Videoconferencing for Climate
Colloquium and events organizers who adopt the Practice aim to
- Have a significant percentage (at least 15%) of talks and presentations be done remotely – in particular, through videoconferencing – instead of using air travel, and
- Find additional ways to improve the climate impacts of our professional activities, especially at the institutional level (universities, professional associations, and governments). These include aiming for even higher percentages of remote talk, more regional/local talks (e.g., a minimum of one or two each year), institutional support for buying carbon offsets, institutional divestment from problematic industries, and finding ways to directly influence local and national governments.
A wide adoption of the Practice would have two effects: (1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping physical climate and (2) expanding the number of people who can participate in professional activities, improving social climate.
(1): Emissions from passenger airplanes are a major contributor to climate change. Many academics accept climate science and the need for drastic institutional changes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, academics use air travel extensively for participation in colloquia and conferences. Reducing their air travel by itself would have a relatively small effect, but doing so could help inspire others to make similar changes – both other parts of the academy and, more importantly, students. Those of us who teach classes related to climate ethics, science, and policy stand to become more credible in our students’ eyes if we change our own professional practices in light of the ethical concerns (especially if doing so comes with some professional costs – see below). Currently, there is some stigma around ‘merely’ giving a talk through videoconferencing, which makes organizers reluctant to issue such invitations. By publicly adopting the Practice, however, departments and event organizers signal that they have well-considered, non-financial reasons for encouraging remote participation.
(2): For many academics, in-person participation in conferences and visits to other departments are the most rewarding aspects of the profession. For many graduate students and junior faculty, in-person participation is a crucial factor in career development. Adopting the Practice does not imply trying to eliminate in-person activities. However, adopting the Practice would make the discipline more socially inclusive on at least two fronts.
(2a): A significant number of academics are not able to travel regularly, whether due to differences in mobility, family/caregiving obligations, or other personal factors. Because of the stigma against remote participation, they are then often simply not invited to participate in colloquia or conferences, even though remote participation is increasingly common elsewhere in the academy (e.g., job interviews, dissertation defenses). In a different vein: colloquia organizers frequently face the question of whether a speaker will draw a large enough crowd, with the result that there is pressure to avoid less famous speakers. Videoconferencing, however, can be adapted to both large-scale and small-scale settings, thereby giving organizers more flexibility in whom to invite.
(2b): Academic departments at universities and colleges that are far from large cities or that have limited funding often have difficulty getting speakers to visit, to the detriment of both their students and faculty. Given the stigma against (and lack of precedent for) invitations to give talks through videoconferencing, they therefore often do not have as many colloquia or host as many conferences/workshops as they would like. A wide adoption of the Practice would reduce that stigma and create a precedent for remote participation, thereby making it easier for departments in such universities and colleges to offer more colloquia and host more events.
(I) Not enough, and not the most important step. Even a wide adoption of the Practice would not be enough to meet the moral challenges around physical and social climate. Nor would it be the most important step in doing so. Moreover, there is a real danger of moral licensing (e.g., “we hit 25% in our colloquia, so let’s fly in more speakers!”). Even so, a wide adoption of the Practice would be one of the most significant steps academics have taken on either front, and probably the most cost-effective one. It also offers a starting point for discussion of further, potentially more important steps.
(II) Not demonizing flying. For a wide acceptance of the Practice to have influence outside academia (e.g., through our students), it must not be taken to imply that academics frown on everyone who flies. Nor should it suggest that any particular academic should travel less, or that there is anything hypocritical in an organizer adopting the practice without giving up flying themselves.
(III) Costs. For many academics, remote participation is not as good as in-person participation. This is why, for example, in-person American Philosophical Association job interviews persisted for many years even after remote participation became a viable option. Those who adopt the Practice believe that the benefits outweigh the costs, but recognize there are at least three costs to be minimized (though not literal costs, since remote participation is much more affordable than in-person participation).
(III.a) Technology. Videoconferencing technology will never be problem-free. However, there are multiple programs/applications that can be used (e.g., if Zoom fails, try Teams, Skype, or BlueJeans), so organizers can easily pre-arrange back-up options. In addition, for the cost of one or two round-trip tickets, a department can purchase high-quality microphones and cameras to facilitate remote talks. Sometimes, technology might simply fail altogether - but that risk is not obviously greater than that of flight delay/cancelation for in-person speakers.
(III.b) Informal socializing. One of the main benefits of in-person participation are informal opportunities to network, discuss their research, and make friends. These can, however, be replicated to a significant degree remotely (see, e.g., https://virtuallyconnecting.org), provided organizers allocate time for them. Hence, an invitation to give a remote talk might be accompanied by an invitation to spend 45 minutes informally chatting while drinking coffee, or setting up multiple meetings or chats over a two-day period. Moreover, a more deliberate approach to organizing informal socializing has other benefits, such as making it possible to avoid a small number of people from dominating the informal time.
(III.c) Stratification. The current stigma around remote participation would be worsened if the 15% was directed towards ‘less important’ speakers. There are a variety of ways to avoid such stratification, such as by deliberately inviting speakers of different ranks for remote talks, or by making all invitations disjunctive (e.g., “We would love you have you present your work in person. We have also adopted the Videoconferencing for Climate Practice, though, and so would also welcome a remote talk”). Moreover, as part 2 of the justification indicates, the Practice can drastically reduce the existing stratification between those who can travel and those who cannot.
(IV) Honoraria. Partly to avoid stratification (III.c), academics who participate remotely should still receive honoraria or other relevant benefits given to in-person participants, and organizers should treat remote talks as genuine departmental events. (The honoraria could be higher than in-person talks, given the lower overall costs of remote talks.) A presentation given remotely should be as important an item on a CV as an in-person one.
(V) Implementation. Depending on their size and resources, different departments may implement the Practice differently. A small department with few resources might just add one remote talk a year – thereby responding more to part 2 of the justification than to part 1. A large department with significant resources might replace a number of in-person talks with remote talks, or give all invited speakers the option of participating remotely. There is a range of intermediate possibilities. Importantly, adopting the Practice involves only sincerely aiming for at least 15% remote participation (~1 out of 6 talks). Whether 15% or more is reached may depend on further factors.
This document was written by Colin Marshall, but its content owes much to conversations with Andrea Woody, Stephen Gardiner, Sinan Dogramaci, Andrew Sepielli, Arthur Obst, Jonathan Milgrim, Sara Goering, Alex Lenferna, Jeremy Hess, and Jamie Mayerfeld (which is not to say they agree with everything here).
Resources and related discussions
- Tufts University’s Parke Wilde’s document on greatly reducing flying for academics
- Philosophers for Sustainability's resource page, including a very practical guide for e-conferencing
- The British Philosophical Association’s guidelines for environmentally responsible business travel