Pathways for Change: The 2022 Annual Meeting, AAG Council, and the Climate Action Survey
The in-person component of the 2022 annual meeting was planned to be large. New York is traditionally a popular destination for meetings, and when hotel contracts were signed over five years ago, they were made with the assumption that there would be 10,000 attendees. Last year too, after both the 2020 and 2021 meetings went virtual-only, and before the Delta and Omicron variants upended overly optimistic assumptions about the course of the pandemic in a world of vaccine inequity and hesitancy, AAG anticipated that geographers would flock to New York to satisfy the pent-up demand for seeing their colleagues face-to-face.
Alas, COVID-19 had other plans. Even at its maximum, fewer than 3,300 participants signed up to come in person to New York, a far cry from the 10,000 for which the conference was budgeted through room and food contracts, while roughly 1,400 signed up to participate remotely. Then Omicron arrived. AAG members — and, importantly, AAG staff — were faced with concerns not only about getting sick themselves, but also about family members, particularly the elderly and those too young to receive vaccinations. AAG also faced the high likelihood that pandemic-induced staffing shortages in New York would result in an inability to provide promised conference services, such as childcare.
While some geographers argued that the peak would soon be past and that late February would look very different from early January, others pointed to overwhelmed hospitals and uncertainty about the rate of decline of infections after their peak. Some members wrote to AAG to urge it to go online as soon as possible, noting that other large scientific organizations were doing the same, while others wrote to urge AAG to continue with an in-person meeting, pointing out other societies that are not changing their plans. (Notably, many of these are smaller organizations, for whom a significantly smaller number of attendees changes the risk calculation, and which are also more likely to lack the contractual means to cut financial losses). In the meantime, the survey sent out to all members in January indicated that over 60% were not planning to or discouraged from attending due to the pandemic. In the end, a preponderance of ethical, logistical, and financial factors led to AAG’s decision to change the conference from hybrid to virtual.
For those who had been planning to attend in person, I share your disappointment that we will not be together in New York, but I remain excited about the conference. I hope many attendees will set aside time for many sessions, just as we would for an in-person event. To name just a few events to look forward to, Sheryl Luzadder-Beach will be delivering her Past President’s Address on “Science, Geography, and Human Rights,;” and Winona LaDuke will give a keynote address (planned as virtual from the start) on Water Protectors and the rights of wild rice. There will also be a presidential plenary on resurgent ethnonationalism, and a presidential plenary on climate justice.
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Though I’ve laid out the reasons that the meeting will be all-virtual, I haven’t spelled out how the decision was reached. This relates to the more general question of how AAG operates and is governed, something I admit I was foggy on myself when I agreed to be nominated for this position, despite being a long-standing member of AAG. Here’s a brief primer.
The AAG Council consists of six nationally elected at-large members, an international member, a student member, a member elected from each region, the president, vice president, the most recent past president, and the executive director serving in a non-voting ex officio capacity. Called a Council, this volunteer governing body acts as a board of directors for the Association. As such its tasks include voting to approve annual budgets prepared by the executive director, on any additional spending (such as for the COVID-19 rapid relief program), and on strategic plans; making decisions about editorial boards for AAG journals; deciding whether to adopt the recommendations of various committees and task forces; ratifying awards selected by committees; and approving slates of nominations for elections. The Council also reads and hears updates and annual reports from the regions, on the financial health of AAG, on journal operation, membership and communications, and more.
Notably, regular Council meetings happen only twice a year. Packed agendas and infrequent meetings have led in the past to member frustration with Council for not moving quickly enough, for example, on decisions about task force or committee recommendations. Recently, AAG has been working with consultants to update its bylaws (you’ll see more communications about this soon) and operations, which will also include streamlining Council meetings to free up more time to discuss strategic issues, and adding one or two Council meetings a year so that major decisions can be made in a more timely fashion.
A subset of Council is the Executive Committee, which consists of the treasurer and secretary, both elected from amongst councilors, the vice president, president, immediate past president, and again the executive director in ex-officio capacity. This committee meets more often, to prepare for Council meetings and discuss upcoming matters, but does not make any decisions requiring a formal vote. AAG elected officers have specific duties related to their posts. For example, the vice president attends regional meetings (along with the president and past president); the president chooses one or more themes for the annual meeting and writes this newsletter column; the past president delivers a past president’s address. They work with the executive director and the rest of Council to develop strategic plans and goals. But in terms of decision-making, they each simply vote as one member of Council.
No elected board member is an executive of AAG; that is, they are not responsible for the operational management of day-to-day AAG business. That is the role of the professional staff, and in particular the executive director, who oversees the Council-approved budget and enters into contracts. The Council, in turn, evaluates the performance of the executive director.
Returning, then, to the modality of our upcoming meeting in light of the Omicron wave, it was the executive director’s role to consult with staff members and Council, which was able to meet on short notice. After learning about and weighing the many relevant considerations, Council agreed that moving to an all-virtual 2022 Annual Meeting was the best option.
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Meeting modality considerations will continue to be relevant in the future; thus, I would like to share a few preliminary results from the AAG Meetings and Climate Action survey conducted in December. There were 885 responses to the survey, of which 784 were complete; my numbers below refer only to the complete surveys.
Roughly 94% of respondents stated that they believe it is important and meaningful for AAG to take a leadership role in climate change. In order of popularity, the actions these respondents felt AAG should undertake were to engage in climate advocacy/provide policy recommendations (84%); divest from fossil fuel companies in the investment portfolio (77%); significantly reduce CO2 emissions associated with travel to annual meetings (68%); reduce carbon emissions from day-to-day AAG office operations (60%); and lower carbon emissions from physical infrastructure at AAG (58%).
The most popular top reason given for attending the annual meeting was to network with other geographers; this was followed by giving papers or participating in panels; then listening to papers or panels; and finally, meeting up with old friends. While giving papers and listening to talks are eminently possible through the virtual format, the virtual networking events and “office hours” that AAG put together for the online 2020 and 2021 conferences were less well attended, whether due to Zoom fatigue, lack of awareness, or the fact that people expect networking to happen more spontaneously or in person. Nevertheless, more than 60% of respondents said they could probably or definitely achieve their meeting goals if the conference alternated annually between virtual and in-person. This rose to 70% for the scenario of alternating between national in-person and a regional networked hub in-person meetings. Also good news is that just over 50% of geographers state that they already renew their AAG membership every year regardless of whether they participate in the conference. Moving forward, one of AAG’s goals is to provide more services to members year-round, so that the other 50% also see benefits of renewing membership, beyond the annual meeting.
Distinct challenges remain vis-à-vis the cost of hybrid options. Understandably, panelists participating virtually in a hybrid panel want to pay the virtual rather than in-person costs of attendance. AAG staff, however, have calculated that the labor costs of staffing for hybrid sessions is 16 times that of in-person sessions. (In-person, 1 tech can staff 8 sessions; for virtual, 1 tech is needed for 3 sessions; and for hybrid, 2 techs are needed per session, one online and one in person). Perhaps these ratios can improve in the future as technology improves, but for now, to meet service expectations, hybrid panels are expensive. A second challenge concerns streaming of in-person sessions to a virtual audience, something that I personally feel strongly about (75% of respondents also thought it is “very important” or “somewhat important”) given that it integrates remote with in-person components. While this should be possible in the future, we’ve learned that there are cost challenges associated with internet service fees for already-contracted venues.
The climate action task force is conducting further analyses on the survey results. What seems clear for now is that, overall, AAG members are committed to acting collectively to address the devastating current and future effects of climate change. This is heartening as I contemplate the most recent close-to-home effects of climate change for me: a catastrophic winter grassland fire in Colorado that destroyed more than 1000 homes and caused more than 500 million dollars in damage in the last days of December, just south of my neighborhood. Geographers are at the forefront of producing knowledge about the relationships between climate change, wildfire, and suburban development. With patience, goodwill, and commitment, our geographical association can also be at the forefront of developing pathways for scholarly societies to respond to climate change.
Please note: The ideas expressed in the AAG President’s column are not necessarily the views of the AAG as a whole. This column is traditionally a space in which the president may talk about their views or focus during their tenure as president of AAG, or spotlight their areas of professional work. Please feel free to email the president directly at emily [dot] yeh [at] colorado [dot] edu to enable a constructive discussion.