This article was initially published more than a week ago and has subsequently been updated with new information.
Gianluca Grimalda, a researcher at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy in Germany, has spent the last six months studying the impacts of climate change on the Solomon Islands. Having finished, he has now been fired after refusing to return to Germany at short notice, which goes against his objection against flying.
Flying has a big toll on the environment because of its greenhouse gas emissions. Airplanes burn fossil fuels, which then release carbon dioxide (CO2). Emissions from aviation have been growing faster than any other mode of transport, which is why environmental campaigners frequently argue in favor of other ways of transport.
Grimalda is no stranger to controversy. Last year, Grimalda glued himself to the floor of a Porsche factory as part of a climate protest, which led to him being arrested.
Since then, he has been working in rural areas of Bougainville, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. His research was supposed to have finished in July but it took him an extra 45 days to be completed.
“I had to interrupt research twice for serious security threats. On one occasion, ex-combatants from the 1990-8 civil conflict arranged a roadblock, held me and my assistant hostage under machete threat, confiscated all of my belongings and asked a ransom for their release,” he explained in an open letter posted earlier this week.
Now, Grimalda was asked by Kiel Institute to be back in Germany on short notice. Doing so means catching a plane, something the researcher “despises” as it would produce around four tons of CO2. Instead, he was planning to travel overland and sea, as he did on his outbound journey, saving on his emissions.
But this would take too long, the university argues, leading to its decision to sack Grimalda. He told The Guardian he is considering to appeal the decision and that he has asked for help from the trade union. However, he acknowledges that the university’s actions seem to be justified from a legal point of view.
The climate cost of flying
In his open letter, the researcher acknowledges that he should have been back in Kiel already and that he talked about his delayed return to the head of the area rather than to the personnel department. But he believes this isn’t a sufficient reason for him to lose his job, especially considering there’s “nothing” that requires his presence in Kiel.
“I don’t teach, I don’t have to attend seminars or other meetings. When in Kiel, I spend most of my working days alone at my office. There is nothing I must do in Kiel that I can’t do on a ship or a train while travelling. They know that I am actually very productive when I travel,” Grimalda wrote, saying he has had a “prolific” year.
The researcher faced a dilemma, as he explains in his letter. Either keeping his job while reneging on his principles, or losing his job while holding on to his principles. While he says many would go for the first option, he believes we have reached the point where instrumental rationality “is no longer applicable” and won’t be flying.
Grimalda said that while he will be giving up doing research, the thing “he loves the most” and for which he “has sacrificed a lot,” he’s OK with “paying the price” as it would help to raise awareness about the climate crisis. He describes it as his “act of love” to current and future generations and to the animal species under threat of extinction.
Other researchers have expressed support on social media for his bravery to go against the “business as usual”. The story serves as a poignant reminder of the complex interplay between individual choices and systemic change. Grimalda’s refusal to fly back to Germany is not just an act of personal conviction; it is a challenge to institutions and systems that have yet to fully integrate sustainability into their operational ethos.
In a world grappling with the existential threat of climate change, perhaps it’s time for all of us to consider what we’re willing to give up—and what we stand to gain—in the fight for a sustainable future.