Since I started researching climate change and higher education‘s future I’ve participated in and witnessed many discussions about the topic. In person and online, academia seems to be increasingly interested in exploring what climate change means for colleges and universities.
One small piece of that broader puzzle stirs passions more than just about any other. How will academic conferences change in the age of climate crisis?
We usually start with a basic idea. Air travel emits a lot of carbon. To the extent that faculty, staff, and some students fly across the world for national and international conferences, we are contributing in a small way to heating the planet. Therefore we need to rethink this practice. As FemEdTech put it, “We have to be more responsible.”
What does such a rethink look like?
Several ideas have been floated.
A) Individual academics should fly less, especially at longer distances.
B) Conferences should shift away from national and international scale to local or regional events, which can be reached by less carbon-intensive means, like trains.
C) Conference activities can head online through various technologies.
D) We can all keep flying to conferences, but also buy carbon offsets.
A recent University of Exeter report called for a mix of A-C through:
cut[ting] the carbon footprint from long-haul air travel by 50 percent by 2025 and by 75 percent by 2030, while academics are organizing online conferences with regional hubs in a bid to reduce flying while maintaining face-to-face networking.
In that linked article we can find a version of D, too:
KU Leuven … has introduced a voluntary carbon tax of 40 euros ($43) per ton of carbon emitted for academics who travel by air. The money is used to invest in green activities at the institution.
I’ve floated plans A-D to a variety of audiences and networks. The results have been fascinating. I’ll share some of the ideas that came up, and add some more of my futures thinking to boot.
The hybrid conference has already been successfully implemented. The Society for Cultural Anthropology changed their international conference in 2018 to a new form, which we could see as heading towards A-C above. Here’s how they describe doing it again this year:
Distribute 2020 will be virtual and distributed: virtual in that it will be anchored by a dedicated conference website streaming prerecorded multimedia panels; and distributed in that presenters and viewers from across the globe will participate in the conference via in-person local “nodes.”
Distribute 2020 will offer three full days of streamed audio-visual panels and in-person local nodes where participants can gather with others to view the conference and join in related activities like workshops, art exhibitions, and dinner salons. Our goal is a low-cost, highly accessible, carbon-neutral conference that might pave the way for rethinking the mega-conference model.
Everything I’ve heard signals that this went well for that academic population. You can read and watch a series of video reflections from 2019 here. The Comparative and International Education Society is doing something similar.
Question: is this the next form of the academic conference, or a transition stage to wholly online meetings?
Hiring/tenure/promotion/review has to change. Presenting to conferences is often a useful thing to do for career advancement. If we cut back on face to face events, we’ll have to adjust academic review. As Lisa Hinchliffe observed,
My univ would need to rethink the facility eval criteria. Its pretty hard to show national reputation and potential for international impact w/o air travel. And, it certainly isn't going to stop faculty going to DC to "meet with ppl" …
— Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (@lisalibrarian) January 4, 2020
Will some departments value virtual presentations less highly than in-person ones? If on-site conferences dwindle and attendance at them becomes scarce, will be rate participation in those events more highly? We will have to reset incentives to make this work.
How does this impact equity in an increasingly unequal academy? We could see long distance travel becoming increasingly the province of the academy’s most privileged: tenured faculty members, those working at the wealthiest institutions, parents with the best child care, and so on. In this way a climate change strategy could exacerbate inequalities.
On the other hand, watching YouTube and interacting on social media is much less expensive on multiple fronts: money, time, accommodations. If conferences migrate more fully online more academic populations could enjoy increased access to those professional opportunities.
Which technology to use? I often hear video for primary content, presumably based on live streaming presentations (keynotes, panels, plenaries, talks). This makes a lot of sense, given the enormous and nearly total appeal of video to the human race. It also might represent an improvement over some keynote speeches, where most of the audience can barely see the speaker and might not be able to interact with them at all. Other improvements might be available, as Henrietta Carbonel observed:
Webinars are a great way to share research across borders. Participants get to hear about findings and webinars can be interactive, possibly more so than talks at conferences (written questions in the chat, discussions, votes, etc.)
— Henrietta Carbonel (@HGCarbonel) January 5, 2020
Social media then fits the role of interaction, starting with Twitter, which already has a long track record of being events’ backchannel. I haven’t heard LMSes floated for discussion, file sharing, and general anchoring, which might be a sign of that technology’s limitations, or that most academics don’t view the LMS as useful beyond individual classes.
Other, newer technologies could play a role. Virtual reality can be great for immersion in spaces. Social uses are lagging, but down the road they might serve, allowing us to imagine academics in their offices interacting with far-off colleagues through goggles and glasses. On a different angle I would suggest using telepresence robots (“doppelbots”) for face-to-face events where in-person attendance is dropping. (Here’s me doing this at a conference in 2014) Doppelbots could be a transition technology, a bridge to a totally virtual conference world.
Criticisms and resistance. Asking academics to change their conference structure has elicited some blowback, some quite fierce. I often hear that academic travel is just too small and cutting it back would have too small an impact upon climate change overall. Requesting or compelling faculty, staff, and students do make that sacrifice is both a waste of time and also an unnecessary burden on an already stressed population. Indeed, this could distract educators from taking and/or organizing for more salient steps to mitigate or adapt to climate change. Couldn’t those energies be devoted to passing carbon taxes, for example? Ideologically, urging individual academics to change course might just be another form of virtue-signaling consumerism. (This MetaFilter discussion gives a good sense of this line of thought, albeit for a different case)
Revamping conferences might not be a globally applicable idea. Some nations lack low-carbon capacity for travel – i.e., most of the US, ill served by passenger rail. Some universities inhabit remote locations or dwell within large, relatively underpopulated areas. Think of Alaska, Australia, Russia, the northern 2/3rds of Canada. Would a general reduction of academic travel unfairly penalize those populations?
Academics might find technology-mediated remote conferences to be insufficient for purpose. Technophobia or unfamiliarity with tech can power some of this, of course, but so can a loss of travel’s pleasures: seeing new places, getting away from the daily grind, serendipitous meetings, reconnecting with colleagues. Poor tech support could wreck virtual conference participation. And technology can add new problems, such as online abuse.
In fact, digital technology might not be a good solution. Depending on which measurement one uses, videoconferencing might have higher carbon costs than travel. This should be true of more computationally intensive tech, such as 3d video, VR, or blockchain, assuming someone finds a way of using that last tech in this cause.
Some have told me that cutting back academic travel is a kind of attack on higher education, participating in a devaluation of academic work. It might even align with reactionary anti-intellectualism. They haven’t cited conservative mocking of climate change activists for flying around the world to protest carbon excesses, but they could.
Even more fiercely, some folks got very personal with me, accusing me of holding a puritanical attitude, or questioning my academic credentials. This was… useful for me to hear, as I proceed along this research inquiry. As an independent, I have to take care. And I haven’t even run into climate change deniers yet on this score.*
It may be that these opposition arguments win the day, at least for a while, leaving universities and colleges to pursue option D (above).
Who is involved in strategizing about this? One aspect of the overall problem of higher ed and climate change is who’s involved in making the decisions. So far I’ve mostly seen people frame it as a question for faculty (well, the tenure-track faculty minority). Staff travel doesn’t appear much.
Students haven’t played much of a role in this conversation, but that could change. After all, some do travel for undergraduate and graduate research. Moreover, rising student activism around climate change could turn its attention to this one piece of higher ed’s carbon footprint. Targeting endowment investments is already occurring. When will students protest a professor’s global trip, then scale that up?
Off-campus players can also play a role in this topic (cf my earlier post). Local or national governments could pass laws that drive universities and colleges to curtail faculty – say, by insisting all enterprises above a certain size must be carbon-neutral or -negative. Hand in glove with this are entities that could help academia make such changes. Which businesses would step forward to help transform academic meetings? Will nonprofits organize to encourage or assist this process? Can academic associations, think tanks, or foundations play a role?
There’s still more to conferences than air travel. We can rethink other aspects of academic meetings as part of a global climate change strategy. Some events have already cut back on swag (printed materials, bags, t-shirts, etc). Jeroen Bosman sees more to be done:
One addition: in reducing the conference footprint apart from travel we also need to look at venues, hotels and catering and make sure they transform to reduce CO2 in their chains. That takes more than a having vegetarian option and a sticker promoting towel reuse. @BieTanjade
— Jeroen Bosman (@jeroenbosman) January 10, 2020
Let me pause at that point. Clearly this is not a simple issue. It can be fraught in many ways. What’s the best mix of my A-D options? Which other strategies can we pursue?
Where are we discussing this? How can we best proceed?
*I see climate change deniers all over the place, including my Facebook page. I mean I haven’t seen anyone deny climate change is happening during debates about how higher ed should respond.
(doppelbot photo by Mikhail Gershovich; all others are mine)