Beginning at UCSB, the Environmental Humanities Initiative is composed of members across the arts and humanities whose main goal is to focus on pressing environmental issues.

Beginning at UCSB, the Environmental Humanities Initiative is composed of members across the arts and humanities whose main goal is to focus on pressing environmental issues. Courtesy of

In his opening statement to the Environmental Humanities Initiative (EHI) Conference, Ken Hiltner, environmental humanities professor and director of EHI, made a call to action. “Academic conferences, as we know them, need to come to an end — now.”

Hiltner was referring to the carbon footprint of most academic conferences, where participants travel great distances to convene and drastically increase carbon emissions, mostly due to air travel.

The virtual conference, titled “Climate Change: Views from the Humanities,” features over 50 speakers contributing pre-recorded talks about diverse topics such as ecopsychology, art and poetry, fossil fuels and climate justice. All conference materials, talks and Q&A content will remain open access and publicly available, but the Q&A portion was only open for contributions from May 3 through 24.

Corrie Ellis, Ph.D. student in sociology, contributed a talk in the fossil fuels panel. She said that in addition to reducing carbon emissions, the online format would increase “shareability” — allowing her to share her talk with family and fellow grad students.

“Another advantage is that it makes it accessible globally … whereas [there are] scholars in the global south who can’t afford to come to conferences in the global north — you have greater geographic diversity of people that are able to participate in this,” Ellis said.

The conference’s accessibility is also linked to its sustainability. Hosting speakers from eight countries, its online format is estimated to have prevented over 300,000 miles of air travel and 100,000 pounds of carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.

Part of what makes the online conference work is its Q&A section, where participants can engage in discussions with contributing speakers. The conference website is open access, but users are required to register to participate in the question and answer portion. Additionally, participants must be a current student or faculty member of a university or similar institution.

According to Hiltner, this increases transparency and accountability for contributors in an online environment filled with skeptics of climate change.

While the conference is happening online, there is a three week time limit put in place. According to Emily Williams, researcher in the Climate Hazards Group of the Geography Department and a conference speaker, the three-week time limit is intended to help keep a conference feel to the event.

Another advantage of having the Q&A open for a three-week period online is that people can write more and take the time to think their comments through, allowing people to work together through problems in a way that has not been done before.

Is anything lost in not having face-to-face contact with other participants? Hiltner pointed out that in polls, Millennials who have grown up with online culture care about their online relationships just as much as those that are face-to-face.

“I do think that you can interact that way in a meaningful way. But I have to say that even if youcouldn’t — even if that were a big shortcoming, the fact is, environmentally, traveling to conferences is a disaster,” he said.

In his opening remarks, Hiltner pointed out the role of the humanities and social sciences in climate change discourse, and the conference’s facilitation of transdisciplinary problem solving.

“It’s an example of humanities and sciences working together and doing what neither can do independently without the other,” Hiltner said.

Williams said that focusing on climate change from a humanities perspective rather than sciences perspective rang true with her as a participant in the conference. “This idea kept coming back to me that climate change isn’t a scientific problem anymore — it’s a political problem, it’s a cultural problem, it’s a communications problem.”

A version of this story appeared on p.14 of the Thursday, May 26, 2016 print edition of the Daily Nexus.