Earth Week x Astrobites 2023: Dr. Travis Rector on leading the AAS Green Task Force

How can astronomers with established careers leverage their position to implement large-scale, community-wide structural changes? 

Today we share our interview with Dr. Travis Rector who leads the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Task Force on Green Astronomy (or “Green Task Force”). As a tenured professor who has chaired the AAS Sustainability Committee and been active in climate education since the early 2000s, Dr. Rector explains why he created the task force, its goals with respect to reducing astronomy’s carbon footprint, and how he communicates that the necessary changes are something to be excited about. This feature with Dr. Rector is part of our second Earth Week x Astrobites 2023 series, where we look at how we can use our background to effectively communicate climate change to various audiences. 

Since this is Dr. Rector’s second time being involved with our Earth Week at Astrobites, we focus this post on the AAS Green Task Force + climate change communication; to know more about Dr. Rector’s pathway and involvement in sustainability within astronomy, please look at his interview with us last year. 

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1) Why was the Green Task Force created and what are its goals? You initially were the chair of the AAS Sustainability Committee (SC), and then once that appointment was over, you pivoted to this focused group.

“While a member of the AAS SC, I was also a member of the AAS Strategic Assembly which meets every five years to create a vision for where the society is headed and what we should work on. As part of this assembly, we identified several issues that are important to AAS members including DEI efforts, our response to COVID-19, as well as climate change. As an outcome of that strategic assembly, I created a task force whose mission is specifically to look into how the AAS can respond to the climate crisis, and in particular on scales commensurate with what the Paris Agreement calls for. The good news about climate change is that we’re still in a position to avoid the worst consequences. However, what we do in the coming decade is really important. To keep the temperature increase at or below  or ~1.5° C, we need collectively worldwide to cut our emissions to half over the next decade, and then eventually go carbon neutral around 2050.  Astronomy as a profession has a large carbon footprint. The average American emits about 16 tons of carbon every year, and many astronomers actually have more than that in just air travel alone. AAS, as the premier professional society for astronomical research in the United States, needs to lead by example by effectively addressing our role in this crisis, particularly in reducing its emissions associated with AAS-related activities.  The goal of our task force is to create recommendations for the AAS on what we can do over the next decade to reduce our emissions, and predictably, most of that focus is on air travel. We will present our findings [from the AAS-wide survey] and recommendations at the January 2024 meeting in New Orleans.”

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2) What is the hardest part of being part of the change at an institutional level?

“I think the hardest part of any systemic or institutional change, which is certainly not unique to the AAS, is that the people in the room having the discussion about the changes are people for whom, by and large, the system works. It is hard to include the people who aren’t present if you can’t see them or don’t even know that they exist.

To understand what is difficult about large-scale changes, I’ll give an example of a transition that astronomy has made that was also difficult for many: shifting from the classical mode of observing where you go physically up to the site for scheduled nights at a telescope to now where many telescopes we have queue or robotic observing.
There was quite a bit of resistance; people felt it was important to be at the telescope at the time the observations were being done. But after the transition was made, it was realized that by observing in a different way you could enable kinds of science that was otherwise not possible. You can have fast-response observing for transient events, or schedule based upon nightly observing conditions (i.e. if you have exceptional seeing, you can change the schedule to observe targets that need high resolution). Being flexible with our observations allows for us to do our jobs better. Ultimately, people saw that by changing the way we observed, we were scientifically more productive, and that’s how people came on board.

As a profession we are always evolving, doing things in a way that we couldn’t do before, and I think the most challenging part is helping people see how things can be when [those solutions] aren’t yet implemented.”

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3) How have you prioritized inclusivity and kept in mind everyone’s experiences while creating these recommendations for the AAS?  

“I designed our task force specifically to include members from all the other different task forces and working groups that the AAS has. I wanted everyone’s voices present for the discussions. I don’t want to create solutions that make other problems worse. We recognize that climate change is important to many members, but we also know that in-person meetings have tremendous value, particularly for marginalized groups, since they can get together and build community within the profession. We do not want to make recommendations that are going to make it harder for people to be successful, especially those in their early career. I wanted to design a group that would make recommendations that reflect the different attitudes and perspectives of astronomers within the AAS and create solutions that will have widespread buy-in because people feel that it’s going to improve everyone’s condition.”

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4) What do you expect the timeline to be to implement the recommendations set forth by the Green Task Force?  

“The AAS plans conferences many years in advance; they have meetings scheduled through January 2026. But one of the things we are going to be pushing for is using these coming years to try new methods of communication, to try doing things in different ways. One of the things is that many people don’t like the virtual conferencing experience, and I put myself in that category. But I also recognize that the way we’re doing virtual conferencing right now is pretty lousy— we’re trying to recreate the in-person experience online and that’s not really a good use of the technology. A good analogy is that when television was first created, no one knew how to do TV shows: they did radio shows on television. It took them time to realize the power of technology and to see what they could do differently. And that’s where we’re at now, we’re trying to do in-person meetings online and that’s not the strength of the format. There’s a group out of Australia that’s also called The Future of Meetings run by Dr. Vanessa Moss, an astronomer, and they’re doing all sorts of really cool, interesting explorations of different technologies that are possible. What is going to happen, I think, is that people will start having new experiences with virtual interaction and think “wow, this is really great!” and we’re just going to want to do things differently. The key thing I want people to understand is that the future is something to be excited about; it’s not gloom and doom, that we have to stop doing astronomy. We take this as an opportunity for us to make our profession even cooler than it already is. We can communicate better. We can include people who are currently left out. We can make it safer and more enjoyable. And then eventually people will just think, ‘I’m glad we are doing things this way!'”

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5) It can be easier to advocate for solutions and implement institutional change given your credibility as a tenured professor. Do you have a message to the community, especially those in their later stages of their career, in terms of encouraging and empowering students in their sustainability efforts?  

“Astronomy has this culture of having our heads in the clouds given what we study and that we are disengaged from “worldly” problems. But at the same time, all of us have this innate understanding of and feeling for how special Earth is. We know moving to Mars or another habitable planet is an unequivocal no.  We need to make a transition in our profession from seeing ourselves as sort of dispassionate creators and collectors of knowledge about the Universe to passionate engagers with what that knowledge tells us. We know better than anyone else, except for maybe astronauts themselves (see: overview effect), that the Earth is a tiny island in the vast sea of the Universe.

All of us have an obligation to use what we know to address the problem. We can’t act like it’s not our problem or that it’s someone else’s to fix.  We’ve known about climate change for a very, very long time. So this isn’t a problem that’s just crept up on us. It’s a problem that many communities have chosen to look past, in large part, because we didn’t know how to deal with it, but also because it just seemed like something off in the future. Well, now, the future is here. It’s now and we can’t look past it anymore. I think established astronomers need to understand that we need to be supporting people like you, who are working to address the issue. We, in large part, have helped to create this situation. and we need to do as much as anyone else to help address it.”

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Thank you to Dr. Rector for spearheading the institutional change through your service to the AAS and for your time.

Contact information: Dr. Travis Rector ([email protected])

Edited by Alice Curtin, Travis Rector 

Featured Image Credit: Headshot – Dr. Travis Rector; Logo – Suchitra Narayanan 


This article was written as a part of our Climate Change Series. We’d love to hear what you would like to see from this initiative – if you have ideas, please let us know in this google form.

About Suchitra Narayanan

Aloha! I am a fourth-year PhD candidate, P.E.O. Scholar, and NSF Fellow at the Institute of Astronomy (UH Mānoa) jointly working at the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian studying the “Organosulfur Chemistry in the Birthplaces of Planets.” I characterize the fundamental properties and formation pathways of complex sulfur organics through ultra-high vacuum chamber experiments. I am also part of the eDisk ALMA Large Program to understand the structure, dynamics, and chemistry of embedded disks (the earliest stages of stellar and planet formation). I focus on combining laboratory experiments, telescope observations, and theoretical modeling (both at the micro (computational chemistry) and macro (2D thermo-chemical models) scales) to reconcile what is known as the “missing sulfur” problem. I'm broadly interested in astrochemistry, with a focus in its role in planetary formation and eventual evolution of resulting (exo)planetary atmospheres. I am also part of the AAS Sustainability Committee, and am passionate about using our knowledge as astronomers to better our life here on the only planet we can call home. I originally am from Coimbatore but have spent most of my life in the Bay Area. I studied both chemical engineering and astrophysics at University of California, Berkeley. When I’m not in the laboratory, you can find me at the piano (I’ve been classically trained since I was 4!) or in the ocean (I’ve been a competitive swimmer/water polo player, and open water lifeguard for East Bay Regional Park District). Please reach out if you're interested in astro+climate work!

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