Every day, humanity adds another hundred million metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Every day, the prospects for humans and other beings on this beautiful planet get that much worse. Every day, a hot and desperate future closes in around our children a little more tightly.
There is no longer any way to escape the fact that burning fossil fuels causes real harm. From the wildfires of California to the heat-ravaged reefs of the Pacific, the true scope of climate damages is coming into clearer focus every year. As Earth scientists, we have a front-row seat to the unfolding of our grim climate future.
For this reason, many of us feel called to reduce our carbon footprint—sometimes dramatically—in an effort to align our actions with the urgency of climate change. For most Earth scientists, as for most other academics, air travel dominates our personal carbon footprint by a significant margin. For some of us, a concerted effort to fly less is a critical part of our shift to a lower-carbon lifestyle.
Our decision to fly less is not an easy choice, and it has consequences both personal and professional. It means fewer conferences, meetings, and field campaigns. Ground travel is slower and often more expensive. We face resistance and sometimes even hostility from colleagues who see us as challenging a comfortable status quo. Family members struggle to understand why we opt out of some far-flung family get-togethers.
Others dismiss our decision to fly less because this alone will not “save the planet.” So why do we bother? First, there is no faster way to contribute to the destruction of our climate than to fly on a regular basis, and we wish to reduce our participation in that harm. Second, frequent flying sends a message to the public that a shift away from fossil fuels is not urgent when, in fact, the opposite is true. With every passing year, an increasing number of Earth scientists arrive at similar conclusions.
AGU has taken some steps to reduce emissions by, for example, “greening” its administrative building and, as a representative from AGU informed us, beginning an audit of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with its Fall Meeting operations. But thus far, that audit does not include emissions generated by members flying to and from each Fall Meeting, which amount to some 15,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The time is ripe for AGU to take aim at this far bigger carbon prize, recognizing that this is a complex issue requiring sustained and focused partnership between AGU and its members.
AGU could begin by including an estimate of its members’ travel emissions in its greenhouse gas audit. As a next step, AGU could support members who choose to fly less by accelerating its adoption of technology and policies that would enable remote presentations and participation in its existing meetings. Last, AGU could form a working group to begin a dialogue with its members on the future of virtual participation and to assess, develop, and experiment with alternative, low-carbon meeting models over the next several years.
As the world’s premiere professional organization for Earth and space scientists, AGU has a responsibility—and an opportunity—to take a leading role in developing low-carbon meeting practices that reflect the urgency of mitigating climate change. There is no time to waste.
This opinion piece was prepared by the authors in their personal capacities. The opinions expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not reflect the view of their employers. Peter Kalmus is author of Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.
—Kim M. Cobb (@coralsncaves), School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; Peter Kalmus (@ClimateHuman), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; and David M. Romps ([email protected]; @romps), Department of Earth and Planetary Science, University of California, Berkeley
Editor’s Note: Below is a response to this opinion from AGU.
Thanks to Kim, Peter, and David for raising an important set of issues related to improving the efficiency, sustainability, and value of meetings while lowering their overall carbon footprint. These are not incompatible goals; they can be addressed by improved meeting design, implementing new technologies and science, and offering broader support and viable choices for AGU members regarding all of their travel. AGU hopes to reduce its carbon footprint not just through the design of its new home but also through a change in practice through all its activities. For AGU, this applies to the entire meetings program and to the meetings and travel communities that support AGU events. It also aligns with a broader objective to expand access to our science. Indeed, several open science efforts, some of which are mentioned below, are expanding access to meetings content and worldwide engagement. Reducing the carbon footprint and expanding remote engagement are key elements of AGU’s meetings strategy, as developed by AGU’s Meetings Committee and approved by the Board of Directors and the Council in 2016.
We currently have policies in place that support and measure the use of recycled materials and reduction of printed materials, sustainable food and beverage options, and how much waste we send to landfills. We can and will add estimates of the travel footprint, and we’ll be asking members in our postmeeting survey some basic questions about their own behaviors to further inform our understanding. Sustainability criteria are used to select meeting locations and include whether locations have strong sustainability programs and whether they expand or allow easy attendance by train travel (as is the case this year). Moreover, by rotating the meeting through regions around the nation, we enable participation by more members over time.
As noted in the opinion above, a broad carbon audit of our meetings will begin next week. The audit will be done in cooperation with hotels and the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and is designed to inform future actions.
AGU’s meetings strategy includes supporting experiments aimed at an improved remote experience, such as the following:
- Expanding the virtual program and the use of technology in oral presentations and posters.
- Expanding the on-demand program, including the addition of interviews and other engagements outside of sessions.
- Enabling questions from remote participants in some virtual sessions.
- Expanding the use of electronic posters. After an initial pilot period, fees were eliminated for these to enable broader participation. In addition, we will soon be exploring remote presentations of electronic posters.
- Leading the development of a poster and preprint archive, ESSOAr.org, to make posters available online. We will be adding annotations to and commenting on these shortly.
- Expanding social media use and participation during meetings.
- Expanding public lectures to reach broader local audiences.
Further expansion of and experimentation with these and other technologies are planned for 2019.
Replicating for virtual participants the full experience of a meeting as large and dynamic as the Fall Meeting is challenging. We’ll be using some of AGU’s smaller meetings for pilot studies on how to best allow for broader remote participation. As we test these technologies, we welcome comments and suggestions from members.
Travel in some form will always be a part of Earth and space science. Our science requires visiting Earth and other planets both in person and remotely. Sharing that science in person has been and will likely remain critical for the development of the science and for engaging society. Nonetheless, there is much that can be done to limit travel to and increase the sustainability of AGU meetings. We hope that the efforts described here provide some idea of what AGU is doing to improve our understanding of our meetings footprint, increase the sustainability of our meetings, and enhance the ability of Earth and space scientists to optimize their travel and meetings experiences.
—Brooks Hanson, Executive Vice President, Science, AGU; Lauren Parr, Vice President, Meetings, AGU; and Rick Murnane, Chair, AGU Meetings Committee