Island nations hold climate-friendly summit without travel

17 Oktober 2019

Sustainable Sweden has coined the term “flygskam” to describe shame over harming the planet through flight travel, and even “smygflyga,” the word for flying in secret so no one knows if you did. Yet one of the best-kept travel secrets may be how the world’s island nations just pulled off a carbon-friendly conference without it.

The Virtual Island Summit was held from October 6 through October 11 at … well, everywhere. The Organization of Eastern Caribbean States sponsored last week’s event, which relied on technology to ensure that climate leaders from their nations, as well as Pacific Islanders or Africans, were able to participate in conference sessions without leaving home.

“We are avoiding greenhouse gas emissions by moving to an online platform – demonstrating how technology can now be used to eliminate the need for much business travel,” said James Ellsmoor, founder of co-sponsor Island Innovation.

The virtual-conference concept makes sense for island peoples who share the same kinds of sobering challenges as climate change washes against their shores. They often live in remote places with limited travel resources.

“For many of us, the devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather events, such as ‘turbocharged’ hurricanes and sea level rise, are already a reality that is imposing socioeconomic challenges for our people and communities,” said Dr. Didacus Jules, a St. Lucia native and head of OECS.

“This virtual summit reminds us that we are not facing these challenges alone,” he added. “The diversity in participating island nations and speakers from around the world also provides a unique opportunity to create a global digital alliance of island communities.”

Those islands delivered, with conference speakers coming from countries as far-flung as Fiji and Greenland, and as diverse as Jamaica and Japan. Yet the experience also provides a model for climate scientists in other countries who find themselves confronted by the carbon costs of air travel in academia, and for industries looking to reduce their climate impacts while maintaining operations across countries and continents.

“Virtual events have exponentially risen in popularity, and I’m ecstatic young ocean, climate change and sustainability aficionados are now taking advantage of this,” said Ibukun Adewumi, an oceans expert and former World Bank specialist trained in Nigeria, as well as the island nations of Ireland and the Azores.

The Virtual Island Summit proved it was possible. A session on the Blue Economy explored sustainable fishing, tourism and energy, while noting that island nations hold jurisdiction over 80 times more ocean territory than they do land. An expert from Dominica, devastated by a 2017 hurricane, served on an island disaster and resilience panel. Officials from Curaçao and Aruba offered in-depth island case studies.

One drawback is the absence of in-person social networking but an alternative was built into summit plans so that professionals could still connect, while simultaneously removing barriers for indigenous islanders and activists who rarely see these kinds of opportunities. Best of all, if it works for island nations, then the virtual-conference experience can work for other disciplines too – and perhaps reduce the “flygskam” for academics, government leaders and corporations everywhere.

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