One third of UCSB’s carbon footprint comes from aviation emissions to take professors to academic conferences. A new virtual conference might solve this problem. Photo by Natasha Tandler

UCSB English professor Ken Hiltner was tending to his garden, but he wasn’t thinking about how to keep weeds away or if his tomatoes were getting enough sunlight. Rather, the director of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative thought, “Why not make academic conferences virtual to reduce their carbon footprint?”

The inspiration for this idea came after Hiltner heard the startling discovery from a report conducted by UCSB’s Sustainability Office in 2014. It found that one third of the carbon footprint for the UCSB campus came from air travel that takes faculty and staff to conferences and talks. Hiltner knew that his idea of a digital conference could dramatically curb these unnecessary emissions.

In May, just a mere six months later, a virtual conference called “Climate Change: Views from the Humanities” was launched by Hiltner and his co-director, sociology Professor John Foran. The conference had over 50 speakers and was sponsored by the Critical Issues in America series and UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative. Foran called the conference “game-changing.”

The conference addressed climate change by bringing academics together from eight countries across the world, but it only produced 1% of the carbon dioxide emissions of a traditional fly-in conference. For this reason, Hiltner and Foran called the conference “nearly carbon neutral.” The conference website reported that speakers would have had to travel over 300,000 miles and would have generated 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide if the conference had been in person.

Having a hard time imagining what 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide actually looks like? The Environmental Protection Agency reports that it is equivalent to the emissions that driving 188 different passenger vehicles for one year generate. 100,000 pounds of carbon dioxide is also the same as the emissions produced by driving one car 2,129,908 miles.

The Criticisms and Disadvantages

The digital conference did not come together flawlessly though. It received a fair share of criticism about the disadvantages of a virtual platform. Foran said that some lecturers “missed the paid trip to a place for travel purposes,” while others had a hard time using technology to give their talks.

Hiltner explained that the organizers attempted to create a “paradigm shift” in the social practice of academics flying to conferences throughout America. In the United States alone, Hiltner stated that 200 million people attend conferences each year. He added, “Whenever you try to shift culture, there is going to be resistance to it.”


Hiltner presented the opening remarks for the online conference. The other lectures were presented through Vimeo as well. Photo courtesy of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

One of the main critiques about the conference was that the digital platform inhibited face-to-face interactions that occur at fly-in conferences. Keynote speaker Elizabeth Kaplan from Stony Brook University confessed that she missed having a live audience. She said that she prefers “to see the people that she is speaking to and gauge their reactions” to her presentation.

Rick Thomas, a graduate student at UCSB’s Bren School of Environmental Science and Management, also disliked the lack of personal communication. He was one of the web platform designers for the conference and was a participant in many of the Q&As at the conference. Thomas thought that the part of the conference where the most interpersonal connection was lost was actually during the talks. “Sometimes the speakers just used a PowerPoint for their talks and you just heard a voice,” he said.

Another critique of the conference was that it was not diverse. All four of the keynote speakers were white and Kaplan was the only woman. “If you look at the keynote speakers and panelists, there are too many men, too few people of color, and too little geographical diversity,” Foran noted.

The conference also left out those who do not have access to the Internet, which is surprisingly 60% of the world’s population according to The United Nations’ Broadband Commission. The commission estimates that 4.2 billion people do not have regular access to the Internet and that only one in 10 people has regular access to the Internet in lesser-developed countries. This is a big problem since developing countries are affected the most by climate change because they do not have many financial resources to cope with its consequences.

The Social and Educational Advantages

Many argued that the online conference was actually inclusive to those in the developing world, such as UCSB Global Studies Professor Raymond Clémençon. He teaches a class called Global Environmental Politics and was the former Head at the International Affairs Division of the Swiss Environment Ministry. “For developing countries, it is very expensive and they don’t have the capacity to travel to an in-person conference,” Clémençon said. He thought that the virtual conference is a good solution to this problem because it was free to participate in.

Hiltner and Foran also said that another advantage of the virtual conference was that it was actually “more democratic” than a standard academic conference. Hiltner mentioned that most academic conferences are “practices of privilege” because they are “closed door affairs” that prohibit the public from entering. An academic normally needs an invitation to attend one of these events. However, anyone affiliated with an academic institution could have participated in the virtual conference and all of its contents are still available online for anyone to see.


The virtual conference, pictured above, is free and accessible to everyone. Photo courtesy of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

Kaplan, one of the keynote speakers, said that in person conferences “rarely have records of what the speakers or audience members say.” Since all of the talks and Q&As are online, the conference is on record forever. This benefits academics who want to cite from the conference or teachers who want to share talks from the conference with their students.

Many of the speakers and participants also expressed how much they enjoyed the length of the conference, which was three weeks. For someone like Rick Thomas, who juggles a rigorous graduate school workload, a time-consuming research project, and a social life, the three weeks were very necessary. He was appreciative of the time frame because he could participate during his moments of leisure and because it gave him “a chance to sit back and think for a bit.”


Thomas was able to present his own research during the second virtual conference that was held in October. Photo courtesy of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

Other attendees also enjoyed this time frame, as Hiltner proudly stated that the conference generated “three times as much discussion as a normal conference.” At a normal conference, the Q&A is usually limited to a 15-minute time frame. Not everyone in the audience gets an opportunity to ask his or her question. With the online format, anyone could ask a question and receive an answer.

Hiltner also observed that the questions that were asked by audience members were “better formulated” and “more considerate” than questions asked spontaneously at an academic conference. Attendees were able to provide research and statistics for their questions or responses. Both Hiltner and Foran thought that the online Q&A format was much more thoughtful and productive than the Q&As at fly-in conferences.

Environmental Benefits and Worldwide Impacts

The virtual conference not only provides a solution to reducing UCSB’s carbon emissions, but it is also an answer to reducing worldwide aviation emissions. According to Air Transport Action Group, “flights produced 781 million tons” of carbon dioxide in 2015. The aviation industry is a large contributor to climate change, as it is responsible for 2% of worldwide global carbon dioxide emissions. Greenhouse gas emissions produced by the aviation industry could be significantly reduced if the 200 million academics in America who fly to academic conferences instead participated in digital conferences that do not require air travel.

Recently, the Environmental Humanities Initiative conducted a second virtual conference for three weeks during October and November of 2016. The conference was called “The World in 2050: Creating/Imagining Just Climate.” One of the speakers was Bill McKibben, a world-renowned climate change activist.

Hiltner and Foran made sure that many of the criticisms from the first conference were addressed in the second conference. The most important one was making the conference more diverse. The second conference had over fifty voices from six different continents. Antarctica was the only continent that did not participate, although the co-directors did reach out to many scholars there.


The second nearly carbon neutral conference launched in October responded to many of the criticisms from the first conference. Photo courtesy of UCSB’s Environmental Humanities Initiative.

To address the criticism that the virtual format was not personal, the newest conference included “Nearly-Carbon-Neutral Salons.” These were virtual spaces where conference attendees could interact in real time with others through a video conferencing website called Zoom. There were three different scheduled salons to accommodate for different time zones of people throughout the world.

After the first conference, Hiltner created a “white paper” which is a practical guide for those interested in conducting their own virtual conferences. It is an extremely long and detailed document that outlines all of the advantages and frequently asked questions about digital conferences. The white paper also provides a step-by-step guide on how to implement a virtual conference following the same format of the Environmental Humanities Initiatives conferences.

Many organizations not only commend this innovative conference type, but also want to implement it themselves. Bioversity International, a global organization that is designed to ensure genetic diversity on the planet, will be the first major environmental group to use this model. Additionally, The Modern Language Association is going to use the instructional manual to conduct its own virtual conference in April of 2017.

It is uncertain if numerous organizations or universities will use the virtual academic conference platform in the future. However, it is clear that the UCSB climate change conferences have definitely started the “paradigm shift in a cultural practice” that the conference organizers hoped to initiate.


Teaser photo image: By Dmitriy Pichugin