Cyclone Gita and the perils of organising conferences in a changing climate

This past week hundreds of people gathered to Wellington, New Zealand  , to attend the second Pacific Climate Change Conference 2018. The conference, organised by the Secretariat of the Pacific Environment Regional Program (SPREP) and University of Victoria, focused on showcasing the latest research in the Pacific Islands and featured several international keynote speakers from Professor Dan Nocera from Harvard University, Emeritus Professor Will Steffen from Australian National University, and Professor Michael Mann from Penn State University.

One topic that was clearly on everyone’s minds was that of increasing extreme events. Several talks, including Michael Mann’s, reflected over the current cyclone categories we have in use and whether these needs to be changed given that, for example, Cyclone Winston that hit Fiji in 2016 exceeded the current category 5 in wind strength (highest category currently in use). SPREP’s Director General, Kosi Latu, also noted that we are seeing a change in the nature of cyclones hitting the Pacific region.

This is not just a purely academic exercise in terms of categories but one with real consequences. As Michael Mann pointed out, a better understanding of the exact nature of the expected strength of a cyclone means that people and communities should and can take measures that reduce their risk to adverse impacts.

Tropical Cyclone Gita that had devastated much of the Pacific island nation of Tonga during the previous week impacted the conference itself. The basic recovery in Tonga is assumed to take at least 6 months  but this is a conservative estimate given that recovery of communities and livelihoods is likely to take much longer. Tonga for the record has not had a major cyclone in the last 60 years.

As I am based in Australia, I received on Sunday night an international travel warning prior to the conference about Cyclone Gita. The warning itself sounded like attending the conference would not be a good idea: potential state of emergencies, heavy rain, road closures, emergency packs.

I managed to get in but many others were stranded in Australia and the Pacific: keynote speakers couldn’t fly in, the conference organisers started sending emails to people to confirm where they were, could they attend, whether they were still planning to attend, and when.

The conference began with a lot of reshuffling of schedules, replacing speakers, all however in a relaxed atmosphere as people were doing their best to attend and cope with the changing schedules. I was very pleased to see how well the conference organisers handled all the changes and uncertain conditions during the conference.

This conference however is not the only one this year to be impacted by weather and climate. Although not confirmed yet, the Adaptation Futures 2018 Conference in Cape Town , the bi-annual gathering of international adaptation scholars and practitioners, is also reconsidering whether the conference can go ahead. Cape Town is running out of water, and the current advice is not to lock in travel arrangements until we have more certainty about water availability in the Cape Town area. This is obviously nothing compared to the people living in Cape Town who have to deal with drastic reductions in water availability on daily basis.

Changing ways of where and how we communicate?

This all has got me thinking that part of our changing climate with more intense and extreme conditions will also impact on our scientific and policy communities in ways that we are not yet even aware of. This also reflects the very powerful way that industries, such as tourism, will need to start considering a future where there is a higher likelihood of business disruptions.

In a world where we should be cutting down on air travel and where we might have to for the simple reason that the planes are not going to fly because of extreme heat or extreme storms, we should start looking at other ways and technologies that could assist us in communicating the way we would do at a conference.

There are already examples of on-line only conferences and even courses. The Saïd Business School at Oxford University has installed their first international virtual classroom that is only the second such installation in the world . The teachers can interact with up to 84 participants in the classroom, split them into groups, and even monitor their attentiveness level during the session.

But what has truly inspired me is Chris Fussell and the way that McChrystal Group is approaching global communication. The US Special Forces use a daily session via videoconference that includes all Special Forces members globally. This is thousands of people online at the same time in an online forum where information is shared and discussed across all levels of the organisation. This includes also a chat room function where members who need to discuss a particular matter quickly can connect at the same time and share that information.

Although the book in question, One Mission, is focused on creating agility and better decision-making processes within one organisation, there are many lessons that can be applied also to wider communities, such as those working in climate adaptation.

These platforms are emerging and could be used more effectively in the future as well when it comes to conferences. For example, as a single parent, it would be great to be able to participate via online option in cases where I simply cannot travel to the town or country in question where the conference is being held.

Having access to Internet is of course something that most of us in the developed world take granted. But given its increasing availability, this could also open up doors for developing country participants to attend conferences even if they don’t have secured travel funding. The education sector is a great example of these kinds of options where online courses can be taken even to secure a degree such as Coursera.

Most of us are already taking advantage of such platforms as Zoom. Coaching for Leaders Academy for example runs on Zoom platform and enables people from across the world to connect with the fellow Academy members and progress their leadership development regardless of timezones and location.

The point?

The point here is that just this year two major conferences are already being impacted by factors outside of their control relating to weather and climatic conditions. But this is not just a matter of securing enough water for participants or re-arranging presentation schedules in the aftermath of a cyclone.

For me, here lies a more fundamental point: we do need to start considering what these activities look like under a changing climate. The message that came through during this week’s conference is that we have already passed many thresholds and limits, and that business as usual life is unlikely to be the norm in the future.

This has also serious consequences to for example private sector. Disruption of supply chains for example is a major issue that will have cascading impacts on our food supplies, domestic and international tourism, access and availability of medicines. The list could go on because in our globalising world most systems are by now interconnected.

Yet, rather than looking at these things as major challenges, perhaps we can find significant opportunities in having to re-think some of the more traditional ways of convening large groups of people. How can we foster personal connections online that can enhance the way we share knowledge? What would it take to convene a conference solely online where people still feel like they actually connected with each other? Or to change the operating rhythm of a scientific community as Chris Fussell outlines in One Mission?

And no, the irony is not lost on me on what am proposing: most of our global communication channels, including Internet, are also at the perils of extreme weather events. But at the same time the new technologies offer great opportunities for increasing connections globally and sharing knowledge in ways that we have not seen before.

If you do have experience in using technologies with large groups of people, or have seen some really innovative ways to do this, please do share.

 

 

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