I’m gutted but I just can’t justify attending Google/O’Reilly Science Foo Camp

I recently received an invitation to Google/O’Reilly’s Science Foo Camp, for 2017 at the Googleplex in Mountain View later this summer. I’d so love to go. But I just can’t bring myself to do it, and this is the letter I sent to them in reply.

Dear Tim, Chris, and Daniel,

Thank you for your invitation to Science Foo Camp 2017. Alas I cannot come. This is a plea that you organize satellite Foo camps in other countries and develop platforms to link them up.

I cannot tell you how sad I am that I cannot join you. It breaks my heart. This is not because I don’t want to – I would LOVE to be there – I have heard so much about the Camps and how creatively energizing they are. Nor is it that I have other commitments. I don’t. My diary is free.

But to come to the Science Foo Camp would requires me to fly half way round the globe. The emissions from that single return flight would be around 2 tonnes CO2e (see the ICAO Carbon Calculator, including the IPCC’s suggested factor of ~2 to account for radiative forcing).

Let me put this into context.

I am married and I have two children. We live in a typical British “terraced” house. Our gas consumption from cooking and keeping the house warm in 2016 amounted to ~750 m3, equivalent to 1500 kg CO2. Although I have solar panels on my roof, I still draw electricity from the grid. The 1700 kWh that we drew in 2016 are equivalent to about 900 kg CO2.
After subtracting what electricity our panels produce and export to the grid, my single flight to Science Foo Camp comes very close to my annual direct domestic energy emissions. To fly to the Camp would negate all the energy saving measures that I have put in at some effort over the years. It would also undermine my position on UCL’s Environmental Sustainability Steering Group which has spent the past few years battling to hold our institutions emissions steady, let alone reduce them.

I cannot tell you how painful it is to find myself in this position. I would dearly love to come to Sci Foo Camp. It is, in fact, the third time that you have invited me and the third time that I have, very reluctantly, felt forced to decline. But having young children my time horizon extends to the end of the century.

Again, some context. I was born when CO2 levels were around 315-318 ppm. We are well past 400 now, not simply the highest in our lifetimes, but the highest level in the entire course of our species’ existence. That CO2 is a key determinant of planetary temperature is uncontroversial – we have known this since the 1850’s. Sea levels are rising steadily and ice is melting. It is now expected that the Arctic will be largely ice-free in the summer by the time my children graduate from high school – the mid 2020’s.

To someone who grew up with the idea of the Inuit hunting seals (“Nanook of the North”), and reading adventure stories about the North West passage, this is a jaw-dropping development. I draw your attention to these two graphs, courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit, and based on NSIDC data, that sit of your own servers:

[A polar plot of Arctic sea ice over the decades from 1980-2017]

A plot of the steady disappearance of Arctic ice in the four decades after 1980. When the line reaches the origin the Artic ocean will be effectively ice free. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

[A graph indicating that ice loss is about to be equivalent to the amount of ice remaining]

The trend in annual ice volume loss (in red) versus ice remaining at the end of the summer (in blue) for the Arctic. Image courtesy of Dr Jim Pettit.

Both of these plots are striking indications that our planet is changing at astonishing speed while we continue with a business as usual mindset. The situation in the Antarctic gives little room for comfort.

I know that I am preaching to the converted – you are all aware of the issue and its magnitude. It surprises me, therefore, that Google, with large headquarters in the heart of London and and other cities, and with its dominance of worldwide communications technology, does not organize satellite events across the world in an effort not simply to minimize its CO2 impact, but also to draw attention to the reality of how our world is changing. Could you not devote more effort to find ways to link the Foo camps together virtually through some kind of virtual/augmented reality platform?

Perhaps it is the fact that bringing a few hundred people together seems so insignificant in comparison to the many millions who fly every day. Let me therefore ask you a question. Do you buy your loved ones jewellery made from ivory? You don’t? Surely one little ivory trinket is tiny in comparison to the vast worldwide market that is decimating elephants across Africa… So why do you not buy ivory? Is it a matter of principle?

For the UK, the 3% annual growth in air travel means that by 2050 if the country meets its Paris Agreement commitments, air travel on its own is expected to account for 50% of the UK’s carbon budget, an issue that has enormous implications;  it is something that we need to start to address now, not in 2030, or some other arbitrary date.

It is time for Google, O’Reilly and other big digital players to help us to give us alternatives to having to make these difficult choices. The ethical dimensions of this are huge given the enormous percentage of the world’s population that lives within 5 m of sea level and on flood plains. I am thinking of Miami, of New York, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai, and London, all cities that will need to be protected in the coming years if we remain as we currently are – myself included – in denial about the severity of the situation.

Please, Google, wake up. You have enormous reach. Enormous power. Don’t talk. Act.

Best regards,

Andrea Sella


About Andrea Sella

My name is Andrea Sella. I teach and do research in chemistry at UCL in central London in the UK. I also spend a lot time doing public science, cycling with ballast in my panniers, and worrying about how to keep my family's energy consumption down.
This entry was posted in carbon footprint, climate change, public science. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to I’m gutted but I just can’t justify attending Google/O’Reilly Science Foo Camp

  1. Thank you so much for having written this.

    I co-organized one of the many satellite Marches for Science, following the Women’s March’s eminently sensible idea of not encouraging people spend a lot of time and money crowding DC, but to hold marches where they were. (Maybe that was because organizing-type women tend to be sensitive to the constraints that keep people from picking up and traveling at the drop of a hat.) It was, of course, enormously successful, as was the global March for Science movement — and one of the advantages of doing it this way was that we were able to see how the marches lit up on Twitter as the Earth turned that day, starting in NZ. We were also able to see the areas that *didn’t* light up, specifically Russia and most of Africa, which in itself tells us something about who’s talking to whom, and prompts questions about why. Along the way, too, the “satellite” descriptor lost its meaning. The marches were all part of a global movement.

    This satellite idea’s one of the best things to come from the post-Trump-election era, and I love this letter you’ve written and its arguments. It points also, I think, to an argument for conservation seldom made in tech-circle green movements, which tend to focus on energy generation and making/selling new, more efficient things. There’s an important bit of conservation that says, “Don’t do this if you don’t need to” — don’t turn on the light, don’t buy the plane ticket, don’t buy the new, marginally more efficient appliance before the old one’s worn out. If you can use equipment that already largely exists for a distributed conference while reducing air travel, I see nothing but good there.

    Going out now to mow the lawn, which came with the house and isn’t yet turned over to violets. Reel mowers scalp prairie lawns, unfortunately, so this is an electric, battery-powered mower. The battery seems to be having a good long life, and at this point something like 40% of the electricity’s wind-generated.

  2. Like I replied on twitter, I do fly once in a while if I feel the meeting is sufficiently important. For me personally it is good enough to be in the bottom half, because in the end all of society has to move.

    But I really like your letter. Google is in the perfect position to start moving the society by creating facilities to enable global meetings without intercontinental flights. Watching talks together should be easy nowadays. With a bit of technology the Q&A could be global. One would mostly miss informal communication, but the EGU already has electronic posters. Together with a headset that should allow for a global poster session.

    Planning what to code can be done in a Google Hangout. The joint coding itself with a repository. All stuff Google is good at.

  3. Larry Edwards says:

    Excellent letter, and resolve. Thank you!

    There is a related chapter by Susan Krumdieck (“The no-flying conference: Signs of Change”), in this 2014 book: “Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world,” by Chris Watson.

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