Over the last few weeks, we’ve taken BMJ editor Dr. Fiona Godlee to task for her recent piece, Reducing the Carbon Footprint of Medical Conferences. We noted the irony of Dr. Godlee urging doctors to lead by example and reduce the environmental impact of medical conferences when, in fact, she travels by air to conferences quite often. We set up an interactive map where readers can follow Dr. Godlee’s travels and report their own sightings.
And, most importantly, we asked Dr. Godlee about steps she and BMJ are planning to take, to reduce their carbon emissions: are they willing to put their footprint where their mouth is?
Well, Dr. Godlee was good enough to respond to our missive (comment #3 in this thread) — some of which is exceprted below.
… my business travel is rather more extensive than you have so far managed to document; indeed were it not so I might be charged with failing to do my job. But I’m grateful to you for taking the trouble to track my carbon footprint and for keeping me on my toes about this. If I can help with further information, please let me know. To your charge of hypocrisy I am tempted to hold my hand up and say that this is a fair cop. But on the basis of what I have written I don’t think the charge stands. In our recent editorial, Ian Roberts and I said:
1. Climate change is important
2. Air travel contributes to it
3. Much air travel is unnecessary
4. We should try to reduce it and some are already doing so.
You don’t argue with any of these substantive points. Of course I fully acknowledge the need for anyone writing about climate change to lead by personal example. Individual behaviour change is one of the four elements of the newly formed Health Climate Council’s strategy (see What can we do about climate change? BMJ 2006;333:983-984). I have a long way to go to meaningfully reduce my own contribution, but I’m working on it and doing what I can to encourage others in the same direction. Inspired by your intervention I’ll update my climate blog on bmj.com so anyone interested can judge how well or badly I’m doing. The BMJ Group is also taking seriously the need to lead on this, with increased investment in online conferencing and online learning…
(The emphasis is ours). We’re pleased with this dialogue, but it seems to some extent we’re talking past each other. From our perspective as writers for the Internet Journal of Emerging Medical Technology, our environmental impact is insignificant compared to the forests that have been consumed to deliver BMJ across the world (and you can’t beat our price). Also, we regularly feature telemedicine breakthroughs that allow for remote monitoring and diagnosis — spreading knowledge without spreading emissions from travel. Furthermore, Medgadget’s editorial team includes Soviet emigres, who too often heard speeches from the party leadership, hypocritically forcing the masses to sacrifice. When a globe-trotting editor of a pulp publication tells us we should cut down on our activities, it rubs us the wrong way.
Dr. Godlee has been writing on this issue for sixteen years. But she still cites vague Health Climate Council strategies and touts announcements about increased investments in teleconferencing. We were much more impressed with her (or her colleague’s) decision to drop out of an all-expense paid Australian presentation due to its environmental impact. We’d be more impressed if BMJ cut its members travel budget, and passed the savings directly into teleconference technology. More importantly, since deforestation’s contribution to global warming outweighs that of air travel, we’d love to hear some announcements about BMJ phasing out their costly, wasteful paper products, and joining us in the realm of web-only publications.
In her response, Dr. Godlee proceeded to ask about us — who funds us, how are our carbon footprints, and “perhaps most importantly of all given the fact that you are a technology site, what practical advice can you give publishers and others in health care about how they can most effectively transform an entrenched medical culture built on face to face meetings and global interaction?”
That’s fair, so let’s be clear: We are a group of students, researchers and physicians who subscribe to the HON code in our web-only publication. We are sponsored by advertisers displayed above the logo and along the ride side of your screen; no political groups or lobbyists are secretly funding our activities.
As far as our individual carbon footprints — half of us don’t own cars. Most of us live in small apartments, and take public transit (or walk!) to work. Some of us even have compact fluorescents in their sockets, and write from energy-star rated computers. We’re no angels, but then again, we’re not lecturing our peers on how to live.
Dr. Godlee asked us for advice in transforming an entrenched culture of medicine, based on face-to-face meetings and printed journals. Our experience is that scolding never promotes change; action and evidence do. BMJ’s actions are still their infancy. And as for evidence, why not employ technology like Access Grid, which has been available for years (Nature subscription req’d) and has demonstrated its value in a variety of settings.
Look, as far as models of weather go, non-linear phenomena are beyond the scope of our knowledge (and, probably, beyond hers as well). But we believe in the stewardship of our environment — we’ll support anyone who makes an honest and practical attempt at lowering their personal pollution output, and we’ll promote technologies that use less energy, create less interference, and create fewer tertiary effects.
What we can’t abide is doubletalk. Dr. Godlee wants to use her pulpit to advocate for change — well, good for her. But instead of scolding and urging others to sacrifice, she should use her position as head of an esteemed scienfitic journal to promote research on the wastefulness of conferences and paper journals, and steer the British Medical Journal clear of those practices. Evidence and action change behavior, not editorials.
We’d like to thank Dr. Godlee for taking the time to respond to us, and for her good-natured interpretation of our coverage. We look forward to the revival of her climate blog, and for news about BMJ’s initiatives to reduce waste and emissions.