NOEL KING, HOST:
Scientists from around the world are writing the next major United Nations climate report. But they can't meet in person to do it, and it turns out that getting scientists in 23 time zones to work together is exactly as hard as it sounds. Here's NPR's Rebecca Hersher.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Back in April, hundreds of scientists were supposed to get on planes and fly to Ecuador. They were going to sit in a hotel for five days and work on part of a global climate science report that's supposed to be released next year. National governments need the report before the next round of major climate negotiations. But, although meeting in person is inconvenient, the United Nations has generally avoided having these meetings online.
EDWARD BYERS: It's a coordination challenge.
HERSHER: Edward Byers is an energy expert in Austria and one of the authors of a report chapter about energy.
BYERS: We are spanning, for example, in our chapter from Colombia way in the west all the way to Japan - or maybe Australia is even further - yeah, Sydney. So many, many time zones. And so just even coordinating calls requires people to either be up very early or stay up very late.
HERSHER: But, obviously, when the pandemic hit, everyone was stuck at home. So the April meeting happened online. And a few things went unexpectedly right. More people attended than in the past, and the virtual meeting saved 368 tons of carbon - nothing to sneeze at, especially if you're a group of climate scientists. That's equivalent to the emissions from driving a car almost a million miles. But a lot of things were harder. Alaa Al Khourdajie is a senior scientist for the U.N. agency that coordinates the climate report, and one of his jobs is to help field questions about data.
ALAA AL KHOURDAJIE: Working with so many authors from different time zones, these questions were kind of (laughter) coming at different times.
HERSHER: Al Khourdajie put people with similar questions into group chats so they could discuss amongst themselves.
AL KHOURDAJIE: Like, yeah, there you go, guys. Let's (laughter) use this group chat for interaction. And it kind of helped, but still you could feel the heat of the interaction is not there, if you know what I mean.
HERSHER: When basic interactions take hours, some people lose interest or focus.
AL KHOURDAJIE: If we were in the same room for one hour, we'd probably nail things much faster, much more efficiently.
HERSHER: The meeting accomplished less than past meetings, and it took more days. That said, the built-in chat box during video calls was an unexpected hit. The survey of the participants found that many people felt like they could express their ideas better over chat, especially in really large groups and especially for scientists who don't speak English as a first language. That's important because scientists from richer or larger countries have dominated international climate science for decades, even though scientists from smaller and poorer countries are on the front lines of global warming.
The virtual meeting also seemed to be a mixed bag for female scientists, who are underrepresented among the report's lead authors. Lisa Schipper is an environmental scientist at Oxford University and an author of another section of the report.
LISA SCHIPPER: Many of us really struggle to work at home.
HERSHER: Women around the world bear more responsibility for child care and housework. Meeting in person makes it easier to participate and make yourself heard over confident male co-authors. That said, Schipper is happy to see one norm change - it's no longer shameful for your child to interrupt you.
SCHIPPER: Like, that was kind of a nightmare situation for me. But now, I mean, my daughter has come up and hung up on somebody just because she wanted my attention (laughter). Like, just - I mean, in some ways, it's become much more acceptable.
HERSHER: Still, she says, she hopes in-person climate science meetings return, despite the carbon emissions that come with them.
Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
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