Feeding on the Beast of Climate Change: Science, Impacts, ‘Solutions’ Focus of SEJ Convention

Climate change issues were front-and-center at the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) 17th annual conference at Stanford University September 5-9.

SEJ 2007 Conference Photo
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A Stanford courtyard offers reporters an escape from dawn-to-dusk schedule of meetings, briefings, tours, field trips … and even an occasional cold one.
SEJ Conference Co-chair Chris Bowman
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SEJ conference co-chair Chris Bowman, of the Sacramento Bee, captures a break during a brief lapse in conference goings-on.

“It’s everywhere, it’s everywhere,” one could almost hear many of the 900-plus conference registrants – not all of them working press by any stretch – exclaiming. Attendees could practically go from one climate change session to the next if they chose that diet from a vast smorgasbord of choices.

With most of the attendees still en route from around the country, the SEJ project actually kicked off early Wednesday, September 5, with a full-day “forum” for 18 top-ranking news executives, most of them from major metropolitan daily newspapers. The “dead tree” folks, as some put it (see related story).

That by-invitation event brought some of the nation’s most respected climate scientists and researchers together for an all-day focus on covering climate change with leading news executives, believed to be a first.

The official y’all-come SEJ festivities actually got under way later that day, with the annual SEJ awards for reporting on the environment. That was followed by a public “Aurora Forum” evening plenary focusing on “clean, secure, and efficient energy.” Hosted by a liberal radio talk show host and producer, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, the event featured Stanford populations studies professor Paul Ehrlich, Environmental Defense Fund President Fred Krupp, former Secretary of State and Stanford/Hoover Institution Fellow George Shultz, Stanford’s Sally Benson, who heads the university’s Global Climate & Energy Project, and Tesla Motors technical officer J.B. Straubel.

SEJ 2007 Conference Photo
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An SEJ plenary session at Stanford University’s Alumni Center attracts an SRO audience.

There were none of the often-quoted climate science “contrarians” in that group, and in fact they were missing in action throughout virtually all the SEJ meeting. It’s perhaps one more sign of the times on how much of the journalism community has moved toward acceptance of a planet warming as a result of human activities.

The Wednesday evening plenary appeared well-suited for the packed-house audience of “the public” from around the campus community, but not so apt for the presumably “mainstream” journalism connection. Goodman’s highly politicized comments got under the skin of many journalists early, and SEJ conference planners pretty much conceded the public plenary session was a bust from a purely journalistic perspective.

Not so the rest of the conference, however. Reports from mostly all-day field trips showed high levels of satisfaction and fulfillment among those who participated (notwithstanding one poor soul’s missing the return bus from somewhere up north and having to catch an SEJ-underwritten cab to get back to Stanford). The traditional round of Thursday evening “hosted” receptions ñ presented by an across-the-board spectrum of interest groups ñ appeared to douse the few hard feelings and calloused feet from the day-tripping.

SEJ 2007 Conference
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Anne Thompson of NBC News and 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner Ken Weiss of the Los Angeles Times

Climate. Climate. And more climate. That was the general theme of the two packed days of concurrent sessions, Friday and Saturday. There were other choices galore, but those wanting to focus solely on climate change could have more than their fill.

A.P. science writer Seth Borenstein, no shy and retiring fellow he, moderated an opening plenary featuring The Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen (see related story), Stanford climate scientist Stephen H. Schneider, Sacramento Bee Executive Editor Rick Rodriguez, and Stanford communications researcher Jon Krosnick. As might be expected from that lineup, the discussion focused on both climate science, public attitudes toward global warming/climate change, and reporting and communications on the issues.

From there, one could partake of a Felicity Barringer (NYT)-moderated session on challenges and opportunities facing industries, investors, and insurers in a warming world … or on a Nancy Baron (Sea Web/COMPASS)-moderated program featuring, among others, freelance photographer Gary Braasch, whose new photojournalism book focusing on climate change, Earth Under Fire, was just about to be publicly released.

SEJ 2007 Conference
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Harvard’s Paul Epstein, MD, makes his points on health impacts of climate change.

Whether it was “Energy and Resources” or “Covering China’s Environment” or “Feverish Temperatures: Human Health on a Warmer Planet” (with among others, Harvard Med School’s Paul Epstein, M.D.) … the climate bandwagon rolled-on.

Rolled-on, in fact, right up to and through the final plenary on Saturday evening, a “dinner and movie” showing of Leonardo DiCaprio’s recently released film “The 11th Hour.”

Featuring “some 70 experts, many of whom you know well, some of whom might be sitting next to you,” as the SEJ conference program put it, the film was reviewed by some of the usually more skeptical SEJ working journalists as a bit “preachy,” as one put it. It was, they pointed out, clearly a film and clearly not a work of journalism. And maybe, maybe, just a tad too long too, at least for the significant portion of the audience who had started their day nearly 16 hours earlier.

Want to gorge on audio files of individual SEJ sessions? Go to sej.org. Future issues of the organization’s SEJournal, further reporting on conference goings-on, also will be online at that site.

EDITOR’S NOTE

The author of this piece and editor of this online journal was directly involved as a principal organizer of the news executives forum. Some will say that runs counter to the journalism principle of observing or participating in an event you report on, but not both.

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