Toro cartoon

Dear Ed,

Academics have a reputation for living in an ivory tower, secluded from the cares of the everyday world. But it might be more accurate to picture the world’s foremost scholars living in airport security lines, shoeless and bleary-eyed from jet lag.

For the modern Western academic, frequent air travel has practically become a job requirement. At many institutions, scholars are granted tenure and promotions based in part on the number of research presentations they make at professional conferences, such as the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union, known as AGU, which regularly draws more than 20,000 attendees from around the world. And because tenure-track jobs are scarce in many academic disciplines, graduate students and other early career scholars face intense pressure to attend conferences in order to network with potential colleagues.

But a growing number of people are, like you, concerned about the carbon pollution generated by all of those flights. One study estimated that air travel by 6,741 attendees to and from a single meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Seattle produced about 16,000 metric tons of global warming pollution, equivalent to the amount that 53,500 people living in Haiti generate during an entire year.

A solution to this problem, as you suggest, might be to convert conferences into virtual or semi-virtual experiences that would enable academics to share their research findings without jet-setting. For tips on how conference organizers could do that, I spoke with academics who are already brainstorming and implementing ideas for putting on virtual conferences. Here’s their advice.

1. Encourage openness to new academic and professional cultures

In October 2018, leading scientists warned that the world has little more than a decade to begin substantially reducing carbon pollution in order to reduce the risk of the most dangerous consequences of climate change.

Ryan Katz-Rosene, an assistant professor of political studies at the University of Ottawa, told me that warning means small tweaks aren’t sufficient to address the problem.

“We need major changes to the way we do business,” he said.

One such change would be to create a culture that’s less reliant on flying. And Katz-Rosene, who is the president of the Environmental Studies Association of Canada, said academic and professional associations can help shift the culture in that direction.

“It’s not written in stone that you have to go to the AGU every single year. What if it was more like the Olympics – you went every four years and presented your best research?” he said.

Ken Hiltner, a professor of the environmental humanities at the University of California at Santa Barbara, added that the fly-in conference itself is a relatively new institution.

“We might think it’s the only way of doing things. We’re just used to it. But the fact is, you know, there’s all sorts of ways of doing things,” he said.

2. Recognize that the existing model isn’t serving everyone

Fly-in conferences may meet the needs of many academics and professionals in wealthy countries. But those I spoke with expressed concern that such conferences are leaving others behind.

Kim Cobb is a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In an opinion column published in 2018, she and two other scientists urged AGU to support its members in flying less.

When I talked with her, she pointed out that many people with family commitments and physical limitations can’t easily attend in-person conferences: “Like new parents, people with any kind of serious family obligation, people who are sick and ill themselves,” she said.

The cost of conferences, which can include a hefty registration fee, hotel costs, and airfare, is also a concern. The total price can be out of reach for graduate students and the growing cadre of adjuncts, the latter of whom often don’t have access to travel funding through their universities.

Hiltner added that fly-in conferences generally exclude scholars in the global South who can’t afford the airfare to attend. “That’s not only a disservice to them,” he says. “We’re losing a lot of the world’s brainpower by not having them present at our conferences at all.”

3. Learn from examples

A number of academic associations are already improving options for remote conference participation. That includes AGU.

In a response to the 2018 column calling on AGU to support its members in flying less, several AGU leaders wrote that the organization is enabling speakers to make remote presentations, allowing participants to upload electronic versions of posters, and encouraging social media participation, among other steps. AGU leaders did not respond to requests to comment for this column. (Update 10/28: After this column published, AGU made this comment via Twitter: “We agree face-to-face interaction at our meetings, including #AGU19, is important, while also recognizing our responsibility to reduce our carbon & env’t footprint. We continue to offer virtual meeting opps & #AGU19 will have a live satellite event in DC.”)

Other associations are going further, implementing a multi-location approach in which participants travel to a regional hub close to home. For example, the 15th International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition in 2018 was distributed across locations on four continents. Each hub held its own in-person keynote and panel sessions. But the hubs also connected with each other for virtual panel sessions and discussions. Conference organizers reported that under this semi-virtual approach, the number of countries represented increased by 50% and per capita carbon pollution was reduced 70% compared to a traditional international conference.

Still others are organizing conferences that eliminate flying altogether. Hiltner, the professor of environmental humanities at UC-Santa Barbara, has organized several entirely remote gatherings of 50 to 60 academics. Under this approach, participants record and upload videos of their presentations that are posted to a conference website. During a several-week period when the conference is “open,” attendees watch the videos, ask questions, and interact with the speakers in online forums.

Hiltner said that because virtual conferences don’t require catering, venue rental, or on-the-ground logistics coordination, they’re substantially less expensive to put on than fly-in conferences.

He added that such a format can facilitate substantive discussions that unfold over the course of weeks – an experience altogether different from a 15-minute question-and-answer session at in-person panel presentations. Detailed information about how to organize virtual conferences, including technical recommendations, is available here: “A nearly carbon-neutral conference model: white paper/practical guide.”

4. Understand that well-functioning technology is the key to success

Katz-Rosene of the University of Ottawa said that technology can make or break a virtual or semi-virtual conference.

“If you have poor connections, poor technology, and the sound starts going in and out or there’s technical troubles, it puts people off,” he said. “It creates a boomerang effect where people say, ‘Well, screw this. This isn’t worth my time. This isn’t worth my money,’ and it drives people away from the whole thing.”

So he said it’s worth investing the money to make sure that your remote conferencing system will work and that you have technical support staff available to assist with problems. But he said that can get pricey: “Unfortunately, that’s often the showstopper for many associations.”

Hiltner said he’s minimized technical problems at his virtual conferences by requiring speakers to pre-record videos of their presentations. This approach reduces the intermittency problems that often occur during live-streamed conversations. And, he added, allowing participants to view the videos at any time eliminates the challenge of coordinating across different time zones.

5. Foster digital networking

The most obvious drawback of a virtual conference is that it eliminates face-to-face contact. I’m well aware of the value of in-person connections — in fact, I’m planning to attend the next AGU meeting in San Francisco so that I can conduct face-to-face, broadcast-quality interviews with scientists about their research on climate change.

Because many people prize in-person social interactions, organizers may feel reluctant to alter the existing business model for conferences. After all, professional association members often attend in order to “see the experts stand up there in person and deliver their content, to take a couple questions and meet them after their talk in the hallway and dig a little deeper, and then go out for coffee,” said Cobb, the Georgia Tech scientist. “That’s what they pay for.”

So it’s crucial for organizers of virtual conferences to develop strategies for facilitating digital connections.

Hiltner said that at his virtual conferences, discussion forums serve that purpose – and in fact, writing a comment or question in a forum can feel less intimidating than approaching an established scholar in person.

“If you can have a little time to think things through and all, you can really sort of put your best foot forward,” he said.

Katz-Rosene added that academics should not underestimate the potential of social media for digital networking.

“A lot of the people I’ve networked with and I’m working with right now I have met online through Twitter,” he said.

Case in point: The question that inspired this column – and the ensuing discussion that framed my reporting – all occurred on Twitter.

6. Start small

If an association wants to try out a virtual or semi-virtual conference, those interviewed recommended conducting pilot tests. For example, if an association regularly holds small regional conferences in addition to a large national or international meeting, organizers might hold a test of a virtual conference at one of its regional meetings. Then, they can scale up – perhaps to a conference as large as AGU’s annual meeting.

Cobb said AGU could be a leader in figuring out how to hold virtual conferences at scale.

“AGU is comprised of people who hold climate science data dear and who hold the future of our planet dear,” she said. “If they wanted to propose to take the first step in changing a meeting of tens of thousands of people around to a different model, AGU is a great place to start – and that could provide a template to many other kinds of academic organizations and professional societies to do likewise.”

For more tips, take a look at “Flying Less in Academia: A Resource Guide,” which contains examples of virtual and multi-hub conferences, guides for organizing low-carbon conferences, journal articles about flying less, and much more.

Happy conferencing,
– Sara

Tom Toro is a cartoonist and writer who has published over 200 cartoons in The New Yorker since 2010.

Wondering how climate change could affect you or your loved ones? Send your questions to Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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Sara Peach is the editor-in-chief of Yale Climate Connections. She is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Scientific American, Environmental Health News, Grist,...