknowledge that British birdwatching encompasses an extremely diverse set of styles and practices, some of which are already low carbon. An obvious example is local patch birding. This style of birding, revolving around the enjoyment of gaining an intimate knowledge of a particular place and its birds through long-term engagement, should be celebrated and encouraged. BB’s recent editorial on the SK58 Birders and the new section ‘My patch’ are timely examples of the kind of institutionalised encouragement needed for cultural change in the world of ornithology. What’s more, this approach has the potential to enhance local knowledge of population dynamics, to boost participation in national and international monitoring schemes, and to engage with the local population.
Importantly, low-carbon birdwatching does not necessarily involve giving up trips abroad. Many destinations can reasonably be reached by train and/or ship. Travelling from England to the northwest of the Mediterranean can be done in a single day by train, often with less hassle, more comfortable seats and better views than flying. Similarly, low-carbon ornithology should not mean giving up birding as a competitive ‘sport’. Traditionally, that has involved an excess of birdwatching miles but low-carbon lists could be encouraged instead as a more genuine sign of distinction. The growing popularity of initiatives such as Patchwork Challenge, and particularly their Green List category, is evidence of the potential appeal of reducing your birding horizons.
While it is impossible to predict how a transition to low-carbon ornithology might unfold, it is possible to identify some of the key issues. One of these is the rise of carbon inequality. According to recent research, the richest 10% of the world’s population is responsible for around 50% of carbon emissions. This inequality is even starker when regarding transport-related emissions. In France, 5% of the population is responsible for 50% of transport-related carbon emissions in tourism, mostly as a result of flying (and 20% of the population is responsible for 80% of emissions). In the UK, just 15% of people take 70% of flights, most of which are leisure flights by frequent flyers. To my knowledge, there is no research on the mobility patterns and carbon footprint of British birdwatchers, but it is reasonable to assume that a significant proportion of dedicated birdwatchers fly more frequently than people in the same income bracket and that the largest carbon footprints correspond with those with higher incomes. These trends are likely to be reinforced in the immediate future as inequality is set to continue rising in an anticipated context of low economic growth and weak political support for progressive taxes. As this happens at a time of mounting pressure to act on climate change, we may expect debates about transport-related carbon footprints to redefine what is regarded as a legitimate and ethical way of enjoying and studying birds, and perhaps even question the late twentieth-century image of birdwatching as an expression of more democratic and equal societies.
By now some readers may be wondering whether a debate on the transition towards low-carbon ornithology is even necessary considering the negligible effect of British ornithology on the climate system. I would argue that it does matter, for two main reasons. Firstly, regarding distant travel, while aviation’s contribution to human-induced climate change is currently smaller than that of other sectors (2% according to the aviation industry), the problem is the rapid growth in the share of emissions. International aviation’s CO2 emissions may represent 22% of global emissions by 2050. This share is greater in countries where aviation is more prominent. Projections for the UK show that if the government is committed to limiting global warming to 1.5ºC and yet gives the green light to the planned Heathrow expansion, 71% of the national emissions budget will be consumed by aviation by 2050. To put things in perspective, bear in mind that only 5% of the world’s population has ever been on a plane. Those of us who fly for watching birds are part of a small, highly polluting elite. The obvious question here is that if in the face of this evidence we still feel entitled to fly frequently, why should middle classes in emerging economies not feel so too? Currently 423 new airports are planned or under construction, 223 of these in the Asian-Pacific region alone. At the moment, there are no convincing signs that a major breakthrough could help to reduce aviation’s emissions substantially, and the limited opportunities available to improve fuel efficiency cannot compensate for the expected growth in demand (Bows-Larkin et al. 2016). This growth in demand can happen within the available carbon budget only if other sectors curb their carbon emissions even further. Climate scientist Kevin Anderson argues that ‘expanding aviation is numerically, technically and symbolically incompatible with commitments to avoiding dangerous climate change’.
Secondly, and crucially, this debate matters because the credibility of our claims is at stake. As a collective that professes a concern for the state of the planet, at least for those who accept the scientific evidence of human-induced climate change, our actions as ornithologists cannot imply a tacit denial of that evidence. In advocating the vision of a world informed by science, the way we communicate that science cannot simply be about accessible writing styles or reaching the wider public through different media. It is also about nurturing trust between the public and ourselves. And for our message to be trusted, our action needs to be seen as being consistent with the message that real and urgent action is needed on emissions. This is relevant not just to individuals and organisations with a higher public profile. To the extent that British ornithology is admired and inspires individuals and organisations around the world, we all have a responsibility in making that transition towards low-carbon ornithology a successful one. The same urgency we demand in addressing the plight of endangered species and habitats should inform efforts to change our own carbon-intensive lifestyles.
We need a debate about how best to encourage a transition in British ornithology because the path is not easy and there are tensions and interests that need to be balanced. Vital research and conservation work will still rely to some extent on oil-fuelled transport. Some groups in society such as the elderly and those with disabilities rely on cars for basic access to the countryside and cannot always make use of public transport. Nature reserves will still need to generate income from visitors. And all of us will need role models. A transition to low-carbon ornithology will need its own heroes but their profile will be different from some of those celebrated in recent years. Surely some of these unsung heroes already exist. They are unlikely to care too much about long world lists and are more likely to be found on their local patch, with years of consistent commitment to understanding the birds around them. Other heroes will emerge from younger generations eager to explore distant places without costing us the planet. A cultural change on this scale will succeed if those willing to commit find support among friends and local birdwatching clubs, and if these efforts are given the institutional support and visibility that they deserve.
I doubt that Horace Alexander’s experience of birdwatching in the early twentieth century was any poorer than ours simply because there was less fast travel or bird lists were shorter. In reading about the experiences of pioneers of twentieth-century British ornithology, I cannot avoid wondering whether we may have been the victims of the tyranny of choice in these times of fast living. Maybe it is time to enjoy not just slow food, but also ‘slow ornithology’.
I am grateful to Angela Loxham and Nacho Dies for their comments.
British Birds kindly granted permission to reproduce the article here.