From exclusive conferencing to community building – facing the challenge of the climate crisis

Soeren Thomsen and Alastair Creelman

Rather than asking the question of whether we should go back to face-to-face conferences, we need to ask why we want to have a conference in the first place? International conferences are almost always exclusive events, favouring participants from wealthy countries and institutions, and although they have strong symbolic value, they can often be questioned in terms of what they actually achieve. In the past year we have seen many innovative approaches to digital conferences and there is a constant stream of new platforms and technologies that can reproduce many of the features of a face-to-face conference. These are certainly interesting, but they tend to simply replicate the familiar model. Maybe a conference is not the answer to our question. We would like to suggest here that there are more effective ways of collaborating and exchanging experience and would like to illustrate this with climate science in focus. Addressing the challenges of the climate crisis demands global collaboration but the issues and solutions are mostly local. Maybe the way forward is not by flying in thousands of delegates to an expensive conference venue, but instead by working primarily at community level while finding ways to build global inclusive networks to link these efforts.

The climate and biodiversity crisis

The climate and biodiversity crisis are progressing at unprecedented speed. 2020 was the hottest year since weather records began. But this framing is not appropriate to communicate this problem. 2020 will be one of the coolest years for the next 100 years and far beyond. Globally we have reached 1.1º warming in 2020 compared to pre-industrial averages. This warming already has massive impacts today: i.e. autumn weather conditions favourable for fires have doubled since the 1980’s in California and in Africa the climate crisis amplifies food insecurity and stress on water resources and hits the most vulnerable hardest; those who have contributed least to the problem. This issue has recently gained momentum in the public debate. New pledges by big players like China, which aims to be carbon neutral after 2060, and the US, now under Biden, might give some hope. But most pledges are long term targets and typically rely on vague “net zero” and “negative emissions” pathways. These pledges are relatively easy to make as they simply postpone the problem to future generations. We need concrete action now. How will we reduce our emissions within 2021? In our community? In our town? In our company? At our university? At country level? Real CO2 emission cuts of 10 % per year and more are needed in western countries to deliver on Paris.

The decadal old approach to fly people around the world to negotiate and discuss climate issues has failed. The CO2 emissions are a problem, but even more is the message which is sent to everyone. So are there other ways? This approach has not led to any reduction of the CO2 emissions and even less to a reduction of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere which is needed to stabilize climate. The combination of the climate and biodiversity crisis and the covid-19 pandemic has brought the unsustainability of the traditional international scientific conference into sharp focus. During the past year many conferences have managed to pivot to an online format surprisingly well. There is a growing awareness that we simply cannot afford to continue on-site conferences that have not only a major carbon footprint but are also highly exclusive in terms of diversity, accessibility, finance, language and culture.

Global greenhouse gas emissions, global land and ocean temperature anomaly and milestones under the UNFCCC framework. Source: Gütschow et al. (2019), NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information (2019).

Friday for Future: a decentralised, bottom-up, global climate action community

The Friday for Future (FFF) movement is an example of how climate action can be sparked globally without international face-to-face meetings. FFF has a common goal which is “to put moral pressure on policymakers, to make them listen to the scientists, and then to take forceful action to limit global warming.”

  • The FFF movement is highly inclusive and everyone is welcome to join from everywhere.
  • FFF strikes regularly and continuously since August 2018 in-person or virtually. FFF managed to keep the climate issue on the agenda beyond single events like typical annual climate conferences.
  • Their events are multilingual if needed i.e., they make press releases with a multilingual panel and allow everyone to ask questions in their language. 
  • FFF uses multiple platforms and channels to communicate globally and to organize themselves.
  • They also include people with low-bandwidths or limited internet connection. Activists can just draw a sign, take a picture and connect whenever they get access again. Greta Thunberg or others in the movement are helping to get them heard.

Often it is said that FFF has achieved a lot. Certainly, more than all fly-in events have achieved within the last decades. Mainly FFF managed to put the climate crisis into mainstream media. FFF’s goal is that all countries deliver on the 1.5ºC goal of the Paris Agreement. So far no western country nor the EU has even pledged a pathway in line with the Paris Agreement. CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere are still rising. Also in 2020, we added new CO2 into the atmosphere. Due to COVID it is 7% less than 2019. This is as if you fill your bathtub with about 93 % of the usual speed. You would probably not even realise the difference and quickly flush your bathroom, if you don’t close the water tap. CO2 emissions simply have to stop in order to stabilize the climate.

So what should we do now? Let’s keep in mind that our goal is to achieve action to solve the climate and biodiversity crisis and not to organize a conference just to have a conference. To solve these wicked problems, we need everyone on board. So back into the plane to the next international meeting just after COVID? No! Latest research shows that climate action is most successful at community level, namely at population sizes of about 10,000 people. Why? This is a scale where individuals can still easily interact directly with their local government and by this be change agents. Researchers like Avit Bhowmik from Karlstad University thus even suggest decentralizing climate action.

So, should we go back to face-to-face meetings? Yes, at community level! Here we need to meet, reconnect to each other and discuss in a way which best suits the community. Whenever it makes sense, these communities of action could exchange on a global level by virtual conferences, which take into account accessibility issues related to language. A key factor is moving the focus from synchronous to asynchronous communication and from lecture to conversation (see Alan Levine’s article Conferences as conversations). Focus groups from all over the world could therefore collaborate asynchronously to draw up position papers, recommendations, or research overviews. Those with limited or no internet access can work offline and upload their contributions when they do have access. The scientific exchange and collaboration benefits of face-to-face conferences can be maintained but in another framework. The face-to-face events will be local but networked. 

Successful examples have been existing already before the pandemic for example the Virtual Island Summit 2019, which connected island communities around the world and have repeated this in 2020. The project in December 2019 brought together communities from around the globe to discuss ocean and climate issues during the UNFCCC COP25 in Madrid. This collaborative effort is now transferred into the long term project.

The conference is no longer the default arena for international cooperation. If we are going to organise large international conferences in the future, especially in a field like climate science, there must be very convincing arguments for doing so. We do not deny the attraction and benefits of international face-to-face conferences, but they must become the exception rather than the rule. The focus must shift to creating arenas for collaboration, discussion and build on linking local activities (that will be face-to-face). The ideas outlined here can surely apply to other fields. There is no ready-made solution, but we must start rethinking the concept of a conference and focus on community-building. 

Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Soeren Thomsen is a passionate ocean and climate scientist recently working for CNRS at LOCEAN at Sorbonne University in Paris. Soeren is a strong advocate for inclusive and sustainable international collaboration within the ocean and climate science sector. He founded the EBUS Webinars project in 2018 and is a founding member of the international #VirtualBlueDecade team.

Alastair Creelman works at Linnaeus University, Sweden, with the pedagogical use of ICT in education and in particular fields such as distance learning, open education and developing more interactive and engaging webinars and online conferences. He is a committed blogger and has been writing on his field for over twelve years in the blog The corridor of uncertainty.

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