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10 Ways Academic Conferences can Address the #Climatecrisis

By Jeanne Garbarino

“How dare you!” This is not a question, but a powerful statement delivered to global leaders by our era’s Joan of Arc, Greta Thunberg. With passionate clarity, Greta is giving us our last warning. How do we respond? We MUST respond.

It is true that we, as individuals, should not consider the climate crisis as our own personal moral failing. It is also true that a relatively small number of specific corporations are responsible for the bulk of carbon emissions, and should immediately act to fix their wrongs. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t reflect on our own community practices, and make change in our space. After all, science is an enterprise.

Scientists believe in climate change. We have been communicating messages around this for a very long time. We easily mobilize en force during marches. This means, in theory, we are up for change. How can we, a professional group of a sizable number, consider the waste streams associated with our own institutions and regular practices? In my opinion, one low-hanging fruit is to reconsider the future of “the science conference”.

The most common models for conference organization are problematic even before we consider the associated waste streams — large halls that feel like warehouses, too many concurrent sessions, power structures and participation issues, cost, etc. Unfortunately, it seems that, because of a general lack of audience consideration in conference planning, few mass professional gatherings actually benefit the majority of those who attend. Yet many of us keep doing it, at the cost of our productivity, our health, and our time. But, perhaps more pressingly, at the cost of our planet. And for what? (hint: “Instagram” is not the answer to this question).

We have to more thoughtfully consider the environmental impact of conference logistics. And we absolutely cannot ignore the significant environmental impact of lodging and transportation of conference participants. Our climate values baseline needs a major adjustment. 

This is not to say that conferences bear no value. There are certainly instances where IRL interactions, made possible by conference attendance, allow for truly effective knowledge sharing and collaboration. This is a great when it happens, for people and for organizations. I am not sure that I am ready to suggest that we do away with conferences (so don’t @ me…yet), but I think we can make a lot of changes for the better. Here are a few suggestions, some easier said than done, aka we have to start somewhere:

  1. Ask: Can you accomplish your organizational goals through a virtual meeting? Most of us have been to meetings where nothing happens, for whatever reason. Given the consensus that the earth is on fire, continued planning of these types of ineffective gatherings is irresponsible. Drawing from the “why call a meeting if you can put it in an email” philosophy, there are some really great tools that allow for virtual group meetings. While this is probably not the solution for all contexts, it is worth considering. 
  2. Go vegetarian. <ducks/> I get this might sound like a terrible idea to meat-eaters, but… but… data! There is no disputing the environmental impact of meat production. By offering vegetarian-only catering, particularly in large settings with thousands of attendees, we can help shift the needle in this area. And by giving attendees more variety, you can potentially reduce what gets thrown out (see next point). You’ll get used to it, I promise! 
  3. Have a plan for food waste. Food waste in America, the fate of an estimated 30-40% of our food supply, is clearly a significant problem. As food security issues continue to increase in their severity, this number is unacceptable. While the major solution to reducing food waste is to not create it in the first place, there are things conference organizers can do to reduce how much food is being thrown out. One possibility is to donate uneaten/unpurchased food to hunger-relief organizations. For food excess that cannot be donated, work with composting companies to keep food waste out of landfills — for example, Compost Now helps to connect communities with compost services.
  4.  Eliminate single-use plastic water bottles. This is one of those “easier said than done” things, or is it? I mean, if San Francisco airport can do it, shouldn’t we be able to? The key is to host your conference at a venue with adequate water filling stations, and caution to attendees, in advance, that they will need to bring their own reusable water bottle. Sure this may seem slightly inconvenient to some, but if we have all developed the ability to remember to take our phones everywhere we go, I am sure we can do the same for our own water bottles. (I’d also like to see the same action applied to coffee cups and cutlery — if you do not provide reusable forks and knives, consider having attendees bring their own. Bamboo sets are all the rage.)
  5. Get rid of swag. Lanyards, crappy USB drives, branded stationery/writing items, weird squishy brains that have no functional use whatsoever… Sometimes I feel like organizers and vendors feel obligated to hand out stuff, but in order to scale the freebies for every attendee, they have to basically give us literal garbage. Even that [insert conference logo] tote bag is too good to be true. This is just plain unnecessary. Let’s ditch this practice. Adding, the money saved can fund a travel stipend, for example.
  6. Create a sustainability policy. It is now common for conferences to be explicit about important issues such as sexual harassment, and general codes of conduct. In the spirit of transparency, conference organizers should also be explicit about what efforts are being made to reduce waste — let people know what you’re doing in the “green” spaces so they can see if organizer action (or inaction) aligns with their personal #climatecrisis value system.
  7. For any conference that generates revenue: donate a percentage to local environment-focused charities. If organizers are able to divert a percentage of conference revenue to environmental organizations, the potential for offsetting some of the negative environmental impacts resulting from all things conference is elevated. While this article discusses environmental donations in the context of the holidays, it is a well-researched list to help you get started.
  8. If your meeting takes place annually, consider hosting every other year. Conference fatigue is a real thing, without even thinking about environmental impact. By increasing the interval between conferences, you can take ample time to reflect and iterate on your existing model, and lessen the impact conference travel and hosting can have on the environment.
  9. Incentivize green practices among attendees. A conference can’t really go green if conference attendees aren’t getting behind the movement. To help incentivize your audience, consider establishing an award, have crowdsourcing sessions to learn about “green” ideas from your community,  or maybe even launch an Instagram or other social media campaign to help raise awareness and adoption of green practices.
  10. Ask: Is there a way to get people to not fly to attend the meeting? In addition to being prohibitively expensive, the environmental impact of flying is truly disheartening. I am not entirely sure what a feasible answer to this question looks like, but I strongly feel it is worth exploring. For instance, instead of hosting one large, central meeting, is is possible to have multiple concurrent local meetings? Is there a way to leverage tech for this? Also, see point 1 on this list.

Despite my earlier statement around not considering the current climate crisis as my own moral shortcoming, I can’t help but feel incredible panic and anxiety when I think about the future, and I know I am not alone. But people like Greta give us hope. If she can leave her school and cross an ocean to look world leaders in the eye and tell them to get their acts together, certainly we can figure out a way to be more cognizant of our professional carbon footprints.    

The next time you consider attending a conference, ask what organizers are doing to mitigate the amount of waste that the conference will inevitably impact the local environment, and our planet. If the answer is “nothing,” don’t go, and let them know why. Similarly, if they are just paying lip service with empty, ineffective “solutions,” don’t go, and let them know why. 

Time to sign on for real change, one step at a time. 

This is a call for #sustainablesci  

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