Why studying climate change made me quit my PhD

Why the knowledge that I gained while researching climate change at PhD level led me to renounce my career prospects, and how I now feel compelled to dedicate my time.

Mathieu Munsch
17 December 2018

Global temperature change for the period 1850-2017 (Data visualisation by Ed Hawkins)

The lack of consideration that decision-makers have for scientific evidence is a frustrating commonplace among those of us – scientists and influencers of all sorts – who spend our lives working to take on those ecologically-illiterate systems. 

And yet, rare are those of us on a level of alert really commensurate with the scale and speed of the crash we are living through. Researching climate change has made me re-evaluate why I set out to study for a PhD and whether continuing was my best course of action.

Being given the freedom to be able to spend years scouring the literature on everything to do with climate change is undeniably a privilege – one that I am still grateful to have been granted. But the constant re-assessing of evidence and the traumas induced by repeatedly staring into the abyss led me to reconsider my form of engagement with this crisis. There was a time where I saw a future for myself as a university professor, teaching environmental politics to the bright young minds of tomorrow. This is a dream I no longer hold, as the dynamics that I was studying made me realise the inadequacy of my ambition. I want to discuss how self-interest and ethics can find common ground in a rapidly changing world, and the part that personal stances can play in moving from the old world to the new one.I want to discuss how self-interest and ethics can find common ground in a rapidly changing world, and the part that personal stances can play in moving from the old world to the new one. 

Mourning an imagined future requires new dreams to fill the void left by the old ones. So I want to talk a bit about what I have in sight for myself. Needless to say, I do not hold all the answers – personal affinities, skills and preferences will undoubtedly lead you on a different path than mine – but I do hope that taking a public stance on this will incite exploration of uncharted realms of possibilities for our collective future.

Oil and the climate: a game where everybody loses

I have written about the impossible speed at which our modern societies would need to change to avert global ecological collapse from unravelling in our lifetime. If you aren’t yet familiar with the timescales by which climate breakdown is projected to take place, I would advise that you inform yourself right away. If allowed to go unchecked for a little more than just another decade, industrial society is projected to push the climate system past critical thresholds that would sound the death knell for coral reefs, the Greenland ice sheet and large parts of the tropical rainforests. 

This would of course have major implications for human societies – from global crop decline, mass migrations, wars over water and all-round nastier politics than we are already experiencing today. If one thing should be clear, it is that climate breakdown must be contained at any cost. It is the bedrock on which all other social progress is built.

Fossil fuel addiction

Recognising the imperative of maintaining a liveable climate implies coming to terms with the fact that putting an end to our societal addiction to fossil fuel needs to happen no later than in the decade to come. 

Yet, given the ever-increasing petroleum dependence of something as vital to us as our food system – from the production of oil-based fertilisers to the heavy mechanisation of agriculture and the drawn-out supply chains that allow consumers to be thousands of miles away from farms – our ability to fulfil even our most basic needs is now tied to the industrial machine that is leading us to our demise. 

This complete dependence that individuals in the modern world have on high carbon systems means that a process of rationally transitioning away from fossil fuels would now take far too long for the timeline we are up against. Moreover, as decades of engagement by researchers and environmental NGOs have unfortunately demonstrated, no amount of scientific warning ever did anything to curtail the growth of industrial society. 

I now suspect that the withdrawal from oil will most probably come as a brutal consequence of the sheer complexity of our systems rather than as a well-thought-out process. In all likelihood, it is now the physical limits to oil production and the instability of our interconnected and deregulated financial system that will impose this radical paradigm shift onto us.

To understand what I mean by this, it is important to understand the special place that oil occupies in the architecture of our modern societies. Indeed, compared to all other fossil fuels, petroleum has a much higher energy density, which makes it the fuel of choice to be used on moving machines. 

Because of this remarkable property as a fuel, the entirety of all air and sea transportation is powered by oil, as well as 98 percent of all land vehicles (this figure takes into account trains, biofuels-powered and electric cars).


Breakdown of the energy consumption for transportation in France, which is representative of an industrialised country (Credits: Jancovici, 2012)

Without oil, the extended supply chains for our food and other items of daily consumption (not to mention transport of people) would suddenly collapse. Electrifying transport is a false solution, as three quarter of all electricity production is currently powered by other fossil fuels – more often than not more polluting than oil. 2.

Even renewable energy technologies appear compromised on our timescale, as their manufacturing and deployment comes at an immediate extra energy cost (coal will be burned in China to produce the solar panels used in Europe) and their production is itself limited by the scarcity of rare earths and metals which are also expected to run out in the coming decades.

Yet, depletion of easily accessible reserves of oil, increasingly unfavourable energy returns on investments from unconventional extraction projects and a lack of public investments in exploration for new reserves seem to point towards the end of recoverable petroleum. 

Taking into consideration the climate factor and the ever-increasing rarity of accessible reserves of oil that don’t require reckless and inefficient extractive methods such as hydraulic fracturing or deep-sea drilling in polar conditions, it is hard to imagine how oil production will avoid experiencing a sudden crash sometime in the decade to come. 

Besides, as the graph below illustrates, observations of the fluctuations of global GDP and of oil production across time have allowed us to establish a relation of causality between the two. Petroleum is a resource so central to the world’s economy that for all 11 economic recessions that took place during the twentieth century, 10 were found to have been preceded by a dip in oil production. 1


As oil supply fluctuates, so does global GDP (Data: BP, 2014 /USDA, 2013)

Moreover, not only is a permanent shortage in oil supply due to plunge us into a permanent economic recession: these two dynamics also work the other way around. Fossil fuel extraction is dependent on ever-increasing economic growth, which itself is dependent on ever-increasing energy use. A collapse in financial markets (which even IMF spokespeople have repeatedly issued warnings over) would accelerate the decline of oil production and strike a sudden blow to our growth-based economic systems. Since the financial system is still as interdependent and speculation-driven as it was before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the question is not whether another crash is due, but how soon.Since the financial system is still as interdependent and speculation-driven as it was before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, the question is not whether another crash is due, but how soon.

Trying to hold all these dynamics in my head at the same time, I have come to accept that the future of our societal relationship with energy will be somewhere on the spectrum between these two scenarios:

Scenario 1: Rarefying conventional oil reserves are being replaced by shale oils, tar sand oils, or a rise in coal production to power an increasingly electrified vehicle fleet. This might allow our current growth-based systems to maintain themselves for another decade or two, but will most certainly also spell out the annihilation of the human species as well as most other living things on Earth. 2


Scenario 2: Oil scarcity is imposed onto us, as riskier alternatives to crude oil are found to be unprofitable, undesirable, or that the supply chains allowing it to be extracted and transported are impacted by political and economic crises that may occur at any point in the system. This is likely to lead to great social unrest, as the ability of people to fulfil their most basic needs will be compromised.

Where the professional meets the political

I set out to do a PhD on this topic because I hoped it would grant me a voice. Because of the prestige and the perception of expertise associated with a doctorate degree, I hoped it would grant me credibility in the eyes of the powerful, and saw this as a good place where someone like me (a middle class white man with access to higher education) could use his position of privilege to advance the cause of climate justice through my access to platforms social movements have always been denied. 

But by attempting to navigate this institutional space, I became disillusioned with this prospect: the future that I was pursuing for myself would end up tying me closer and closer to the system that my whole being was actively trying to resist.

As a case in point, I fully subscribe to the criticism that reputable climate scientists like Kevin Anderson have raised on common practices within their field –­ and notably the flying habit that has become entrenched in academia and environmental policy circles alike. 3

Like them, I believe that the implicit message that is carried by these practices – that a high-carbon lifestyle is a necessary price to pay to participate in shaping the future – is reflective of the cognitive dissonance that those working on climate change are often so quick to deplore in the general public. 

Yet, given the radical transformation that I now acknowledge to be ahead of us, I have my doubts that simply committing not to fly would be enough to proof academic practices against the threat of systemic failure.

Indeed, the world of academic research – and this is just as valid a comment when it comes to the worlds of industry, policy-making and professional advocacy – is fully dependent on systems of energy production that are now on the brink of collapse. The world of academic research – and this is just as valid a comment when it comes to the worlds of industry, policy-making and professional advocacy – is fully dependent on systems of energy production that are now on the brink of collapse. 

In being required to spend a great deal of their waking hours on a job that requires their undivided attention, those employed in these spheres have little choice but to outsource their basic needs – food, water, shelter – to an industrial machine that would not be able to function without oil. 

And here lies perhaps one of the keys to understanding our predicament: in being reliant on the drawn-out supply chains of modernity for their own survival, the elites of the world have tied themselves up to global systems of oppression that are now threatening to wipe out life on this planet. Philosophies of liberation which have provided colonised people with theories of how to break from an imperial regime ought now to be transposed to our own privileged lives as we come to realise that the system we historically benefited from is now entrapping us into a self-destructive logic. 

Our collective imagination lacks examples of those ‘who-have-it-all’s who have publicly renounced their high earning careers to embrace voluntary sobriety both as the moral thing to do, but also as the rational choice in the face of all evidence. If the oil-driven machine must fail to avert the collapse of our ecosystems – as our knowledge of energy and climate change seems to suggest – then it is imperative that our actions start reflecting the extent of our concerns.

If the oil-driven machine must fail to avert the collapse of our ecosystems – as our knowledge of energy and climate change seems to suggest – then it is imperative that our actions start reflecting the extent of our concerns. If even those of us who made a name for ourselves for our climate change advocacy don’t take active measures to break our personal dependence on the oily hand that feeds us, then I fear that the seriousness of our message will forever fail to penetrate the wider social consciousness. Refusing to fly is a welcome gesture away from the normalised violence of polite society, but it will only make the destruction inherent in our systems a little less acute to allow us to continue our suicidal dance a little longer. Real transformative change will have to start being bolder than that, and propose pathways that are not just less harmful, but disconnected altogether from the fossil fuel economy as well as regenerative of both land and community.

Sowing seeds of possible futures

I do not hold much hope that the crash of the runaway train we have set in motion can be avoided for much longer, and I now often catch myself wishing to see it fail soon, before taking much of what remains of life along with it. 

As first-class passengers of this train, most of our efforts have been aimed at convincing our deluded drivers to exercise some caution, but the fact remains that our trajectory has not changed one bit despite our incessant alerts. We realise that we are now picking up more speed than ever before, just as we can start seeing the outlines of the cliff face taking shape on the horizon. Perhaps it is time we question whether it wouldn’t be wiser to jump off a moving train than to brace for impact. But for this, we must overcome the mental blocs that keep us from attempting such high-risk manoeuvres and imagine a future that we will find the courage to wholeheartedly throw ourselves into.

For me, the confidence to renounce the future that I had imagined for myself came in the form of a lifelong project that would root me to a place and re-instil in me a sense of worth and purpose. The translation of my intellectual fixation with climate change into a practical project was a journey, and before arriving to that point, I used my spare time to teach myself the ins and outs of food transformation, wildcrafting, permaculture and low-tech alternatives to modern conveniences. 

Through taking on hobbies that would both feed me, entertain me and keep me healthy without spending a penny, I learned to reduce my expenses to the bare minimum that city living would allow (i.e. housing costs and the occasional pint with friends). This had at least two benefits: on a purely pragmatic level, it allowed me to set aside enough of my modest graduate student stipend to be able to acquire a small parcel of farmland to develop a project on; on a mental level, it lifted away the burden of thinking that the security of a comfortable salary was necessary for me to lead a fulfilled life.

Although I still haven't moved out of my city flat yet – and am therefore still unable to assure you that I landed safely – the fact that the idea has already rooted itself strongly into my mind means that I now won’t be able to go back to my old ambitions. The project itself will take the form of a self-sufficient living space that my partner and I hope to be able to root ourselves into quickly. Our place will simultaneously serve as an educational facility where we will run workshops to teach our practical skills and theoretical knowledge to those looking to end their dependence on the petro-industrial system.

As I mentioned earlier, an aspiration to contribute to the fight for climate justice is what originally drew me to climate change research – and this is not something I am ready to turn my back on. I am very far from having the intention to isolate myself from the modern world to try to mitigate the impact that its collapse may have on my own life. I hold community resilience to be a vital part of adapting to the extreme political context that lies in our near-term future, and I believe empowerment through popular education to be an effective form of resistance against extractivism. 

Having had the privilege of spending years in the ivory tower of academia, I have developed an aptitude for fast learning and synthesising knowledge, and I believe that contributing my skills to a community would now be a much more constructive form of climate action than anything a career in our modern profit-driven universities would have had me do.

Wild dreams of diversity

There is no doubt that the future will be fraught with risk, and I have no assurance that the path I am about to throw myself in will be enough to protect myself and the natural world from the final dying breath of capitalism. 

Yet, given the overwhelming consensus of evidence on the sort of hellish nightmare climate breakdown is about to turn our world into, I operate on the certainty that not throwing all our energy into our wildest dreams of changing society would be dooming ourselves to failure.

A diversity of attempts at creating new models that don’t rely on fossil fuels will be needed to weather the storm that is coming. These models will reflect the diversity of places they are attempted in, as well as the diversity of the people who will dream them. Some – maybe most – of these attempts will fail, but just like natural selection ensure that plants capable of producing large numbers of seeds can adapt to rapidly changing environments, a try-and-fail approach at creating many possible futures will ensure that some of the seeds we put into earth today will take root, flourish, and possibly even be replicated by others later on.



1. C. Hall and K. Klitgaard, Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy, (Springer, 2012)

2. Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History(London: Bloomsbury, 2014).

3  Kevin Anderson, ‘Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example?’, (12 April 2013), 

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData