Daniel Lemire's blog

, 2 min read

If you are serious about climate change… stop attending conferences?

We know that spending energy tends to release carbon in the atmosphere. In turn this warms up the Earth in the long run. This change might be detrimental.

Being an academic, I am surrounded by people who are seriously concerned by climate change. These same academics are often insistent that we should penalize wealthy companies that produce or use fossil fuels.

However academics themselves contribute to climate change. In fact, given that academics travel more than most people, they are likely to be contributing substantially to the problem. Indeed, academics do move around quite a bit: attending meetings, going to classes, flying to conferences…

Achtena et al. have measured the carbon footprint of academics. They find that transportation accounts for 75% of the carbon footprint of a PhD student. Achtena et al. find that conference attendance alone accounts for 35% of said carbon footprint.

I have yet to meet a single researcher urging his colleagues to stop attending academic conferences. It appears that climate researchers attend as many conferences as their colleagues. I do ask researchers who travel a lot about their carbon footprint. Invariably they dismiss my question. Sometimes, they are argue that their footprint isn’t so large. Or they point out that it is justified by the importance of their work (compared with, say, business executives).

I expect that some type of travel has been reduced. For example, when I sit on a national grant committee, I no longer expect to have to travel to the capital. But I also observe that the number of “international” academic conferences has been booming. There are more of them and some have gotten larger.

Maybe the argument is that conferences in exotic places are essential for scientific productivity. But where is the evidence? Even if Skype meetings and online exchanges are less effective, are they so bad that we absolutely need to move thousands of researchers to Las Vegas every year so that research questions can be debated?

While this is hardly ever said, a sizeable fraction of government research funding goes toward paying expensive travel… because it is a nice perk. Lots of people love getting paid travel. And some of them like to travel to conferences where they will complain about how little is done against climate change…

How is this not cognitive dissonance?