Moving Forward on Climate Change and Professional Ethics

A few weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced that atmospheric CO2 concentrations, at 419 ppm, have now reached 150% of their pre-industrial levels – the highest in more than four million years, when sea levels were about 24 meters higher, the global average surface temperature almost 4ºC warmer than today, and the first modern humans had more than three million years yet to appear on earth.   The world-historical COVID-19 pandemic, still wreaking havoc across the mostly unvaccinated globe, temporarily decreased emissions, but not enough to be detectable in rising atmospheric CO2 levels. NOAA has recently defined new “normal” temperatures that are significantly higher than those in the past.  

As I write, a hazardous and extreme heat wave has gripped the Southwestern US, stretching power grids to their limits and threatening heat deaths. The entire Western United States is also in the throes of a severe drought that is expected to last all summer.  Indeed, global warming has contributed significantly to changing what would have otherwise been a moderate drought in the Southwestern US into a megadrought worse than has been seen for almost a millennium. This year, drought is predicted to lead to another ruinous, record-breaking fire season, on the heels of nightmarish 2020 fire season in the Western US – and around the world. It is also affecting access to safe drinking water and forcing farmers to make difficult decisions about what crops to keep, which will likely lead to higher food prices. 

None of this is news to geographers, so why start my first column as AAG president with a reminder of the ongoing climate devastation?  There are several reasons, beyond my embodied experience of consecutive days of record-shattering heat in my home state of Colorado. (These days, my kids and I have taken to sleeping in a tent on our back porch – itself a privilege.)  First, geographers have been at the forefront of research on climate change, adaptation, resilience, and climate justice, but our research as geographers is often not acknowledged in the press or known to the public; this is relevant to the visibility, and ultimately health, of the discipline. Second, climate change is one of four primary policy campaigns that AAG will be undertaking over the next 1-2 years. Through the release of the new AAG website, expected later in 2021, geographers will be able to more easily engage with legislation and policy related to climate change.   

Third, I want to use this opportunity to highlight the work of the Climate Action Task Force, which has been led by Professor Wendy Jepson and which I joined in 2020.  As a reminder, this task force was formed by Council to undertake the task of realizing the goals of a 2019 member petition: to reduce CO2 emissions related to the Annual Meeting commensurate with what the IPCC states is needed to limit warming to 1.5 C  — that is, a 45% reduction (from 2010 levels) by 2030.  In doing so, the Task Force is seeking ways to position AAG as a leader and model of how large organizations can respond to climate change in a manner that both meets the needs of their members and is environmentally and socially just.   

A 45% reduction is not a trivial change; it’s not a tweak around the margins of business as usual. Achieving this goal would mean a radical transformation in how the AAG stays financially solvent, and perhaps how we form our identities as geographers.  As such, AAG can only move forward through extensive member participation and dialogue about what this means and how we might get from here to there.  These conversations have already begun. At the virtual meeting this spring, the Task Force hosted a collaborative keynote panel of anthropologists who shared their creative and inspiring reflections and experiences on climate-friendly and accessible conferencing, as well as two roundtables of dialogue amongst geographers representing different types of institutions, career stages, and social identities to consider the meaning of annual in-person meetings to their careers, and share ideas for future formats that would be less carbon intensive and yet meet geographers’ needs.   

Going forward, The Professional Geographer will soon publish a Focus Section that presents a variety of perspectives on low-carbon annual meetings.  The Climate Action Task Force is looking forward to community commentary on these contributions and further brainstorming through the new AAG website.  Looking down the road, AAG will also be performing a financial analysis of different future meeting models, working collaboratively with the AAG Regions on a climate-forward initiative, encouraging the formation of meeting nodes, and further soliciting all members’ input through a survey.  I will revisit these important issues in future columns.  

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If AAG action on climate change has seemed a long time coming to some members, so too has an update of the AAG Statement on Professional Ethics, last revised more than a decade ago, in 2009, long before the implementation of the Professional Conduct Policy. Indeed, graduate students have recently argued that it is outdated, too long, confusing, and falls short of providing clear guidance, especially compared to those of other scholarly organizations.  I am happy to share, therefore, that at its Spring 2021 meeting, AAG Council unanimously approved a revised Statement on Professional Ethics, which can be accessed here. AAG will soon make it readily available for review whenever a member joins or renews, and during the Annual Meeting registration process. 

The impetus for this came from the report of the AAG Geography and Military Study Committee, which was formed in 2017 by AAG Council in response to a member petition calling on the AAG to study the engagement of Geography with US military and intelligence communities vis-à-vis safety, labor demand, curriculum, academic freedom, and ethics, and to offer concrete recommendations based on its report.  Both the Report and the timing of the resulting process have subsequently been subject to critique.  What I want to focus on here, though, are several of the Report’s recommendations that Council voted in Fall 2020 to accept, including: 


Revise the AAG code of ethics statement and policy as it relates to the ethical issues that may arise from military-funded research. This should include comparing the AAG statement (current and proposed) with the codes of ethics related to research developed by other disciplines such as the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the American Psychological Association (APA) as well as the Department of Defense (DoD) statement of ethics as it relates to research. 




Update and revise the AAG Statement on Professional Ethics (every few years). With new and revised updates, encourage members of the association to read them as part of the membership renewal and meeting registration processes. 


In response to this Report, Council also approved the formation of an implementation committee, which I chaired, to update the ethics statement.   

The committee began its work by consulting other professional organizations’ statements of ethics and, based on those models, revised the 2009 Statement to focus on practical and easily memorable principles and actions.  The committee also integrated references to the 2020 Professional Conduct Policy, removed discussion of issues regulated elsewhere (such as regarding the confidentiality of student grades), updated the language regarding new technologies, and explicitly mentioned the ethics of geographers’ engagements with the military, intelligence, security, policing and warfare where specifically relevant, but with an eye toward a Statement broad enough to cover all ethical obligations. It was a significant undertaking conducted over a short period of time, and I want to sincerely thank the committee members for putting in so much, and such thoughtful, time and effort to this task: Council member Richard Kujawa (Saint Michael’s College), Sue Roberts (UKY), Reuben Rose-Redwood (UVic), and former AAG president Eric Sheppard (UCLA). 

Of course, no Statement of Ethics is ever final or perfect, especially as ethics themselves are not a matter that can be settled once and for all. Thus, the AAG should become proactively engaged with the question of ethics, on an ongoing basis. This is already starting to happen, not only with plans for Council to revisit and update the Statement every three years, but also with the ongoing GeoEthics Webinar Series, a partnership between AAG, Esri, and the Center for Spatial Studies at UC-Santa Barbara. Once the AAG’s new website is up and running, we hope to offer a list of links and publications on ethics and geography, and provide a space for feedback for all AAG members, including reactions to the Ethics statement, additional resources, and other discussion. 

If ethics are, in part, about doing no harm, then a commitment to act to reduce the future harms of climate change is one in accordance with our stated ethical principles.  I also want to point out that both the new Statement on Professional Ethics and the work of the Climate Change Task Force are ultimately the results of member petitions to Council.  Both petitions have sparked concrete actions that are moving the AAG forward in a positive direction toward addressing the pressing challenges facing the earth and its peoples in the 21st century.   

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0094

Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.