Taking Responsibility: AAG Acts on Climate Change

Image of the word ACT spray-painted on cement by Mick Haupt for Unsplash
Image by Mick Haupt for Unsplash

Photo of Gary Langham

In late 2021, AAG and the Climate Action Task Force asked members to weigh in on our role in responding to climate change. An overwhelming majority — 93 percent! — of responding members called upon us to be a leader on climate change, not only in our public actions but also in every aspect of our operations. Your responses provided us with a mandate for transforming our organization’s policies and practice, as well as helping us ground-truth our efforts so far. We have made tremendous progress in just one year. Let me share the good news.

Bar chart taken from an AAG survey on climate showing actions members would like to see AAG take, the top of which is taking a role in policy and advocacy for climate action.
This bar chart depicts results from a survey of AAG members. Among the 93% who urged AAG to take leadership on climate change, the top suggestion was that AAG take a role in policy and advocacy for climate action.

 

AAG’s Commitment to Climate Action: Policy and Advocacy

AAG’s increased engagement with policy issues has centered our attention to climate change. Most recently we acted on our unequivocal stance on the climate crisis by mobilizing our membership in support of the Inflation Reduction Act’s passage. In the past three years, we have also taken action to protect access to science, participated in COP26 and the upcoming COP27, and frequently participated in the community of scientists calling for action on the climate crisis, such as the joint statement by International Geographical Societies on the Climate and Biodiversity Emergencies.

AAG’s recent investments in new software and staffing will also help us scale our climate action policy work for maximum effectiveness and help geographers’ voices be heard on the issue of climate change during 2023 and beyond.

Climate-Forward Investments: Divestment from Fossil Fuel

Next to policy and advocacy leadership, divestment was the single most important issue to 3 out of 4 members who responded to AAG’s questionnaire. Over the past three years, this issue was a common topic of discussion, but it seemed impossible to maintain a broad set of indexed funds while meeting the goal. New options became available this year as global interest in ESG investing grows. I am pleased to announce that AAG has now fully divested from fossil fuel holdings and retargeted them to socially just and environmentally friendly options. AAG is now 100% free of fossil-fuel investments.

Smaller Carbon Footprint for Meetings

Despite—or at times because of—the paradigm shift caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, AAG has made many changes over the last three years to address our role in creating less carbon-intensive meetings. From 2020 until now, AAG has renewed its approaches not only to the annual meeting, but to all of our convening activities.

Back in 2019, when AAG responded to member calls for renewed commitment to this issue by forming a Climate Task Force, we first addressed the need to rethink the annual meeting for significantly reduced CO2 emissions. That early work toward this goal in 2019 prepared us for the unexpected challenges of COVID-19. AAG now has adopted a method to estimate carbon emissions from meeting participation, which I summarized in this column last year, and which is described further in our report. We adopted a peer-reviewed method, based on a study of travel patterns to the American Geophysical Union Fall 2019 Meeting, coauthored by AAG member Debbie Hopkins. This method enables AAG to not only estimate past and future emissions to increase transparency, but also to determine whether we are meeting the stated goals of the member petition in 2019. The goal is to reduce emissions from the annual meeting by 45% by 2030 and by 100% by 2050.

Introducing virtual and hybrid options will allow each member to determine how best to participate in future AAG meetings. We are working to make these options available while keeping costs as low as possible. AAG is also experimenting with watch parties and so-called nodes to create additional options for participation. This approach reflects our commitment to ensure that however the meeting is experienced, it is a rich and rewarding one.

Changing how AAG convenes to address the carbon emissions burden of conventional meetings has not always been easy, but it has provided new benefits we did not anticipate, in terms of broader access to events, new modalities for presenting and networking, and less pressure on hosting communities. We continue to learn, innovate, and enhance our offerings in keeping with our commitment to address climate change.

Lower-Carbon Operations and Office Space

Nearly 60 percent of respondents to our questionnaire signaled the importance of increasing the energy efficiency of AAG’s headquarters and operations. In November, AAG will move to a new, LEED-Gold building that provides significant efficiencies over our former headquarters. We are also now a fully hybrid office, promoting remote work and telecommuting for all our staff.

Conclusion

AAG’s work on climate action will never be fully done, nor should it be. There will always be room for improvement and new opportunities to show up for our planet. Yet we have already made remarkable progress. We continue to be responsive and adaptable — not only to the demands of climate change, but also to our members’ ideas, insights, and priorities for the Association. We look forward with excitement to our first hybrid annual meeting, in Denver March 23-27 — another first in our work to provide high-quality programming that also reduces our carbon emissions and energy use. I thank the Climate Action Task Force members for their partnership on this critical issue.

Please continue to send your suggestions for AAG’s approach to addressing climate change to HelloWorld@aag.org.


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.

 

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Climate Change and Carbon Emissions at the AAG

The AAG has a long history of engaging in and supporting climate change policy and research. Since climate change is the existential threat and crisis of our age, the need to continue this engagement and reduce our contribution to carbon emissions is clear. We will continue to seek policy action on behalf of our members–actions designed to influence the societal and governmental change required for durable solutions. For example, the AAG recently updated its climate statement, and just last week, our name appeared on a list of 80 societies calling for global action ahead of COP26 

Since climate change is the existential threat and crisis of our age, the need to continue this engagement and reduce our contribution to carbon emissions is clear.

 

A joint declaration from nearly all the world’s geography societies is a powerful thing. It calls
upon our community to apply its considerable skills to the urgent consequences of climate
change. One passage especially resonated with me in the week leading up to COP26:

Geographers have unique opportunities and responsibilities in the face of the global biodiversity and climate crises. […] Geographers can do much more than present an analysis of these challenges. They also have a vantage point from which they can point to the kinds of thought and action that can deliver a better tomorrow for every person on Earth. 

Worldwide travel distances to the 2019 AAG meeting. By Justin Schuetz

The AAG has 16 members as part of a delegation to observe the proceedings in Glasgow, and we are proud to participate in this crucial meeting of world leaders.  

However, what actions can we take to reduce carbon emissions arising from AAG activities? The Climate Action Task Force members have worked tirelessly to explore new approaches to AAG meetings with a goal of reducing emissions by 50% by 2030 (and net zero by 2050).
 
To assist in this process and to help us set baselines and explore future options, I am pleased to release an internal AAG report estimating the carbon emissions and the annual meeting. Using the same methods as Klöwer, Hopkins et al., we applied estimates of emissions from travel from the last five in-person meetings (2015-2019). This method, which assumes direct travel from each participant’s home institution to the meeting site, allows us to calculate a baseline of emissions to compare future scenarios. Here is a good summary table of the results. 

This table offers summary statistics for five AAG meetings and one AGU meeting. On average, AAG meetings from 2015-2019 had carbon footprints that were approximately 23% the size of the AGU footprint for 2019. This difference was due to AAG having, on average, 34% the number of attendees as AGU. In addition, the average AAG attendee traveled only 71% as far as the average AGU attendee. The AAG meeting in San Francisco was closest to the AGU conference in terms of travel and emissions. Source: AAG (2021) Carbon Emissions Associated with Travel to AAG Annual Meetings. Unpublished analyses prepared for the American Association of Geographers by JGS Projects, October 2021, 28 pp.

We also looked at future meetings. As with all academic societies and organizations with large meetings, the AAG signs hotel contracts five or more years in advance. Our contracted meetings are Denver (2023), Honolulu (2024), and Detroit (2025). Based on our projections, AAG 2024 in Honolulu will have much higher emissions than typical meetings (35k vs. 16.5k tCO2). Our contracts make cancellation prohibitive and encourage us to look for alternative solutions. For these reasons, we seek to partner with another geography society to offer additional locations or ‘hubs,’ perhaps in Europe or Canada. Surprisingly, adding additional hubs can reduce emissions impacts dramatically, even well below our five-year average (9k vs. 35k tCO2).  

To cut carbon emissions, we will need to experiment with new ways of conducting our meetings to meet our emission goals. And, by all indications, AAG members are eager to embrace new ways to meet and create knowledge together. This eagerness is evident on so many fronts, ranging from the strong registration rates for AAG 2022 to the enthusiastic participation in AAG Regions Connect in October and virtual webinars throughout the year. Being willing to try new solutions is not a recipe for getting everything right the first time, yet it is the best and only way to get things right in the end.  


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.

 

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Perspectives: A New Column in the AAG Newsletter

In May, we introduced a new column to the AAG Newsletter called Perspectives, replacing AAG’s former Op-Ed feature. Perspectives will share the opinions and ideas of members on issues of relevance to geography. We encourage submissions that stimulate dialogue, get members thinking, and challenge our discipline to take new approaches to the social, political, and environmental issues confronting geographers and the public.

We are grateful to Guo Chen of Michigan State University, whose article “Working Together for Racial and Social Justice: From Anti-Asian Racism and Violence to Anti-Racist Praxis in Geography” was the first Perspective to appear, last month. We look forward to sharing more of our members’ thought-provoking commentary in the coming months.

One of the great strengths and challenges of the discipline of geography is that it embraces the world. We envision Perspectives as having wide-ranging potential, showcasing our members’ voices, experiences, and opinions regarding virtually any topic. We want to make space for members to engage and challenge one another, taking on questions that help illuminate and strengthen the relevance of geography to people’s lives.

In all cases, the articles will focus on the best ideas: showcasing novel ways of considering social, political, and geography concepts, adhering to the AAG Code of Conduct and supporting AAG’s goal of fostering robust discussion and respectful disagreement. Optimal length is 1,000-1,500 words.

So, do you have a probing question or fresh inspiration for the discipline? Do you have a unique and engaging response to a column or feature article you’ve seen in our newsletter? We want to hear from you. Consider submitting a column for consideration as an upcoming Perspectives. Read more about our submission guidelines here.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0092


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.

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A Good Day for Geography, Every Day

The late Will Graf would end his AAG President’s columns with this optimistic affirmation: It’s a good day for Geography. Given the last year, you might be surprised to hear that it is just as true today as it was during his tenure in 1998-99. Let me explain.

As I write this, it is the one-year anniversary of our official announcement canceling the AAG Annual Meeting in Denver. I will never forget that week or that gut-wrenching decision. The AAG meeting was one of the first big academic meetings of the year, and the crisis was escalating quickly. I am sure that I was not the only one waking up in the middle of the night and checking the latest statistics and news. Increasingly, it seemed that we would have to cancel, yet more than 6500 members had registered, and the AAG had not canceled a meeting since WWII.

As the Executive Committee sat in the conference room in San Diego and voted to cancel the in-person meeting, it was just 30 days before the event. Since the AAG had been investing in a virtual platform for months, we knew we could offer a virtual meeting, though 30 days was not much time to prepare. We decided to give full refunds and make the virtual meeting free for anyone already registered. Of course, this was the only fair decision, but it was also consequential for the organization, both culturally and financially. We also knew that membership was likely to dip significantly, but we had no idea how much or how long it might take to rebound. So, we budgeted for up to 50% losses in membership and took a pessimistic view of the current fiscal year. This time last year, the AAG was looking into a fiscal abyss, but I am pleased to report that the AAG has weathered this financial storm very well.

With the losses from the meeting, we expected to take a loss in FYE20, and we did: Official losses were $2M. This figure does not include additional spending that occurred as a result of the COVID-19 Rapid Response program. In total, $900k was approved from reserves to fund nine programs.  For example, our support for students included Bridging the Digital Divide, providing direct funds to purchase hardware and software for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal Colleges and Universities. These programs are meant to help members cope with the economic challenges of the pandemic.

After the initial FYE21 budget was approved in April 2020, the AAG Council re-convened in June 2020 to adopt a new budget. The first draft of the revised budget projected a loss of $1.5M due to loss of membership and projections for the Annual Meeting with reduced attendance. To offset these projected losses, we reduced expenses by $846k, with the other half being approved from reserves. This approach cut nearly all expenses except for staff. Remarkably, we expect to end the year without the need for any reserves, ending in positive territory, even without considering revenue from investments.

While AAG has experienced a 19% loss in membership year over year during the pandemic, this is far lower than the feared 50% loss. Three out of four of our lost members are either graduate students or members making under $75k per year. Therefore, Council has expanded eligibility for membership renewal fee coverage to all those making less than $75k and expanded the membership window for qualifying to two years. The job market appears to be recovering: Between March 1, 2019 and 2020, job postings at AAG dropped 38%. Postings have rebounded in 2021, and are now up 31%, suggesting at least some postings were merely delayed in the early pandemic.

The whole world turned upside down in the last year, and none of us are untouched. And still, it’s a good day for Geography.

The AAG has managed to get through a pandemic with surprising ease. To be sure, there are serious challenges ahead and much work to do. However, there is also reason to expect tomorrow will be a better day. Our work to replace our membership database and website is moving forward. On April 7th, we offered members the first preview of the site, and the full site is expected to launch in early summer. (We are welcoming feedback from members about a new tagline; share your ideas for a new tagline here). Together these new systems will open up greater possibilities for membership retention and a range of new and improved services. Multi-year membership, automatic renewals, tagged content, and much more will be possible. We continue to invest in creative, more inclusive approaches to meeting, including a climate-forward dispersed-meeting model for a new fall meeting, and a hybrid meeting that blends the best possible options for international virtual access and in-person convening in New York City.

Nearly two-thirds of graduate students in the AAG Methods workshops found the interactions highly valuable.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the last year is how popular our online seminars have been. In February, we kicked off a GeoEthics series, bringing together experts to talk about locational ethics. We also offered methods training workshops that have connected more than a thousand graduate students to a whole range of experts to discuss research challenges and solutions—and to one another at a time when peer support was also important. In all these cases, we showcase our membership’s expertise, connecting our members to it and each other. Traditionally, we might offer all these things only at the Annual Meeting. However, online platforms allow us to share year-round, to feature topics and presenters that reflect the AAG we want for the future. With minimal new expenses, we can showcase the expertise of our members while connecting and building community.

All respondents to the survey on AAG Methods workshops found resources helpful; nearly two-thirds found them very or extremely helpful.

If you attended any of these sessions, you know that it really matters to attendees. Three hundred people were on one three-hour session, engaged and eager for more. Students shed tears as they connected to methods experts and one another, gaining access and answers they needed during the pandemic. More to come on this experiment, but it gives me hope. During the troubling days and nights this past year, one thing kept coming back to me. Even as the pandemic loomed over all aspects of our personal and professional lives, we still found the energy, funding, and resolve to launch the COVID Rapid Response programs and to support one another. We put the members and our community first.

The whole world turned upside down in the last year, and none of us are untouched. And still, it’s a good day for Geography.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0090


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.

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In Kansas, an Early Warning for Higher Education and Geography

Late last month, a bellwether event took place in Kansas, threatening higher education’s ability to support post-COVID recovery. Citing the extreme budget constraints caused by the pandemic, the nine-member Kansas Board of Regents unanimously approved a new policy giving public institutions the power to remove faculty, including those with tenure, through 2022. The new policy sidesteps one already in place that addresses financial emergencies while preserving transparency and faculty participation in termination decisions.

Four of Kansas’s six public universities were quick to say they will not use the new policy, at least for now. In contrast, the University of Kansas’s Chancellor Douglas A. Girod stated that the University is considering the policy as it reckons with a budget shortfall of more than $74 million. Girod goes on to suggest this shortfall will require the university to “eliminate programs and departments, reduce services, and implement furloughs and layoffs.” We only have to review the recent trends of geography departments to recognize this as a dire situation — all at a time when the value of geospatial awareness and research is more critical than ever.

The AAG submitted a letter to Chancellor Girod, asking him to join with other leaders of the state’s universities in rejecting this new policy and instead continue to involve academia’s most precious resource: its people. In our letter, we described why we–along with more than 50 national organizations and more than 6,000 individuals–are signing on to the KU Faculty’s Solidarity Letter:

“We see the Kansas Board of Regents policy decision as a troubling signal, and a potential threat for universities across the country as ongoing budget austerity measures and the crisis of COVID-19 converge. These circumstances leave vulnerable academic tenure as a whole, but especially the tenure of geography departments and professors. We will closely monitor this trend, and we call on our members to alert us to similar issues emerging on their campuses.”

Chancellor Girod responded quickly to our letter, expressing appreciation for our feedback and promising to include our concerns in their decision-making process while still citing the need to address the university’s budget challenges. Soon after, as reported by KU faculty member Ani Kokobobo in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer indicated that “the university hoped not to use the policy but needed to keep it on the table just in case,” and noted that further faculty input would be sought. But, asks Kokobobo, “can anyone feel safe speaking up on campus anymore, when we’re expected to outline the parameters of our own firings and those of our colleagues?”

Unfortunately, the circumstances surrounding this issue are neither unique to Kansas nor are they only about COVID-19. For most states, public funding for higher education never recovered after the 2008 recession. Without the recurring financial challenges borne from stagnating state support, perhaps more institutions would have reserves sufficient to handle the additional strains of COVID-19. If anything, the trying times call for robust and consistent investment in high-quality teaching and research, as well as a shift back towards support for the academic freedom that tenure provides. The Kansas action runs dangerously counter to those ideals and poses a particular threat to the future of geography departments’ wide-ranging instruction and research on the impacts of COVID-19.

While COVID-19 may be the crisis of our time, the problems faced by geography departments are not new. At AAG, we have seen troubling trends in austerity for geography departments and faculty for over a decade. Our $900,000 COVID-19 Rapid Response programs help support the discipline through the pandemic and strengthen departments ahead of budget stresses. An ongoing series of workshops and resources give department chairs more tools to showcase geography at their institutions. Furthermore, we continue to support the discipline by pushing for significant funding increases for the National Science Foundation and related agencies, opening up more grant opportunities to ease the funding burden on graduate students and researchers.

But we can do more to strengthen our understanding of the challenges faced by geography departments and geographers. Working with our Healthy Departments Committee, our Data-Driven Strategic Insights group on the AAG staff is preparing to support a significant data collection this spring. If successful, this data collection can help us gain a bird’s-eye view of the network of geography programs in the U.S. and inform a strategy to strengthen it. With the prospect of deep cuts throughout higher education, it will be important for programs not to spread themselves too thin and instead focus on a specialty that reflects the needs of local job markets or builds inter-university geography programs. Retaining tenure-track positions will be critical to the sustainability of programs and long-term academic excellence. We urge geography programs in our network to facilitate the AAG’s work by providing timely, accurate information about each program’s strengths and weaknesses.

Although universities and colleges must face budget realities and make difficult decisions, we can leverage our collective experiences to ensure departments will not only survive but thrive amidst the profound changes that COVID-19 and other forces bring to post-secondary education and research. Now, more than ever, AAG will commit to supporting the stability and continuity of geographers and geography departments, acknowledging that every penny invested in their work repays itself with tangible benefits for public health, education, communities, and so much more.

What You Can Do Now

—Gary Langham
AAG Executive Director

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0085


Please note: The ideas expressed by Executive Director Gary Langham are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. Please feel free to email him at glangham [at] aag [dot] org.

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