ROANOKE, VA. – The annual fete and feast known to environmental reporters as the Society of Environmental Journalists’ annual conference this year offered some 800-plus attendees a diverse menu of climate change, coal, energy, and related morsels.

The October 15-19 field trips, roundtables, panels, and keynotes dealt extensively with the promises and challenges of coal mining, primarily through mountaintop removal, and of coal combustion in a carbon-constrained economy many see as inevitable in coming years.

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Energy expert Amory Lovins briefs journalists on “Winning the Oil … and Coal … Endgames”.

Amidst a consensus among speakers that anthropogenic climate change poses daunting worldwide challenges over coming decades, there appeared to be among many a sense that coverage of the issue overall has improved throughout the U.S. in recent years. At the same time, several speakers at various panels agreed that much of the media are still under-reporting what they referred to as “the scale” or magnitude of the challenges ahead.

Big Coal book author Jeff Goodell, for instance, cautioned reporters not to get lost in the trees of the climate challenge, reporting solely on “pennies per kilowatt hour or parts per million.” Calling climate change “the fundamental question of the 21st Century,” he cautioned that coal industry forecasts of vast increases in coal use over the next 20 years go “far beyond the dangerous threshold” cited by many climatologists.

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Mountaintop removal citizen activist Larry Gibson leads reporters on tour of iconic Kayford Mountain mine.

Questioning Peabody Energy’s Frederick Palmer about expansive plans for coal burning in China and India, A.P. reporter Seth Borenstein asked how continued construction of coal-burning power plants can be justified in a carbon-constrained society in the absence of proven and commercially viable carbon capture and sequestration/storage technology. With such technology still at least two decades off, Borenstein said, “I have teenagers. My kids tell me, ‘My friends take drugs.’” He said that excuse doesn’t justify ignoring behaviors of his own children, drawing an analogy with the U.S. and China and India.

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Where mountain tops once rose – the Samples Mine in West Virginia.

Palmer replied that the U.S. need not necessarily mimic overseas energy preferences but insisted, in effect, that things are the way they are: the Sun will rise in the East, and China and India will burn lots more coal.

Financial Collapse ‘A Major Distraction’

Addressing a small breakfast meeting of journalists and writers on October 17, a jet-lagged but cheery R.K Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, pointed to the U.S.’s and the world’s October financial collapse as “a major distraction” coming just at a time when the international community was gearing-up to address the climate challenge in concrete ways.

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2007 Nobel Larueate R.K. Pachauri of IPCC addresses SEJ keynote session.

“The U.S. has to lead in this area” once a new administration takes office in January, Pachauri said. In the meantime, Europe has to continue leading because “the wolf is still at the door” even though the climate change dialog, in the midst of the financial collapse, “is falling on deaf ears.”

Pachauri said he hopes the developed world soon will come to recognize the challenges and opportunities posed by climate change as leading to “a real opportunity to restructure our energy policies” and create new jobs in new-energy fields.

Pachauri credited journalists with having done “a remarkable job” in informing audiences of the climate change problem, but he too said the “scale” of the problem remains largely under-appreciated. “It’s in your hands,” he told reporters, “It’s serious all over the world.”

Joint Global Change Research Institute scientist J.J. Dooley addresses carbon capture and sequestration.

Asked what milestones he might look for from a new McCain or Obama administration, Pachauri said the U.S. inevitably will come to the table as “a declining superpower in relative terms.” But without meaningful and creative U.S. involvement, he said, potential market opportunities will be foregone.

In the early days of any new administration., Pachauri said he hopes the new President will make “a major new policy pronouncement” concerning cutting emissions by 2015 and convening key world leaders for a climate change summit, a step he said he considers important symbolically but also substantively.

Asked by one reporter what Pachauri, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his role with IPCC, would say to a new U.S. President in a 20-minute meeting, he replied, “If you have a heart in your body, you have a moral responsibility” to address climate change aggressively.

Asked to elaborate on his views of media coverage, he suggested that the media “paint the whole thing in hues that appeal to the public,” for instance by reporting on the importance of reducing oil imports. He said he “was strongly against nuclear power 10 years ago” but now is encouraged by improved technology advances. (At the same time, discussing nuclear waste storage and management, he pointed to the United Negro College Fund’s campaign slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” He recalled elevator graffiti saying “A waste is a terrible thing to mind.”)

Radio reporter interviews Wheeling Jesuit University’s Ben Stout on mountaintop removal practices.

Advice for Reporters ‘Parachuting in’
to Cover Coal Country

Counseling journalists new to the Virginia/West Virginia/Kentucky coal region on the intricacies of informed reporting on regional issues, local journalists and academics offered several practical tips:

  • Avoid the stereotypes so disrespectful of the culture and history of the region, a Radford University professor of Appalachian studies cautioned. She pointed with disdain to some media and some politicians’ snappy one-line put-downs.
  • Be sure to use a soft “a” in pronouncing Appalachia. It’s A P P A L A [soft as in apple, not hard as in ace] C H I A. Blowing that one inevitably casts a visiting reporter as a no-nothing “fly-by,” locals cautioned.
  • “If I read see the term ‘hardscrabble’ one more time, …” Charleston Gazette city editor Rob Byers cautioned, not needing to complete the sentence.

Amid the historic splendor of a grand-old Hotel Roanoke conference center and amidst the leaves-a-turning expansive Blue Ridge mountains – with extensive mountaintop removals all but invisible to many other than by aerial flyovers – the SEJ’s 18th annual convention discussions in some ways appeared at the surface to be oblivious to the sagging financial data emanating in particular from the Dow Jones Industrial Average and NASDAQ stats.

At the same time, many of the reporters and journalism hangers-on populating the attendance list acknowledged, albeit often privately, that the new and troubling economic realities pose new and daunting challenges to those reporting on climate change for general audiences, and also to those policy makers and policy advocates yearning for early and firm regulatory actions.

Dealing with those new financial, economic, and, indeed, newsroom and workplace realities is certain to be among the reporters’ and scientists’ consuming challenges between now and the next SEJ annual meeting, to be held at the University of Wisconsin in October 2009.

Image from SEJ Field Trip to Kayford Mountain

To get a sense of the October 16 mountaintop removal field trip from National Geographic‘s Dennis Dimick, “Almost Level 1: Cutting Down Mountains for Coal” go here. See what Dimick called “the awesome scale and horizon-to-horizon expanse of a mountaintop removal coal mine.” The view shows the Samples Mine near Kayford Mountain, West Virginia, near the property of iconic citizen activist Larry Gibson.

According to Dimick, the image consists of 27 separate exposures, merged into a single seamless image in Photoshop CS3. The image covers about 200 degrees angle of view. The original size image, measuring 39 inches wide by 9 inches deep and showing trucks, earth movers, and oil barrels, can be viewed here.

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Bud Ward

Bud Ward was editor of Yale Climate Connections from 2007-2022. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as assistant director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission...