PC PC: Physical or Virtual?

[A post in honour of Blog Action Day.]

As program chair of POPL 2008, I followed tradition and organized a program committee meeting in Edinburgh last September, attended by 22 members. They worked very hard, and went to great lengths to attend (literally---members came from Japan, New Zealand, and India), and the result was a program I'm looking forward to seeing next January.

But after I sent out the invitations, I read George Monbiot's Heat, and began to wonder if I had made the right choice. If the world got serious about stopping climate change, what would be an equitable figure for Britain's carbon emissions? Monbiot reckons we would need to reduce our carbon footprint to 10% of current levels by 2030. Remarkably, he sketches out a plan whereby this can actually be achieved for house heating, energy sources, ground transport, and so on. With one exception: the only way he could find to reduce the carbon footprint of air travel is to travel less. Way less.

I'm not one of those campaigners who believes that the way to save the world is to bike to work. (I do bike to work, I just don't believe it will save the world.) The solution to our problems will be political, not personal. I'm not willing to stop flying abroad for vacation while the Government's official policy is to expand airport capacity.

But the carbon footprint of a program committee is not negligible. (For POPL, we have a 20+ PC, as compared to 200+ attendees.) And conferences are not personal, they are run by collections of people who can express a political point of view.

Without the climate issue, there are strong arguments both in favor of and against physical PC meetings. For me, the climate issue tips it: I think it is time for conferences like POPL to begin to experiment, to see whether virtual pc meetings might be comparable in effectiveness to physical. It's out of my hands now, but the program chair of the next POPL is considering just that.

Ah, but why does everyone worry about carbon footprints (which carbon fiber construction should reign in nicely), but one never hears of plans to curb the worst greenhouse gas, water vapor?
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I guess the question could be: what would be the cost of doing a virtual PC, in terms of quality of the result. If it does not change anything, then one should go for it. If it makes a difference, it would be interesting to look at what it is.

I've tried to travel less for the same reasons (I think I've now been a year without air travel, but it will soon be broken), but this has implied not going to some conferences. (Carbon footprint was not the only cause, but it took part in the decision.) It's difficult to balance what is reasonable travel and reasonable participation in these research events, which seem to be essential to the life of a researcher.
In response to the water vapor comment: Monbiot and others do mention water vapor. It is one of the reasons why the only way he could find to curb the footprint of flight is to curb flights. (He converts water vapor to a carbon equivalent for purposes of comparison. As I recall, it is a significant impact, but no so large as to justify the adjective 'worst'.)
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