We need to talk about climate change

International conferences are a huge boon to academics, allowing them to hear about new findings, make new connections and, above all, enjoy the physical manifestation of their virtual global community. But is all that footfall worth the huge carbon footprint it leaves? Joanna Kidman is increasingly unsure   

May 9, 2019
Aeroplanes at sunset
Source: Getty

I arrived in Toronto during last summer’s record-breaking heatwave. When humidity was taken into account, temperatures were spiking in the mid-40s, and the air felt like a hot, wet towel pressed against your face. Emergency cooling centres were operating at peak capacity and public swimming pools were offering free entry.

I was one of six thousand people gathering for the International Sociological Association’s quadrennial World Congress of Sociology – a major event for sociologists everywhere, and the second of three long-haul trips I took from New Zealand to northern hemisphere conferences in 2018.

But the major late afternoon topic of conversation in the air-conditioned hotel bar was not so much the evils of social stratification as our own relief that we were not more exposed to the city’s smouldering reality, as we watched television reports about the deadly forest fires raging to the north.  

Wildfires are a fact of life in Canada, but they are increasing in size and ferocity every year, spreading their toxic smoke plumes ever further across the country. And research on global warming indicates that the problem will only intensify further.

I’d already had a good dose of global warming back home in New Zealand. We’d had an apparently endless summer: the hottest since records began. It prompted a massive melting of permanent snow and ice in the country’s Southern Alps. The glaciers, already in retreat, were looking “sad and dirty”, climate scientists reported, while the warming ocean into which they were draining faced an ongoing loss of biodiversity, the oceanographers added.

Global warming carries particular risks for the Māori communities with which I work – although further research about the likely impact is needed. I’m completing a three-year study about Māori young people’s hopes and fears about the future and I often find myself worrying about what lies ahead for them and their children. These uncertainties tie us directly to the health of our mountains and rivers: to what we Māori call Papatūānuku, or Earth Mother. They are a constant reminder of how our connections with our ancestors have been disrupted by the colonial land grab and its attendant plagues of white privilege, corporate greed and climate change.

I’m bothered by all of this. I’m also bothered that I play a role in the destruction. As an academic with several large research projects on the go, I spend a lot of time in the air. If it saves a few hours of road travel or an overnight stay in a hotel, I’ll usually catch a plane. I don’t own a bicycle and I haven’t planted a tree in about 10 years. But I don’t like these eerie clusters of strange weather events and other indications that damage to ecosystems is taking place. And I am troubled by the irony of flying thousands of miles to speak about the fears of Māori youth for the future of Papatūānuku.

New Zealand universities have yet to really address these matters. In my own university, the Victoria University of Wellington, the largest greenhouse gas emissions by far are from work-related air travel. In 2017 alone, more than 4.5 million kilograms of carbon dioxide were produced by academics and other staff in flight. That’s a lot of greenhouse gas.

Some scholars are tackling this issue head-on. Shaun Hendy, a professor of physics at the University of Auckland, is an inspirational figure. He has written extensively about the silencing of science in major public debates and calls on academics to act decisively as the critical conscience of society. After attending a conference on climate change in Wellington in 2017, he decided he would not undertake any air travel in 2018. And he didn’t. During his flightless year, he posted updates on social media about his various journeys on buses, ferries, electric cars and trains – reminding me, as I flew around the world, cramped and uncomfortable, of my own pleasure in these much slower forms of travel.

In Toronto, as I lay awake through a bad dose of jet-lag with the air-conditioning cranked up as high as it would go, I estimated the number of air miles I was due to clock up during that year. And I thought hazily about the contribution to global warming made by privileged academics attending international conferences.

Such events are an important part of academic life. They permit early career scholars to witness how their disciplines are enacted. They are a forum for the exchange of ideas, the testing of new lines of enquiry and the establishment of new connections and collaborations. And for many academics who feel isolated in their departments or the local chapters of their disciplines, international conferences provide a sense of belonging. They allow disparate individuals to feel part of the ideal – however fragile in a neoliberal era – of an international community of scholars: a cooperative enterprise comprising people who might never meet in person, read each other’s work or recognise one another at the conference dinner, yet, in each of whose minds – to borrow from the late Cornell University political scientist Benedict Anderson  – “lives the image of their communion”.

In some respects, these occasions bear marked similarities to various nationalist expressions of group cohesion. It’s the same sort of emotional rush some people get when they sing the national anthem at a sports stadium or attend a dawn service on Anzac Day. At the 2018 American Educational Research Association conference in New York, which I attended prior to the Toronto event, I had been one of more than 17,000 delegates striking up conversations with fellow orange lanyard wearers in elevators and doorways and nodding to other conference bag carriers on the streets of midtown Manhattan. These insignia of membership of the field of education allowed us to experience, however fleetingly, a sense of fellowship. Regardless of any actual inequality or prevailing bias in the structuring of that particular field of knowledge, the jargon we used, the plastic name tags, the in-jokes all gave the delegates entry to the education commons. We were there as good citizens of academia. It was like an episode of Friends.

But while some academic and research conferences can be intellectually game-changing events, most are not. And there is a darker side to them, too. Recent travel bans and administrative delays in the US and the UK have created problems for academics whose conference registrations have timed out as they waited for visas. This has particularly affected scholars from African and Asian nations. In addition, sexual harassment, violence and assault, as well as sexualised behaviour more generally at conferences, are under the spotlight as growing numbers of women speak up about their experiences. Several recent studies show that the problem has serious consequences not only for women’s engagement with professional activities but also for their academic careers more generally.

Over the years, I’ve been to many conferences where the “prestige economies” of academia – those engines of white privilege, oiled by male networking practices, male bonding and ethno-sociability – govern everything from the line-up of speakers to the election of Fellows. I’ve met a lot of interesting people along the way, but I’ve also noticed the absences: the indigenous scholars, the academics of colour, the female early career researchers with small children, the part-time faculty on the minimum wage, the untenured workers living precariously between short-term contracts in the academic “gig economy”.

Making the 24-hour trip across the world to hear disciplinary experts present their research continues to be a rite of passage for many early career faculty in New Zealand, as well as a professional lifeline for others. Yet it is time that we asked ourselves more searching questions about whether it is always worth it. Is speaking for 10-15 minutes to a privileged and potentially predatory subset of your academic field really worth all the environmental destruction?

Plane flying overhead

All universities in New Zealand have environmental policies and frameworks posted on their websites. But, like many other universities around the world, they are reticent about how emissions from air travel will actually be reduced. There is a defensive silence too among many academics, partly because the need to travel affects people in different ways. Oceania is a busy cosmopolitan hub for indigenous societies, so indigenous sociologists like me are likely to bump into our senior scholars in the corridor – or, failing that, at the supermarket on a Saturday morning. That’s one of the pleasures of living in a small nation. But it’s also a reflection of the fact that our academic world faces in a different direction from those of our colleagues for whom northern hemisphere conferences are an important part of their work.

Nevertheless, several academic societies and associations are directly addressing the problem. In April of last year, the Society for Cultural Anthropology held its biennial conference, Displacements, as both a virtual and in-person event, running simultaneously in 46 countries. Panels were live-streamed through the conference website over a 60-hour period and online participants could access the proceedings from their homes and offices – or else join local “nodes” where they could watch presentations collectively.

The benefits weren’t merely environmental. Registrations were more than six times higher than for the previous year’s physical-only conference. Moreover, this expanded reach drew new audiences who do not usually attend international meetings. In fact, it was these participants who drove some of the more exciting debates and conversations that I saw online.

Although I wasn’t registered, I regularly logged on to Twitter for updates on panel highlights. The conference’s strong presence on social media sparked energetic discussions in wider academic circles about its themes, well beyond cultural anthropology. For all these reasons, the ideas behind #displace18 are worth developing further.

This article may well be seen as virtue-signalling: a puff-piece about my own climate change anxieties. Perhaps it is. The truth is that I do not know exactly how I ought to shift my practice. Still, as I looked through the business cards I had collected at conferences during 2018 and pondered whether all those heart-warming post-session conversations they represented were worth all the globe-warming travel they depended on, I decided that it’s time to do things differently.

As colleagues and I embark on a new national project, we’ll try to figure out how to move a large team (by social sciences standards) around New Zealand using mainly ground transport, and to lessen the need for travelling at all by substituting physical meetings for videoconferencing wherever possible. For myself, I will not have an entirely flightless 2019, but I won’t travel to the northern hemisphere. I’ll prioritise local and regional conferences and symposia instead. None of this will save the planet, but it will reduce my own carbon footprint and that of several people I work with.

Comprising two main islands and several smaller outlying ones, New Zealand is not compact. We do not have autobahns or bullet trains: instead, long, winding roads between busy main centres take us through alpine ranges and forests and rolling farmlands. The weather is often unpredictable and the roads can be treacherous. But storms, ice and fog affect air travel just as much as other forms of transport, and, in normal conditions, ground travel in New Zealand is relatively straightforward.

Besides, delays are not necessarily a drawback. Paul Theroux has written of the swell of sadness he experiences when embarking on a journey to a distant place. As the train gathers pace, “each familiar place flashes by the window and disappears and becomes part of the past. Time is made visible, and it moves as the landscape moves.” Perhaps we need more of this sensibility in academia: a willingness to travel more slowly, to glance up occasionally from our research and marking to experience the land as we pass through it, and to ponder what we are doing to it.

I was lucky to sit out Toronto’s heatwave in a series of cool, LED-lit conference rooms. But the sense of apocalypse was unmistakable as I sat in the hotel bar watching the flames licking at the edges of cities and towns not just in Ontario but across North America.

I think there is a day of reckoning coming for those of us in academia who, through wilful neglect rather than deliberate planning, are gambling away our futures, one air ticket at a time. The deathly silence about our addiction to air travel needs to be broken as the Anthropocene era of human-driven climate change manifests itself all around us. It is high time.

Joanna Kidman is an associate professor in the faculty of education at the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand.

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Reader's comments (5)

why not reduce intentional travel for all- tourists first, politicians and then researchers and academicians! we can cut drastically on carbon costs!!
With the increasing 'realism' of online conferencing, that seems a good way to go. I first presented at a virtual conference in 2003, and even though that was only text based, the discussion was think and fast. Think what we can do now. We also should be researching cleaner air travel. Great strides have been made in cleaning up car engines. Use technology wisely to become more environmentally friendly, rather than stop doing things that are useful or pleasurable (politicians fall into neither category, they can be banned from flying immediately!).
One issue is that Universities tend to ask you to take the cheapest form of travel - air (even within the UK) can be cheaper from Scotland -esp if you factor in the fact you'll need an extra night's accommodation in your destination (or the sleeper) if you take the train. Should travel depts start to value green over cost?
Very thoughtful. Will tech solve the issue or exacerbate it? What about the impact of large-scale data centres for cloud computing? What about the emissions produced by the mass of computers on desks? What about the constant requirement of Microsoft and Apple to upgrade hardware (sorry, I'm a Linux user redeploying ancient hardware - call that 'virtue signalling' if you wish)? Finally, how you produce the power to maintain all these tech activities matters. Yes, however, air flights are an issue for those still in academic employment.
Air travel - and travel by conventional cars - are a major concern. However, there is also a problem of alienation in the virtual world. We do need human contact and exchange and that's what academic conferences offer which can not be replicated by a virtual appearance. Its not the paper or the panel but all those conversations with old and new scholars - and indeed publishers - held over meals, coffee and drinks that are often so important. Academics are great participants in our global society and help to break down Barries to creating an open society - conferences are one way we do this. We do need to create discreet fund to off-set our carbon footprint. Perhaps the THE could initiate one?