A Roseate Spoonbill flew over our heads as our group of about 20 assembled in the parking lot of the High Island Bird Sanctuary in Texas. We caught our breath. Welcome to SEJ 2022, the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference.
The birding tour was one of nine all-day tours to kick off the annual conference. Birds, Conservation, Diversity and Inclusion brought several of the conference’s themes together. Other tours explored sustainable fishing; the implications of climate change solutions for Houston, the Oil and Gas Capital; wildfire; clean energy; flood protection; environmental racism in Houston’s Ship Channel; corporate stonewalling to climate threats; and changes to highway construction to consider environmental justice.
Just under 600 journalists, experts in these subjects and generalists filling in their background, gathered in Houston March 30-April 3 for the conference. SEJ worked with the Uproot Project, a free network for journalists of color who cover the environment. Uproot is a professional organization to support career advancement among journalists of color. SEJ awarded 26 Diversity Fellowships to attend the conference.
In my 20th year of SEJ membership, I greeted old friends, those who had led the organization in earlier years. Experienced conference attendees were matched with first-timers. Mine were three young women, full of energy and ideas.
That vibrant energy powered the conference. SEJ’s work to broaden its ranks with minority journalists is succeeding. More black and brown faces mixed at meals and inspired discussions during sessions.
Rice University sponsored the conference. Houston prides itself on being the Energy Capital of the World. Thanks to its location at low elevation on the Gulf of Mexico, it floods frequently. Sea level rise puts its oil, gas and petrochemical plants at risk, along with those of neighboring Louisiana. Flooding and chemical contamination disproportionately affect communities of color.
The focus was on helping reporters do their job of standing in for the public and providing information that their audiences, in their personal lives as well as their political lives, need. News affects how the public navigates climate crises, from the immediate of fire and flood, to the policy side of breaking through industry-packed political functions.
Sessions included digital tools to deal with hacking, doxing and working with data to track toxic contamination, oil and gas extraction, mining and mapping environmental justice.
Clean renewable energy is key to reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that are causing the climate crisis. Sessions explored various strategies forward, such as hydrogen as a green fuel. Sammy Roth, energy reporter for the LA Times, raised questions about hydrogen production products such as nitrogen oxides, which contribute to smog; as yet unknown costs; pipeline requirements; and the danger of explosion. He called it “a combination of hope and skepticism.”
Natural gas, promoted as a clean alternative to coal, is another fossil fuel. Industry lobbying has opposed laws requiring new construction to be all-electric, which can be produced from renewable sources. Advocating for substituting one fossil fuel for another prolongs the transition to clean fuel.
Carbon capture, use and sequestration sounds like a solution, but as Sara Sneath reported for Southerly, that path is fraught with pitfalls. No carbon capture plant has met its goals, and many emitted more greenhouse gas (GHG) than they captured. Preventing the production of GHG is a more direct route to reducing GHG.
Oceans got attention in an all-day workshop, plenary discussion and related sessions. Oceans have absorbed substantial carbon, but at the cost of acidic changes that affect the animals and plants for which they are habitat.
Plastic pollution contaminates water and beaches. According to The Nurdle Patrol, policy and business practices, and stopping plastic production at the source can reduce this aspect of ocean trash.
Sea level rise is already causing regular flooding in coastal areas. the National Oceanic Administration (NOAA)’s sea level rise viewer shows Gulf Coast petrochemical facilities can expect to be inundated.
“Failure to plan is planning to fail,” one participant said.
Ayanna Jolivet Mccloud, executive director for Bayou City Waterkeeper, made the case for the Personhood of Water, as a way to advocate for the environment. Corporations have legal standing in court. “It sounds a little radical, but it might be what we need right now,” she said.
Participants examined the spiritual side of their work in sessions on religion. Katherine Hayhoe, who has appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, is a climate change scientist serving as chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy. She speaks from a Christian perspective.She quoted examples of Bible scripture to support stewardship of God’s Earth and caring for the poor.
Journalists overflowed the session on When the Truth is Not Neutral: The Myth of Absolute Objectivity in Reporting. The panel was led by Emily Holden, founder and editor in chief of Floodlight, and included LA Times’ Sammy Roth and Sara Shipley Hiles, associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. Roth devoted one of his Boiling Point newsletters to discussion of the issue.
Traditional journalism required early climate change coverage to include “both sides” in news stories, even though editors and reporters understood that climate change was questioned only by a fringe group of scientists. Their efforts were later unmasked, as paid work for fossil fuel companies, in Merchants of Doubt. Journalism’s struggle to call Donald Trump’s false and misleading pronouncements “lies” indicates the continuing issues for reporters.
While environmental reporters separated themselves from the advocacy of 20th-century environmentalists, using objectivity as a shield served the power structure and obscured the real stories. No one questions that political reporters favor democracy or that education reporters favor good education. It’s not controversial to be in favor of a clean environment.
“Advocating nothing is advocating for the status quo,” Holden said.
Framing environmental transition stories as Jobs vs. Environment is inaccurate. The workforce is not the industry. Renewable energy creates new jobs, and fossil fuel jobs are declining. Policy makers are in position to address the transition.
Holden recommended reporters read their own stories with an eye to asking, Did I miss the message? The historic journalistic View from Nowhere objectivity is being re-evaluated, to a View from Somewhere.
How reporters cover the news, what stories editors select, the words and images we choose to tell the stories, continue to evolve. One of the guidelines I like to use is, How would I tell a friend what happened? Sessions like this one, bringing thoughtful journalists together for frank, if uncomfortable, exchanges, strengthen all of our work.
Saturday afternoon mini-tours invited everyone out of the conference center, to see Prairie Chickens, paddle kayaks around Kickerillo-Mischer Preserve, bike the bayous, take a pontoon boat on Buffalo Bayou, or take a walking tour around Houston or the Rice campus.
Rice put on a party Saturday night, with art events and live music for dancing.
The Houston Arboretum set up tables for breakfast under the trees. Historian Douglas Brinkley discussed the political background of his new book, out in November, Silent Spring Revolution. It’s the third in his environmental politics trilogy, from Theodore Roosevelt, through Franklin Roosevelt, to this volume, covering World War II to 1973. It explores the legacies of Rachel Carson, JFK and LBJ in the “great environmental awakening.”
A panel of Rice professors who have written books followed. Two have experienced Houston’s flooding, and wrote about how that affected them and their neighborhoods. Dan Cohan, who teaches civil engineering, found that his entire curriculum needed revision after he studied climate change.
Most sessions were recorded and will be made available to the public through SEJ. Some are already available, thanks to Bernardo Motta.
Our team is always growing.
Become a partner, volunteer, sponsor, or intern today.
Let us know how you would like to get involved!