Simon Chapman: Conferences and carbon

Earlier this year I declined an invitation to fly all expenses from Sydney to Geneva to speak for 15 minutes at an international cancer conference. There was a hole in my calendar. Geneva is a hop from Lyon, where I have good friends. I have a son in London who I haven’t seen for a while. It was tempting.  But the carbon footprint and the derisory speaking time got to me. 

Last week, I flew to Wellington, New Zealand, to speak about the media hyping of prostate cancer testing. Antipodeans love having venerable Old World sages open their meetings. Muir Gray was made for the role, but instead sent his carbon footprint apologies and charmingly spoke to us from his English kitchen via a digital movie file he’d filmed and hit “send”. He could have probably done it live too, via a projected skype image at virtually no cost. Maybe it was after his bedtime.

Far from feeling short changed, the audience loved it and reverentially hung on his every erudite word, applauding at the end.

I have offered this solution before. But you can feel the icy sub-text cloaking your host’s “I’ll get back to you on that.”  They want a “real” speaker.

But if more people took Muir’s principled stand, untold tonnes of carbon emissions might be reduced. And at what cost? Of course, it must not stop with speakers. Instead of paying exorbitant conference, hotel and travel fees, why not set up networks of high speed, well appointed video hubs in major cities where delegates in civilised time zones could listen and interact with not just one Muir Gray class speaker, but perhaps dozens of them.

If we stay up ungodly hours to watch sport, why not stay up for a state-of-the-art interactive video?

In two weeks I’m flying to a three day BMJ meeting in London, where the same friends and son inducements will ice the cake. As an Africaphile, imagine I might accept an invitation to speak for 10 seconds in Zanzibar or Bamako. I’m not ready to give up on travel entirely, but if we  piously applaud carbon taxes and warm to exemplars like Muir Gray, what ought we all to do about it ourselves in our work travel?

If you travel professionally 4 times a year, why not set yourself travel reductions and halve it? Why not make every second speaking invitation a video acceptance? 

About Simon Chapman: Simon Chapman is Professor in Public Health at the University of Sydney. His Public Health Advocacy and Tobacco Control: Making Smoking History was  published by Blackwell (Oxford) in 2007. In 1997 he won the World Health Organisztion’s World No Tobacco Day Medal and in 2003 was voted by his international peers to be awarded the American Cancer Society’s Luther Terry Award for outstanding individual leadership in tobacco control. He is editor of BMJ specialist journal, Tobacco Control.