Taking action against the environmental crisis

Written by Thomas Colcombet
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As someone who is, as many colleagues, very concerned about the climate crisis, I decided to take some steps and change the way I consider my life as a (computer) scientist. This means that I care about my personal carbon footprint, and more globally the one of my community, and that I would like to have a positive impact on it. But, what can we do?

This post collects some ideas of actions that can be taken by academics if they feel concerned about the environmental crisis, and some related comments. It does not cover non-work-related personal choices that individuals can take, though there would be much to say about it. Nor is there any attempt to measure impact, or value the respective merits of each choice.

Let us emphasize that the choices made should of course be balanced with career considerations: the idea is not to jeopardize one’s future.

Personal changes

The first thing that can be done is to reduce your personal environmental impact as a scientist. To do so, you need to rationally estimate the impact of your actions, and find efficient ways to reduce the impact. This does not necessarily mean radical change, as there may be some easy gains.

Of course, in quantitative terms, your individual footprint is only a drop in an ocean if you consider your university or your community. But this step is crucial for several reasons:

  • It makes you feel better. The climate crisis is a huge and dire crisis, and the widespread inaction causes cognitive dissonance, so action is a necessity.
  • It makes you an inspiration to others, which leads to change at a larger scale. For this, extreme changes are not needed, and can even be counterproductive since examples that are beyond reach may be unappealing.
  • It can lead to discover new ideas and new ways of working.
  • It can help understand the difficulties that prevent others from changing.
  • It makes you think about the consequences of your actions, and makes you assess what is really important for your work.
  • Finally, and obviously, you cannot convince anyone to change if you do not walk the talk yourself.

But what concrete individual actions can you take? There are many common ways to act: reduce or eliminate meat or animal products in your diet (and require such options when participating to events), commute by bike or public transportation, reduce heating, avoid air conditioning, etc. However, as a TCS researcher, your main source of emissions is likely to be plane travel, so here are some ideas:

  • You can try fix yourself a maximal budget for plane travel, for instance: never, once every two years, once a year, or even twice a year while in PhD or postdoc. It is perfectly possible to avoid flights altogether, in particular if you are in a well-connected place with many conferences happening nearby (e.g., in Europe), or if you are at a later point in your career. It may be harder if you are very isolated geographically or thematically.
  • You can favor or even organize local collaborations and local events.
  • It is important to be aware of the right tools for remote collaboration: videoconferencing tools, virtual whiteboards, emails but also real-time chats, version control systems such as git or Subversion.
  • A possibility is also to prioritize conferences that are reachable by train or accept remote presentations. Publishing in journals can also be effective.
  • You may talk with your co-authors, and see if they would agree to follow the same policy for your joint papers. Clarifying this point ahead of time also helps. You may also decide to not invest energy in activities that would conflict with your beliefs, e.g., participating in the organization of conferences with mandatory in-person participation.
  • When you travel by plane, it is a good habit to combine scientific activities, e.g., conferences with research visits and other workshops. When you commit yourself to traveling less, quickly, maximizing the scientific reward of each trip becomes natural.

Communication and lobbying

While individual action is the most natural way to act, the biggest impact is probably obtained by influence other people to act. Here are some ideas in this direction:

  • An easy thing to implement is to display your commitment on your homepage. This should be done in a clearly visible way, so that people who visit your page for a specific reason (finding information about a paper, your email address, etc.) will see it. If you participate in climate-related initiatives or associations, mention it on your webpage and CV with links to give them visibility. You can also express commitment in research papers, e.g., as a footnote next to your name and affiliation.
  • It is also natural to mention your commitment in discussions. It is important to do so carefully, without cornering the other person into their contradictions, as this can be counterproductive: people cannot all invest the same effort, they are not at the same stage in discovering the problem, and they have different priorities. There can also be invisible reasons making action difficult for some, e.g., family commitments making shorter trips unavoidable, or psychological obstacles. The goal is to get everyone onboard, not to antagonize people.
  • An effective thing is to raise environmental related questions at conference business meetings and similar gatherings. This may seem intimidating, in particular if you are still a student: "Am I entitled to do this?" The answer is of course yes, and this is a compelling way to push decision-makers to consider these issues.
  • You can help conferences clarify their policy, e.g., by emailing organizers. For instance, ask before submitting your work if you can present it online. This is a legitimate question and is more visible than not submitting at all.
  • When giving talks, the use of examples related to environmental issues also conveys a message. This also applies to teaching, or when proposing project topics to students.
  • A more time-consuming activity is to produce material about climate change across various medias, such as writing blog entries, recording videos, etc.
  • Last, you can organize discussion groups in your university or department. Get involved in environmental action at all available levels (district, city, country, university, community, …). Many universities nowadays have a `green office’, and often also a scientists4future group.

The idea is to make your commitment visible, not necessarily to invest a lot of time in it. Again, this may look like a drop in the ocean, but at some point, when sufficiently many researchers will have expressed their will to change how research works, this will simply become the norm.

As a decision maker

As your career progresses, you get involved at many levels in the life and organization of research: steering committees, hiring committees, program committees, advisory boards of labs and research institutes, learned societies, etc. In these places, you may be able to change things at a large scale. But politics is tricky, initiatives often attract criticism, and decisions are met with resistance.

At this level, we can reflect about how science and research should take place in the future. What should be the role of conferences and workshops, formal or informal, compared to journals? How should we evaluate research, and by which metrics? What are the important topics and methods? The goal is to build a collective vision of a fruitful and fulfilling research activity, to which people can enthusiastically subscribe – not to advocate for painful constraints.

Here are some ideas:

  • In hiring committees, you can take environmental criteria into account. This may mean requiring environmental literacy in job openings. You can also ask applicants what is their vision and which action they are taking, and make this part of your hiring decisions. Beyond raising awareness, this topic is a very useful proxy to understand a candidate’s personal vision of research and judge their maturity.
  • When evaluating grant applications, you can value proposals that go in the right direction with respect to climate change.
  • In institutions, you can make it mandatory to account for CO2 emissions from travel. You can also try to change travel habits by:
    • communicating on internal channels and newsletters;
    • changing internal regulations, e.g., banning plane travel when a feasible alternative exists or for stays below a special duration;
    • adding financial overhead on plane travel, and allocating the surplus to climate-friendly activities, to achieve a redistributive effect;
    • choosing the right themes on which to prioritize job openings.

The problem is to have colleagues accept these changes. For this, it is important to ask people for their opinion, and to understand the diversity of situations that exist. On the other hand, equality is essential: nobody would accept to fly less if the person next door is exempted for an unclear reason. Often some political skill is needed to reach a common agreement.

As a conference organizer

Flying to conferences is an important part of the footprint of TCS researchers. Thus, conference organizers have a special responsibility in steering things in the right direction:

  • One first idea is to only help organizing conferences for which you are really enthusiastic about the topic and which have a clear role in the field. Indeed, because conferences also serve as publication venues, they can easily outlive their scientific usefulness. If a conference only survives because people have to publish, but would not attract any audience otherwise, then its existence can be questioned, and, for instance, its conversion to a journal-like format should be considered.
  • Another idea is to make it visible in the call for papers that the climate crisis is important and that the organization is adjusted accordingly.
  • In particular, you can enforce fully hybrid conferences. You can make it explicit that in-person travel is not required for speakers, and is not part of the decision of whether to accept or reject a paper. Make online attendance as compelling as possible. Indeed, mandatory travel to venues with formal proceedings makes travel unavoidable, in particular for students and early-career researchers. Online participation has other benefits, e.g., in terms of diversity or inclusion, for people who do not have funds to travel, have visa issues, family commitments, etc.
  • You can choose the location of conferences wisely: close to the center of gravity of its community, easy to reach by train and with other scientific opportunities reachable around (again by train). This needs to be balanced with the need to organize some events in more remote locations, but in all cases avoid touristic locations chosen for their exoticism.
  • In a similar way, you can reach out to relevant events (conferences, workshops, summer schools) in order to co-locate: with several related events occurring at the same place in consecutive weeks, participants can travel less for the same scientific benefit. Reach out to neighboring labs to promote schemes encouraging longer-term stays and visits, e.g., the Highlights and ICALP 2022 extended stay support schemes.
  • Last, you can experiment with new conference models: hosting the conference online every other year; bi-locating the conference (e.g., MFPS XXXVIII, with participants working during the morning in Cornell, and in the afternoon in Paris), running local hubs, extending journals with video presentations, journals with a fast selection process, etc.

See also our blog post on estimating the carbon footprint of your conference.

Be creative!

This is certainly the most important. There are solutions and things to be done that have not yet been discovered, and everyone can decide to take some percentage of their time to try them.

This blogpost is by Thomas Colcombet. It is co-signed by Antoine Amarilli, Hugo Férée, and Tijn de Vos.

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