I Will Not Attend - Climate Change and Conference Travel

19 Jul 2019

California is burning and I am not attending the 105th meeting of the Internet Engineering Task Force in Montreal. I won’t attend the 106th in Singapore either. As the climate crisis crests higher each month, our responsibility for an urgent coordinated response mounts with it. I will not fly to any conference more than 100 miles from my home and I ask you to do the same.

Instead, I will attend conferences online when there are options to do so. I will ask for better online access when it’s not available. I am writing now as the Montreal meeting approaches because the IETF combines frequent meetings, long-distance travel, and superlative support for remote attendance. It’s an ideal case for participating online, and I plan to do so. But the same logic applies to all professional conferences.

This is a collective action problem. Our governments will soon need to tax carbon emissions, and our culture of collaboration will need to change to one that emphasizes communication at a distance over expensive physical travel.

But we can’t wait. We need to start building the culture and tools of online work and online collaboration long before it becomes the only viable option. We need to cut our industry’s emissions from flying immediately and drastically.

The tech industry is the ideal leader for a movement to reduce professional flying. Many of our conferences are already professionally recorded, closed captioned, and live-streamed. The most advanced, like the IETF, have two-way participation with a queue for remote participants to readily speak or ask questions. Since the 90s the Internet has promised to bring us closer together without the messy and inconvenient business of travel. It is time we asked the Internet to fulfill that promise.

There’s a long way to go. Some conferences have slow Internet; some homes have slow Internet. There’s no replacement for face-to-face contact, and we need to find an online replacement for the valuable “hallway track” (impromptu conversations between sessions). But we won’t find the solutions, as a community, until we take the hard first step that makes them necessary, and reject flying.