UNOFFICIAL AND INDEPENDENT CONFERENCE BLOGS
SEJ's 19th annual conference, October 7-11, 2009, was hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
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Conference attendees blogged at the independent SEJ2009.
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- Session description and speakers.
- Audio files: Frank Court (MP3/3.3MB); Kevin McSweeney (MP3/2MB); and Bret Shaw (MP3/1.5MB).
Story by Heather Akin
Climate change will undoubtedly impact human health, but these effects are often not discussed in the media. Research is already showing that heat waves, air pollution, infectious diseases, food insecurity, and extremes in the water cycle are all outcomes of global warming. Events such as Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike have demonstrated that the effects of natural events are often disproportional across communities in the U.S. Similarly, poorer nations tend to be bearing the brunt of climate change, seeing more food shortages, contaminated water supplies, and increased cases of vector-borne illnesses such as malaria and dengue fever.
Jonathan Patz, Professor and Director of Global Environmental Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Leslie Fields, National Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships Director at the Sierra Club, described how their work is addressing this problem in important ways and critical places that reporters may not be covering. Throughout the world, the health effects of climate change are unquestionable, and societies and public health workers are attempting to simultaneously adapt to and mitigate the consequences. But decreasing greenhouse gas emissions also offers a powerful public health opportunity. The co-benefits of decreasing our food consumption habits, changing our power generation, and utilizing more green transportation can promise both healthier people and a healthier planet.
Story by Liam Manjon
Geoff Cooper, vice president of research for the Renewable Fuels Association, started off by talking about the controversy of using ethanol. He described how the methods of evaluating the carbon footprint of ethanol use as a fuel is well understood and has been for about twenty years now. Using these methods, the carbon footprint of ethanol is about 30% to 50% of that of traditional petroleum gasoline, he said. However, if one looks at indirect land use change (IDUC) associated with the production of ethanol, then the carbon footprint becomes much larger. Indirect land use change is due to the fact that once a farmer sacrifices, say soy bean crop, to produce a more profitable corn for ethanol , it will reduce the amount of soybean crop that is being exported from the U.S., which will in turn prompt other farmers in different countries to clear cut land in order to be able to produce the needed soybean crop that has been displaced. Cooper stated that it would not be accurate to attribute the increased carbon footprint from the IDUC to the corn ethanol production. If you attribute that to corn ethanol, then what other carbon footprints could you attribute to it? One could argue that the soybeans grown on IDUC land that is sold to say, China, and there used for feed for pigs, could be attributed to the corn production and that is just not practical or useful. He then went through the counterpoints to the argument. He talked about the fact that there are not less soybeans being produced in the U.S. today and that soybean exports have not fallen and, finally, that deforestation of lands where alleged IDUC is supposed to occur has actually fallen since we began producing corn for ethanol fuel. He reiterated why we pursue corn ethanol; it reduces our dependencies on foreign petroleum, it's renewable and it has less carbon footprint than traditional fuels.
Tracy Holloway, director of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, began by explaining how ethanol is beneficial, stating that it offers superior emissions, reduces foreign dependency on oil and requires no addition to existing infrastructure. She disagreed that methods of carbon footprint evaluation have been around for twenty years. She talked about how much carbon one releases if tropical land is used to produce crops displaced by corn production, mentioning that it would take from 30 to 300 years for tropical land which is clear cut to become carbon neutral, depending on the crop that replaces the tropical plants. She said that if we are to produce corn ethanol, we will need to be able to produce more crops on the same amount of land and/or switch to crops with better energy density.
An audience member asked the panel to talk about the food-versus-fuel controversy. Geoff Cooper stated that there is no food shortage, only that we do not distribute the food well enough to allow everybody to be fed. He stated that obesity rising and malnourishment falling around the world is evidence of this. When asked about how subsidies play in to corn ethanol, Cooper mentioned that farmers do not get subsidies once the price of the crop gets to a certain level and that corn ethanol production has contributed to higher prices of corn. He also said that without subsidies given to gasoline companies for mixing corn ethanol with the regular gas, they may not make their competitor, the corn ethanol, available at all. When asked about the other environmental impacts of corn ethanol, Holloway mentioned that there were effects on fish in Mexico from the fertilizers used in the U.S. and that there can be cases of growing fuel crops that don’t sell and the producer is left with unedible crops. Cooper stated that no one wants to pursue unsustainable ethanol crops.
Concurrent Sessions 3: NATURAL RESOURCES AND WILDLIFE: Bambi's Insatiable Appetite: Can a Forest Lie?
Story by Erin Kapp
This panel looked at how the white-tailed deer population is affecting the plant composition of Wisconsin's forests, as well as Wisconsin's past efforts at deer management and current and future plans for managing Wisconsin's deer.
Don Waller, professor of botany and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reviewed social and environmental issues surrounding deer. Deer appeal to many people aesthetically, but the high incidence of deer-vehicle collisions means deer become nuisance animals. Since deer also eat large quantities of plants, forests with high deer concentrations come to resemble "fern parks" with severely reduced biodiversity.
Jason Fleener, assistant big game ecologist at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, overviewed the deer population management measures that the DNR takes. Factors the DNR considers when determining acceptable deer population levels include the ecological carrying capacity of the forest, the potential for disease transmission, and hunter success and satisfaction.
Tony Grabski, a hunter and landowner, discussed some of the issues hunters have with DNR efforts, including more rules surrounding the hunting season since the detection of chronic wasting disease in Wisconsin's deer population. He also covered how the DNR's early CWD management efforts alienated many in the hunting community.
During the Q&A, topics included the increased complexity of the hunting rules, CWD transmission, the increasing problem of suburban and urban deer, and social acceptance of lethal control methods.
Concurrent Sessions 3: AGRICULTURE: A Capitol Idea, Squared: Madison's Local-food Movement and Beyond
Concurrent Sessions 3: THE CRAFT: Green PR in the Blogosphere: How PR Practitioners Are End-Running Professional Journalists and How We Should Respond
Story by Eugenia Highland
During this session, the panelists talked about how public relations professionals use social media for communicating directly with the public and how should journalists react towards this. The speakers focused on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and organizations' web sites as the most common streams of social media. Kara Allison, government and community relations practice leader of Hull & Associates, began the session talking about her professional experience using social media — specifically blogs — to communicate directly with employees and community members. One of her examples of a successful result using social media was for the closing process of a GM plant. The community around the plant was the most directly impacted, through lost jobs. Allison emphasized that being open and honest with the community through the blog helped it feel more involved throughout the process and gave it hope about the future.
Frank Walter, senior vice president of Environics Communications, said he likes to think of social media as an opportunity or a toolbox for information distribution. He referred to blogs as challenging for reporters because blogs are full of opinions but with the big advantage of having an intense interaction with the public. He said there is a lot of competition in the environmental area and that industries are using very sophisticated and strong online campaigns. PR practitioners are using these tools to communicate with the audience but without excluding the media as their main source of information.
The last speaker was Diane Farsetta, a senior researcher in the Center for Media and Democracy. Her work focuses in following how the PR industry tries to manipulate public opinion regarding environment issues. She said it is very difficult for the average person to understand what's going on in the environment, so it is important to correctly decode this information for them. She talked about misleading online practices like fake blogs and false testimonials. She gave examples of how companies use online media to clean their bad environmental reputation as well as promoting global warming skepticism.
In terms of social media focused on the environment, the panelists agreed that there is still a lot to do. There is much concern about this issue and the Internet can be used to give both accurate and misleading information because it is easy, free and very efficient. The speakers recommended being completely certain of the transparency of a social media's sources as a way of avoiding misleading information.
Concurrent Sessions 4: THE CLIMATE: Taking Some Temperatures: What Will Climate Change Mean for the Great Lakes?
Story by Crystal Gammon
When climate change touches the Great Lakes, the name of the game will be adaptation — not mitigation. Most climate models predict a temperature rise of 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, but that number could decrease to 3.2 degrees with proactive federal and municipal policies, according to science and policy experts from the region. "That's the best case scenario ... and that's the best that mitigation can do," said John Magnuson, an emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "We're just beginning to see adaptation put onto the table."
Adapting to rising air and water temperatures and increased rain events will be the Great Lakes region's biggest challenge, according to James Bruce of the International Joint Commission, a Canadian and U.S. organization focused on boundary waters issues. These trends will likely bring toxic algal blooms, leading to low-oxygen "dead zones" and frequent fish kills, increased contaminant and nutrient runoff into the lakes, decreased water quality, and more frequent flooding events. For example, the town of Gays Mills in southern Wisconsin recently relocated to a higher, drier elevation after repeated flooding frustrated residents. Other adaptation strategies include diverting storm runoff from the lakes by creating wetlands and rain gardens, as well as using rain barrels to catch excess rainwater from intense storm events, said Emily Green, who works with the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program.
"There are a heck of a lot of things that I call 'no-regrets actions' that we could be taking right now," said Green. "These are things we can do now — that we should do anyway — that will help us deal with the consequences of climate change."
Another essential adaption strategy will require making use of the region's renewable energy resources. Offshore wind power in the Great Lakes is one potential option; winds across the lakes are rated Class 5 and 6, which means they are as powerful as those that blow across the Great Plains region, said Green. "This doesn't mean we'd have windmills all over the Great Lakes," she said. In fact, windmills across 0.5% of Lake Michigan's surface could cover a substantial amount of Milwaukee's power needs.
Funds to cover these adaptation strategies will likely come from both the United States and Canadian governments, and Green and Bruce said they'd be happy to see a "bidding war" between the countries in dedicating funds to address problems in the region. The Obama administration is moving forward in these efforts — it has already pledged stimulus funds to help Milwaukee deal with combined sewer overflow into Lake Michigan — and Bruce said he is hopeful that the initiative "slops over into Canada."
Meanwhile, scientists caution that we don't yet know the exact consequences of climate change in the region. "When we look at some of the more regional effects and specific impacts, some of the scientific questions are still open," said Brent Lofgren, a physical scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. For example, scientists have used only one computer model to examine the effects of climate change on the Great Lakes region.
Still, said Green, "That's absolutely no reason to not take action." She said that urgency is the most important message to communicate to policy makers and the public. "We know what to do and what the problems are, but we have a discrete window of time in which we need to take action," she said. "And I'm not sure the community as a whole knows what that window is."
Concurrent Sessions 4: ENERGY: Getting Green Power to the People: Transmission Lines and the Environment
Concurrent Sessions 4: NATURAL RESOURCES AND WILDLIFE: Fishing for Clean Fish and Hunting for Safe Treaty Resources
Story by Erin Kapp
Panelists discussed the efforts of Native American tribes to achieve environmental goals, including clean air and clean water, using their treaty rights with the federal government.
Richard Monette, University of Wisconsin-Madison law professor and director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center, gave examples of some relevant cases where Native American tribes brought lawsuits for environmental reasons.
Jeffrey Crawford, attorney general of the Forest County Potawatomi Community, discussed the degree to which litigation on behalf of treaty rights has been successful and the resentment that the assertion of treaty rights sometimes engenders among non-Natives, including those whose goals would otherwise align with those of the tribe.
Paul DeMain, the managing editor of News from Indian Country, reviewed recent examples of Native American involvement in environmental issues and discussed why the treaty rights assertion and/or litigation is necessary. He also talked about the recent increased involvement of Native Americans in state-level policymaking in Wisconsin.
Charlie Rasmussen of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission briefly discussed the commission's role, included mention of the recent upswing in concern over the preservation of water and water-related resources, and described some recent developments in cooperation between the tribes, the United States Forest Service and the state of Wisconsin.
Topics during the Q&A session included how treaty rights change depending on whether a Native American is on or off a tribe's reservation, how the panelists saw the tribes' roles in future environmental initiatives, and how the tribes interact with environmental advocacy coalitions.
Concurrent Sessions 4: POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: Measure It Again: Air Pollution and the EPA Toxics Program
Story by Eric Verbeten
With thousands of identified hazardous and carcinogenic toxic substances produced by industry, the EPA faces a daunting challenge to track pollution and protect the well-being of our citizens. Although these toxics are dangerous to everyone, children face the worst threat because of their age and rapid growth.
The panel discussion began with Linda Mathews, senior enterprise editor for USA Today, describing her participation in a project which traveled to several schools nationwide to measure the air quality. Its objective was to assess potential airborne hazards due to nearby industry. Chet Wayland, director of the US EPA's Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, followed by detailing the EPA's own air quality survey conducted at schools nationwide. The EPA's monitoring initiative was announced in March 2009 with 65 schools planned for initial air quality screenings.
The EPA posts its findings on its website www.epa.gov/schoolair. University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Sharon Dunwoody spoke about communicating results like these and addressing public issues of risk and uncertainty. Lastly, staff attorney at Earthjustice James Pew discussed the early history of the EPA and the many hurdles the organization had to overcome. The EPA's methods have since improved, as well as its recognition as a strong environmental force.
Concurrent Sessions 4: AGRICULTURE: Climate Change and Agriculture: How Are We Going To Feed a Growing Population on a Hotter Planet?
Story by Jenny Seifert
According to Philip Brasher, the session moderator, current estimates show that we need to double our food production on a global scale to keep up with population growth. This panel addressed the scientific, economic and policy implications surrounding this challenge.
Claudia Ringler, an economist with the International Food Policy Research Institute, expressed the need to change policies that address not only climate change, but also the host of other stresses on agriculture: a growing population, changes in dietary preferences, and a decline in agricultural research, among others. She spoke extensively on the difficulties that the developing world will face. According to Ringler, the Asian Pacific will be hit the hardest by climate change, and overall, the most vulnerable people will have the least access to food. To address this, we need to invest in policies that will focus on long term investments and adaptation, such as encouraging agricultural research and development, increasing rural infrastructure and rural services, and providing money for infrastructure that will facilitate higher crop yield.
Jerry Hatfield, a scientist at US Department of Agriculture's National Soil Tilth Laboratory and a specialist in the agronomics of climate change, spoke on the biological impacts of climate change on crops. He emphasized that we need to factor in all the changes brought about by climate change — changes in temperature, precipitation and carbon dioxide. He stated that we are moving into a climate with more variability, which wreaks havoc on crops. Also, he warned that we must not forget the indirect impacts of climate change, such as increased difficulties with weeds, insects and diseases, which could adversely affect crop yield significantly.
Dave Miller, a farmer and the director of Research and Commodity Services with the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, answered the question of what is necessary to feed the world in 2050, which he reframed as a question of what people will eat. Data suggests that people will be eating more cereals and meat — what they want to eat, rather than what they are being told to eat. He emphasized the need for policies that stimulate investments in agriculture to increase yield, giving the example of improved corn yields as a result of investments brought about by biofuel policy. In the short run, he said we need to stimulate productive capacity in technology and investment. He also warned against sacrificing agricultural production in the name of greenhouse gas reductions. "We need conservation, not preservation," he said, alluding to the need to create more productive working lands to feed the growing population.
Bill Hohenstein, director of the USDA's Global Change Program, spoke on the federal government's strategies to address the food and population dilemma. He said mitigation policies require national and international coordination, while adaptation policies must be on a regional level, because impacts are localized. He also said that impacts are going to be disproportionate in developing countries, with implications for food security. The first focus, according to Hohenstein, must be on long-term capital investment and improvements in agricultural infrastructure, such as improving water management in the West. There is also a focus on improving productivity and distribution, improving outreach and market access, a commitment to global food security, and an emphasis on private sector investment.
The question-and-answer session focused on the need to make improvements in several areas: extension services both nationally and internationally, productivity in the developing world, and the health of soil as a mitigation strategy. Also discussed were carbon offsets and the difficulty with energy efficiency in the farming community, and whether agriculture can become carbon neutral by 2030.
Story by Arezu Sarvestani
Andrew Revkin (Environment Reporter, The New York Times) moderated a discussion with Jane Lubchenco (Undersecretary of Commerce, Oceans and Atmosphere, and Administrator, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and Jonathan Lash (President, World Resources Institute) to discuss varying perceptions on climate change and the potential for progress toward a greener future.
Jane Lubchenco talked about environmental surprises that require attention, apart from global warming. Such surprises include the weakening of coastal upwelling that has been leading to the emergence of dead zones at an alarming rate. She argued that focusing on areas that we understand more fully could help us protect important ecosystems, to ensure that they are able to adapt to the coming climate changes.
Jonathan Lash insisted that climate change is the single most important issue of our times, and that legislative action is necessary to incentivize green technology. Private investment, Lash said, will create the market for innovation that will give corporations the justification they need to proceed with research and development.
Panelists agreed that a revolution toward greener and cleaner technology is just a matter of time. While economic downturns have been a sizeable obstacle, there is no doubt that the future will be independent of fossil-fuel dependencies.
- Plenary description and speakers.
- Video: "Al Gore delivers SEJ keynote Oct 9, 2009 in Madison, WI"
- Audio files: Part 1/Gore's talk and Q&A (MP3/16.9MB) and Part 2 (MP3/14MB) . Gore on Obama (MP3/0.9MB).
- Unedited video of the Gore-McAleer exchange on Vimeo and YouTube. Recorded by University of Wisconsin AV Services for SEJ.
- "SEJ Accused of Protecting Gore," Columbia Journalism Review, October 12, 2009.
- "Polar bears? Censorship? Al Gore, Phelim McAleer Joust at Enviro Journalism Conference," unofficial SEJ conference blog, October 10, 2009, by SEJ board member Tim Wheeler.
- "Gore Upbeat on Climate Bill," Wisconsin State Journal, October 10, 2009
- "Al Gore Delivers Speech to Science Journalists in Madison," Channel 3000, October 10, 2009
- "Gore Expects New Treaty out of Climate Summit," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 9, 2009
Story by Lynne Peeples
Pressure on the world's forests is heating up. Wildfires, damaging winds and tree-munching insects are increasing alongside global temperatures. Three forestry experts discussed the range of impacts — both direct and indirect — that climate change is currently waging on trees, how the shrinking number of trees around the world is escalating climate change, and what humans can do to slow down this destructive cycle.
"These issues are all related to climate change. There are no ifs, ands or buts about it," said John Pineau, executive director of the Canadian Institute of Forestry. "But good forest management, done right, can mitigate climate change."
That smart management includes not only stopping human impacts on the forests, but also helping forests deal with the changing environment. "We need to give nature a helping hand in many respects," said Pineau. He focused on the role of education and money, stressing the need for more young people interested in forest careers, as well as financial incentives for their parents.
Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative and a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, agreed with the importance of economics in attempts to save the world's tropical forests. He discussed a new set of policies packaged as the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation initiative, which aims to deal with tropical deforestation through compensation. "Trees need to be worth more standing than cut down," he said. While tropical countries are "nearly invisible" among the world's players in fossil fuel emissions, their role in deforestation is "essentially the mirror image," Boucher said. But there is some good news. Given their current reductions, Brazil is on its way to surpassing goals of 50 percent reductions in deforestation by 2020 and "net-zero" (deforestation equaling re-growth) by 2030.
In the U.S., we often only hear about our forests when they catch fire, noted Michael Dombeck, former chief of the U.S. Forest Service and professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. And, now, more of us are seeing these fires firsthand. The wildland-urban interface has evolved significantly over the last 50 years, as more people have moved into subdivisions, butting their homes up against forests. In addition to improved zoning to lessen these risks, Dombeck also emphasized the potential benefits of revitalizing programs like those in the Civilian Conservation Corps era, including prevention and restoration. He said a change in mindset is also essential to solving the problem. "Part of the challenge," said Dombeck, "is keeping people connected with nature in an increasingly urban world."
Concurrent Sessions 1: THE ECONOMY: The Economics of Climate Change: Can We Afford To Respond? Can We Afford Not To?
Story by Jenny Seifert
In an effort to mimic the conversation between the scientist and the journalist, Frank Ackerman, an economist and professor at Tufts University, and John Carey, senior correspondent at BusinessWeek, discussed whether the world can afford to eliminate climate change-causing emissions, and whether the cost-benefit analysis is even appropriate to use in the climate change economic debate.
Ackerman presented the newly released report "The Economics of 350: Can We Afford to Respond to Climate Change?" which examines the affordability of reducing emissions to the target of 350 parts per million (ppm) at a global scale. The report is based on a finding of NASA chief James Hansen that realistic climate protection requires not a halt at 450ppm, but a reduction to 350 ppm — a reduction from the world's current 390 ppm — by the end of this century. The report addresses several economic misconceptions, he said. It concludes that the world economic output necessary to achieve the 350 ppm target is a mere two percent — a percentage almost equivalent to the annual economic growth in the United States (2.5%). On the feasibility of developing the technology needed to achieve these reductions, Ackerman reminded us how far computer technology has come in only 50 years.
Carey challenged the validity of using a cost-benefit analysis due to a lack of adequate analysis by journalists of the varied results of numerous existing studies, as well as journalists' failure to analyze the claims of the economics of climate change. He argued that we have no way of knowing if some of the numbers are accurate because they assume technologies that don't exist yet, and thus we have to move on from our fixation on the numbers of the cost debate. Ackerman admitted that the cost-benefit analysis has an "undeservedly good name" and a better question for people to ponder is cost effectiveness.
The session seemed to conclude that, despite many uncertainties around analyzing costs of strategies to eliminate emissions, we certainly can't afford to do nothing.
Concurrent Sessions 1: THE WATER: Hitching a Ride: Aquatic Invasives and the Bad Ballast that Brought Them
Story by Scott Bembenek
The topic of aquatic invasive species was discussed, in particular the zebra and quagga mussels and the Asian and silver carp. These species have caused an unprecedented amount of damage to the Great Lakes and the Great Lakes Region — roughly $400 million a year — since the 1970s. Without proper regulation and legislation, they could turn the Great Lakes ecology upside down, panel members agreed. "Roughly 40 percent of the Great Lakes invasives have come from incoming ships through ballast water exchange," said Marc Gagnon, Director of Government Affairs and Regulatory Compliance for Fednav Limited. In 1995, roughly one billion gallons of ballast water were exchanged from ships. Ships need the ballast water because, when they unload cargo, they would capsize without it.
Regulations have been put in place to clean up the ballast water before it gets dispersed from the ships. Ballast water exchange and ballast water flushing are the current standards ship crews need to follow to dispose of their ballast water. Pandora's Locks author Jeff Alexander said, "These two techniques have shown to get rid of 95 to 98 percent of species on board."
"The Coast Guard is pushing for stricter measurements. New ballast water treatment systems are being developed and six methods seem to work," Gagnon said. However, the shipping industry refuses to use them because the US Coast Guard might be changing ballast water standards soon. Cindy Kolar, Assistant Program Coordinator for the Invasive Species Program, agreed saying, "Ship industries don't want to invest millions of dollars into treatment systems if they aren't consistent with international regulations."
The Asian and silver carp are set to enter the Great Lakes through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal soon, but regulations are being put in place to help prevent it from happening. Currently, the canal has electric fields in place to deter the carp from swimming upstream and entering the Great Lakes. Dr. Phil Moy, Fisheries and Invasive Species Specialist, said, "The carp eat the same thing as the zebra and quagga mussels. If introduced, it would be like adding 100 pound mussels to the lakes." The longitudinal value of the electric fields isn't promising, as there are ways fish can get around them.
Topics covered in the questions-and-answers portion include algae blooms, Chesapeake Bay concerns, Coast Guard regulations, Asian carp numbers in the Chicago Canal, numbers of eggs carp lay, consequences of carp entering the Great Lakes, Chicago flowage diversion, and what are effective new ballast water treatment systems.
Story by Crystal Gammon
Nearly a year after the disastrous Kingston, Tenn., coal ash spill, new legislation may threaten the profitability of coal-powered electricity generation in the U.S. "Before Tennessee Valley Authority spill in Kingston, we didn't know locations and quantities of ash waste from mining," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. Coal-fired power facilities are now required to disclose the locations and volumes of coal ash holding ponds — more than 2,000 of them are located across the country. Additionally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified high-risk holding-pond dams and, most importantly, made this information publicly available. The U.S. EPA is set to decide soon whether to regulate coal ash as a hazardous waste — a likely contentious policy change that would mean federal enforcement and inspection authority, disposal area identification, and state monitoring program requirements, said Evans.
The decisions to impose tougher regulations on coal-fired power plants involve a number of cost-benefit analyses, not least of which should be the toll taken on the health of people living in Appalachian mining towns, according to Michael Hendryx, the research director at the Institute for Health Policy at West Virginia University. The risks of drinking coal-ash contaminated water are grave: a child drinking arsenic-tainted water, a common contaminant in the wells of coal mining communities, has a 1 in 50 risk of developing cancer, said Evans — a risk much higher than that of someone smoking a pack of cigarettes a day over the same period, which is about 1 in 1,000. A recent study based in Ontario, Canada, also found that health risks associated with particulate matter exposure from coal combustion exceeded the power generation savings. As a result, Ontario plans to phase out permits for coal-fired power plants.
The short-term economic benefits of cheap electricity generation are difficult to overlook, according to Jeff Holmstead, a former lobbyist and attorney with Bracewell & Giuliani LLP. "Affordable, reliable power provides huge benefits to society, and you have to look at these benefits as well," said Holmstead. Modern amenities such as air conditioning rely largely upon coal power, and they too provide health benefits. "It's a useful academic exercise, but it's very difficult and controversial to assign a price to all the externalities," said Holmstead. He predicts that coal will play an even larger role in the world's energy generation as developing countries continue to expand their economies, and that it will be very hard for those countries to develop beyond poverty without burning coal.
Still, the short-term benefits to reducing coal use are equally concrete. Climate change and carbon emissions aside, said Hendryx, "I'm not interested in dying prematurely so that someone's electricity bill can be cheap."
Concurrent Sessions 1: NATURAL RESOURCES AND WILDLIFE: Wolf Delisting and the ESA in a New Administration
Story by Katie Boseo
Wolves in the Great Lakes region have been passed back and forth between delisting and relisting on the endangered species list by the federal government due to growing conflict between state wildlife management agencies and environmental organizations. In addition, wolves in the Northern Rockies are temporarily off the endangered species list, but could be relisted if environmental group complaints reach legislation.
In March 2009, wolves were removed from the list, but were relisted in July 2009 after environmental groups filed complaints claiming that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had not give the public adequate time to comment on the delisting. Federal court judges will then determine if wolves in the Great Lakes region will remain on the list.
While the wolves remain listed, it is illegal to control them through lethal measures for both state agencies and citizens. This poses significant problems for farmers and ranchers who are affected by wolf predation on their livestock.
Minnesota farmer David Radaich has more than 300 Angus cattle and loses one to five calves to predation annually, but says his biggest problem is neospora, a protozoan parasite that travels through the bloodstream of coyotes and wolves and can be spread to house pets and cattle. When a wolf with neospora excretes in grazing areas, cattle can pick up the parasite and pass it on to other livestock in their herd and those downstream. Neospora causes abortion in cattle and Radaich said he loses two to seven calves to abortion every year. If wolves stay listed, Radaich said, he can't take measures necessary to insure his cattle — and his family's livelihood.
Adrian Wydeven, a mammalian ecologist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, believes wolves in the Great Lakes region need to be delisted in order to give power to state agencies dealing with problem wolves.
Wolves have recovered markedly in the Great Lakes region, with surveys showing 2,921 wolves in Minnesota, 537 in Wisconsin and 520 in Michigan, Wydeven said. He said in Wisconsin they are well beyond recovery populations, with 75 "problem wolves" removed through various means.
In the Northern Rockies, which includes Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, north-central Utah, and the eastern third of Washington and Oregon, wolves have been removed from the list and management is turned over to state governments. However, Wyoming will remain under federal protection until officials propose a wolf management plan acceptable to USFWS.
In June 2009, the Defenders of Wildlife and 12 other conservation organizations filed a lawsuit against the FWS with the goal of reversing the delisting in the Northern Rockies.
"We work with livestock operators to develop proactive measures to deal with predators. We have also advocated for wolf restoration and measures to protect wolves and when necessary, gone to court to do that," said senior vice president of conservation programs at Defenders of Wildlife.
Concurrent Sessions 1: POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: 6.8 Billion Reasons to Ask: Population, Pollution and Human Health
Story by Nathan Hebert
Global warming, water shortages, and pollution are regularly covered by the media. But the root cause of these issues, world population, is rarely connected to them. For every step forward in reducing our per capita environmental footprint, new sets of feet mean we make little progress. Sometimes referred to as the world's most intractable problem, starting a street-level public dialectic on world population issues has faced daunting challenges. Cultural, political, financial, and even journalistic impediments stand in the way.
According to figures cited by the panel, the population of Earth must be reduced to two billion people in order for everyone to maintain a sustainable lifestyle on par with that of western Europe today. To address this challenge, the pollution and environmental heath panel calls for a worldwide reassessment of personal values as they relate to population increases and energy consumption, as well as drastic increases in the funding of neglected family planning programs. Their ultimatum: we can all live in a world of 10 billion people leading the Ethiopian lifestyle or 2 billion enjoying the one we lead now.
- Session description and speakers.
- Audio file (MP3/14.8MB)
- Video of panelist Timothy Wheeler, Baltimore Sun reporter, by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Environmental Change and Security Program.
Story by Jamie Fisher
Where does the balance lie between the need to conserve land and the pressure to produce biofuels on U.S. farms? The Conservation Reserve Program currently sets aside more than 30 million acres of farmland to protect vulnerable terrain, decrease erosion, protect the habitat of wildlife and more. The issue today revolves around that number and whether future policy will pull farmland out of the program to be developed for biofuel production.
Panel participants Scott McLeod, Paul Johnson and Brian Jennings brought varied perspectives from the industries involved and discussed viable options for the future of the CRP. Conversation points included the past successes of the CRP in conservation efforts, the evolution of the goals of the CRP and future benefits it can bring, the need for innovation and collaboration within the program, and the enforcement of policy within the guidelines of the CRP.
Story by Steve Furay
With the economics of journalism industry in flux, market forces are changing the ways that news coverage is delivered to its audience. Economists have been increasing their involvement in the way that news gets reported and delivered to audiences with the hope of creating a thriving business model to carry the industry well into the 21st Century. Non-profit organizations, community-based journalism and increasingly partisan media outlets have all begun to increase their share of the market during these turbulent times for journalism.
The issue of climate change offers a unique challenge for media outlets who work to provide coverage relevant to their audiences. Investigative reporting on issues of the environment requires a rigorous amount of reporting that can occur on a global scale, a challenge even in the most prosperous financial markets. Also, audiences have proven that in general they are not wide seekers of information about climate change, based on the complexities of the issues and their lack of proximity to the problems. Future media models must find a balance between in-depth reporting and packaging this coverage in a marketable manner.
Story by Arezu Sarvestani
Lisa Friedman of ClimateWire led the panelists in a discussion of the threats that climate change poses, but with a focus on humans as a vulnerable population. It is expected that human migration patterns are going to change faster and for larger populations than ever before, as people flee areas that are no longer hospitable to their lifestyles. Retired Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn of the US Navy talked about areas of concern for the US military, especially in regard to places of political and social unrest. Geoffrey Dabelko invited listeners to view climate change as a stressor on existing social and economic conflicts, rather than as a new and isolated crisis, and Dennis Dimick, executive editor of National Geographic, insisted that the United States is not invulnerable.
The panel touched on reasons that the public may feel distanced from the global warming debate. Vice Admiral McGinn spoke of the uncertainty that we face about climate systems. Alluding to his experience in the Navy, he explained that there is no absolute certainty on the battlefield, and yet decisions must be made and action must be taken to avoid catastrophe. Friedman posed a challenge to local media to find ways to make the climate issue local, and convey to the local community the real and personal impact that climate change will have.
Concurrent Sessions 2: THE ECONOMY: Grading Green Jobs, Energy Independence and the Stimulus Package
Story by Scott Bembenek
Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law and Policy Center, and Mark Wagner, vice president for Government Relations for Johnson Controls, conducted a heated debate with Dan Miller, vice president and publisher for The Heartland Institute, about the American Economy and the proposal of green jobs.
The new green jobs will be developed on three different levels, according to Learner. Manufacturing and installation jobs will result directly and crew jobs will result indirectly from the green movement. The creation of wind blades will create manufacturing jobs because the blades are too large to make and ship from foreign nations, so windmill installation creates jobs in America. Jobs occur indirectly, for instance, when high-speed rails are developed and people travel from city to city with increased mobility.
Johnson Controls, Wagner said, has recently built a warehouse where they develop lithium-ion batteries for cars. He said his new plant will create 500 new jobs in Michigan alone.
The panel argued whether the creation of new jobs is really productive. Miller said that just because new jobs are being created with government funding, it doesn't mean the jobs are entirely productive. He said jobs are being spurred by the government rather than consumers.
Story by Jackie Lutze
"Coming up to a beach we visited for years, my family noticed that where we used to lay on the beach, it was now covered with algae. I didn’t want my family swimming in the contaminated water," said Jeff Alexander, author of Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes St. Lawrence Seaway, and media consultant for the National Wildlife Federation.
Around Alexander's beloved Great Lakes, where there used to be clean water and native species, there is now sewage and invasions of quagga mussels. This is why the funding is finally coming for restoration of the Great Lakes, he said.
The funding plan focuses on concerns such as toxic substances, invasive species, and water pollution. The money is now there but involvement is needed to make something happen. Cameron Davis, senior advisor to the Administrator, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said "It is not just a federal job to restore and protect the Great Lakes."
Outside sources such as ballast water from ships are issues that require community and business collaboration. Funding alone cannot fix this problem, the panelists agreed.
If the lakes continue on their current path, severe consequences are coming. Jane Elder, president of Jane Elder Strategies and founder of the Sierra Club's Great Lakes Program, said research shows the Great Lakes could drop five feet by the end of the century, meaning loss of habitat for fish and eroded beach shores. Alexander said, "To think we can change the lakes over night is naïve. It's a process."
Story by Nathan Hebert
Vice President of Policy and Environment for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers Tom Huffaker faced opposition from two sides during this panel discussion on the increasing exploitation of Canadian tar sands. Canada is now the single largest exporter of oil and related products to the U.S., but their economic boom is burdened with the cost of using energy intensive methods to extract heavy oil from a source that environmental writer Andrew Nikiforuk compares to dirty asphalt.
During the debate, Director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Midwest Program Henry Henderson and Nikiforuk cite information on the environmental and health impacts of tar sand production that in some cases diverges radically with those Huffaker counters with.
"We're talking about industrializing an area the size of Florida," says Nikiforuk about tar sand mining development plans in Alberta. Huffaker responds that the area is closer in size to Tampa, which prompts Henderson to ask, "Do you think we're crazy or something?"
Both sides agree that the limited number of studies that address the environmental impacts of tar sand exploitation are fraught with uncertainties, and call for more conclusive research. Likewise, the panel uniformly supports a North American carbon tax, the adoption of a low carbon standard, and movement away from a mobile fuel economy toward a more stable one that utilizes multiple energy resources.
Concurrent Sessions 2: NATURAL RESOURCES: Deadly Beetles and The Fab Four: Biological Helter Skelter
Story by Katie Boseo
In 2002, the emerald ash borer was discovered in Detroit. The beetle has spread to 12 other states and is decimating the population of ash trees at an astonishing rate.
When the beetle was discovered, there was no scientific research on the beetle, since in its native home of Asia, it is not a destructive pest. Working with basically no scientific data, the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service began conducting surveys of dead and declining ash trees and then studying those trees, which attract the beetle. The trees can then be cut down, the bark stripped and the beetle's infestation can be studied.
Paul Chaloux, emerald ash borer program director for the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, said the service developed purple prism traps that attract both the beetle and public attention — which increases public awareness.
Dan Herms, an extension researcher and professor at Ohio State University, said that the beetle has already killed tens of millions of ash trees and affected all forest types. In addition, when ash trees die, invasive plant species take their place in the forest. He noted several methods of fighting the beetle are being developed.
Though scientific inquiry into finding a solution for the beetle problem is vital, public education and awareness of the beetle is essential to prevent a greater spread, panelists agreed. The public is advised to not move firewood from where they purchase it and many states are under quarantine so that ash trees and wood cannot be moved across county lines.
Amy Stone, Ohio State University extension outreach coordinator, said the beetle affects homeowners with ash trees in their yards and communities at large, increasing utility bills as shade trees are lost and raising water bills because of increased watering needs for lawns due to shade loss.
According to Chaloux, a study published in the Journal of Ecological Economics indicated 25 states could be affected over the next five years by the beetle. The conservative cost estimate for the treatment, removal, and replacement of ash trees in those states would be around $10.7 billion over the next ten years.
Concurrent Sessions 2: POLLUTION AND ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH: Green Chemistry, Nanotech and More: The Promise and Perils
Story by Eugenia Highland
During this session, the panelists talked about the realities around green chemistry, its meaning and what science, education and policy are doing to promote and encourage it. Amy Cannon, executive director of Beyond Benign, introduced the session with an overview about green chemistry. She said scientists have done amazing things to help clean our environment but before green chemistry, chemists did not play a role in this process. Green chemistry identifies chemists with a crucial role in identifying hazards. Over time, chemists have taken big decisions in creating a design — decisions that had to do with different characteristics and materials — but they never had to question toxicity or environmental impact. Cannon said that thanks to green chemistry, chemists are capable of designing with different criteria, reducing health hazards and environmental impact. She said green chemistry provides an environmental benefit, which makes products safer with much better performance and a low economic cost. She said we are still learning to introduce these criteria within chemistry education in the United States.
Her presentation was followed by Robert Israel, director of global product responsibility for JohnsonDiversey. He said sustainable chemical management goes beyond chemicals. Their purpose is to protect the living, conserve our planet and help JohnsonDiversey change its industry. Israel emphasized that sustainability has to be factored into all operations: the cleaning & hygiene industry, chemical management (green chemistry), product regulation (considering banned chemicals), and product certification. He said they want their entire portfolio to be under these characteristics: products safe for health and environment, low cost and eco-efficient. Green chemistry plays a huge part in these.
The last speaker was Tracey Easthope, the environmental health director of The Ecology Center in Michigan. She gave an overview on how concern and awareness about green chemistry developed in the state. She said something crucial in this development was the connection of residents with their land and resources. In 2008 the state found money for an action plan for Michigan. Tracey explained that, as part of the awareness action plan, the Michigan Green Chemistry Award was created involving the community, students, education programs and businesses. Putting knowledge into action, Green Up Michigan Green Chemistry Conference was created. Tracey also talked about the Green Chemistry Education Network as a way of promoting green chemistry in education. She concluded that the next steps are technology transfer, developing a resource clearinghouse, education, funding, and economic development.
In conclusion, the speakers agreed on what "being green" involves. The entire cycle of product creation has to be under green chemistry criteria and the product has to be sustainable (reducing package, energy and waste). They emphasized the importance of transparency for the public within this process. They agreed that India and China have impressive programs in green chemistry and the speakers urged the United States to take action in this matter. They said it is not a surprise that the countries ahead of the U.S. in green chemistry education are the same ones suffering the consequences of consumption.
Concurrent Sessions 2: THE CRAFT: Telling Environment Stories Better — Especially Now That Times Are Worse
Story by Heather Akin
Telling environmental stories has never been an easy task. And changes in the media and economic climate have made a journalist's job even more challenging. Frank Edward Allen, a long-time reporter at The Wall Street Journal and founding president of the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources (IJNR), shared his strategies for adapting to this changing landscape while maintaining the important journalistic standards of accuracy, clarity, and fairness.
Even with the paradox of the Internet's unlimited space yet seemingly lower standards, Allen insists that journalists must keep the best of the craft to win readers' attention and editors' trust. He detailed several ways to demonstrate creativity and flexibility in constructing narratives. When in doubt while conceptualizing a story, first consider your story's thesis statement. If there is too much complexity, one story could be transformed into three (and equivalently three paychecks!). Consider approaching your story from an outside or unexpected point of reference. And, profiles with anecdotal examples can make a compelling environmental story.
As threatening as the Internet may seem, it can also allow for creativity in story structure. Allen noted that reporters today must be more agile, using photos, audio, or video to enrich a story. Nevertheless, he believes that even with the competitiveness of the Internet, people will never lose their love for reading and participation in a narrative. The world will always need good storytellers.
- Scenes from Necedah NWR and the International Crane Foundation, a summary by tour leader and SEJ member Matt Mendenhall.
This tour discussed prospects for building wind turbines in the Great Lakes; toured a nationally known carbon-capture demonstration project at a We Energies coal-fired power plant; looked at a methane-to-energy project built by S.C. Johnson; and visited Johnson Controls' HEV lab to check out next-generation batteries for hybrid electric vehicles, including a plug-in HEV announced this year by Ford Motor Co. Photo: Sean Black, of Alstom Power, speaks to SEJ tour members at the company's carbon capture pilot project at the Pleasant Prairie coal-fired power plant, outside of Milwaukee. Photo courtesy Peter Thomson.
- Tour description and speakers.
- Photos (by Peter Thomson).