Flight Plight: Why I Chose to Fly to an Environmental Journalism Conference
By John R. Platt
It's a cold Wednesday morning, and I'm standing in the dark outside a hotel waiting for my rideshare vehicle to arrive.
My phone chirps to let me know that an unusual car is about to pull up: a Tesla. The driver greets me, and I eagerly climb in the back seat — after I figure out how to open the door (the recessed, aerodynamic handles are just as novel to me as the rest of the car).
It's my first time riding in one of these all-electric luxury vehicles, and it's the first low-emissions leg of this week's travel for the Society of Environmental Journalists conference. As we silently pull away from the curb, I feel energized by the opportunity.
The day before had worn me out. Getting to Fort Collins from Portland, Oregon, isn't hard, but it's not exactly easy, either. First there was a cab from home to the airport (my wife had our only car that morning), followed by the flight itself. After that came a bus ride from Denver to Fort Collins that only got me to the outskirts of town. From there I hopped onto a smaller shuttle to my hotel.
The trip took most of the day. By the time I finally arrived at my hotel in early evening, I was tired, hungry, and feeling kind of anxious about all the greenhouse gas emissions produced during each leg of my trip.
I've been avoiding journeys like this because — like a lot of my friends and colleagues — I worry about their impact. Planes generate at least 2.5 percent of global emissions, according to Project Drawdown, and while there are much bigger contributors to climate change, air travel still represents a significant amount of risk to the planet, one that grows every year as the number of people flying increases.
I take that seriously. As an environmental journalist who writes about these issues all the time, I try to lead as low-impact a lifestyle as possible. I don't commute, we rarely eat out, we don't have kids, and we live fairly minimally. I even made the tough decision earlier this year to skip a vacation to see mountain gorillas in Africa because I couldn't justify the carbon emissions.
So given those concerns, why was I in Fort Collins?
The mountain gorilla vacation would have been an indulgence, something to do mostly because I could and not because I had to. The trip to Colorado, on the other hand, was work — and a chance to make a difference.
My research into flying also suggested that we probably don't need to worry too much about the occasional trip for business or family. Yes, science continues to reveal more about the harmful environmental impacts of air travel, and in fact we now know that airline emissions are worse than we realized, but the bulk of airline carbon emissions come from frequent fliers — about 12 percent of American airline passengers. Like the other 88 percent of us, I've never counted myself among that crowd. Travel to one conference isn't going to break my climate bank.
More broadly, I always try to keep in mind that that the vast majority of emissions come from just a handful of corporations, not individual people. Recent research estimates that 20 fossil fuel companies are responsible for one-third of all modern greenhouse gas emissions, and many of them — such as the currently on trial Exxon Mobil — have spent decades obfuscating their role in climate change and the danger it poses to the planet. I still take a great deal of personal responsibility for my actions and choices, but I also know who's generating the bulk of the problem.
That doesn't let the rest of us off the hook, but it certainly crystalizes the need to take broader societal action.
But here's the most important reason I flew to Fort Collins: The annual SEJ conference has always provided a great opportunity for me to be a better journalist. I typically attend every other year, and when I'm there I take full advantage of the panel discussions, plenaries, tours and other events to learn the latest information about environmental threats and the nuances involved in reporting about them correctly.
The conference has always led me to great stories. Those often start with the chance to see places, animals and people in person, feel the ground under my feet, hear the tone of voices and vocalizations, and observe body language. Good reporting means getting away from your desk and computer and seeing what's happening in the rest of the world.
You can't do any of that by email or phone.
(This year's most notable story in the making: I got to see a pair of critically endangered black-footed ferrets, which are even rarer than mountain gorillas. Stay tuned for more about them.)
Attending SEJ also allows me to meet fellow editors, staff and freelance journalists, expert sources and public information officers — relationships that pay off for years down the line. I still talk with and interview people I met at my first SEJ conference a decade ago.
The conferences give me a chance to share my expertise with other journalists, especially when it comes to endangered species and extinction.
Similarly, and perhaps surprisingly, this year also gave me the opportunity to talk to several people who had nothing to do with the conference — employees at the hotel, another rideshare driver and a group of students — who had deep, existential questions about environmental issues. Those questions had, in some cases, immobilized them. We had long conversations about their fears, and I feel we all came out of those talks feeling a bit better about the future.
So was the flight worth it? I'd say yes. When it all boils down, going to the conference this year gave me better tools to write about climate change, pollution, environmental justice and wildlife, and that outweighs the costs of my travel.
Of course, my flight plight was fairly specific. Not everyone has the freedom to pick and choose when they fly, and not everyone's job or family travels serve such a precise need or provide the same opportunities. I'm the rarity: It's literally my job to minimize my impact most of the time, while also occasionally going outside of my comfort zone to explore these tough questions and decisions — and to communicate their results to you.
I did investigate a few other ways to reduce my impact at this conference, including skipping the airplane. It's technically possible to drive or take a train from Portland to Denver — each trip would have taken about 20 hours, which would have extended my journey (and cut into my writing time) by several days. I could have even stayed home and livestreamed the few parts of the event that SEJ broadcasted live on Facebook. But then I couldn't have asked a tough question of acting BLM director William Perry Pendley, spent a night talking about climate reporting with a small group of journalists and scientists, or seen those black-footed ferrets and a dancing bison.
I also looked into carbon offsets, which supposedly counter out emissions from carbon-intensive activities like flying. Unfortunately, it now appears that many carbon offsets aren't all they're cracked up to be and don't do much that actually benefits the planet. That's a sad truth, and I hope the situation will improve, but for now offsets don't seem to be as effective or worthwhile as promised.
Even though that option seemed to be off the table, I tried a few of my own steps to "offset" my environmental impact on this particular journey. After I got home I made three equal donations — roughly the cost of my airline ticket — that I thought would pay off for the planet in the long run. The first went to SEJ itself, to support its efforts to further environmental journalism. The second when to biologist Stuart Pimm's nonprofit Saving Nature (formerly known as Saving Species), which I know from my reporting purchases land and restores critical habitat in Brazil and other countries. The third actually went to The Revelator's parent company, the Center for Biological Diversity, which puts its money where its mouth is to create this journalistic effort.
That's my way of investing in the future.
So those are the choices I explored and the decisions I made, all of which revealed something else to me: I'm just as capable of worrying myself into inertia as those students and hotel workers I met in Fort Collins. That anxiety has to stop. It serves no one except the corporations causing our problems in the first place. If we're terrified, exhausted and immobilized — if we think we can't make a difference — then we can't take any steps to learn more, hold the actual causes of our problems accountable, or demand progress and solutions from corporations and government.
And that, my friends, is the ultimate reason why I chose to fly this time. Now that my anxiety has passed, this trip is already paying off. I left Fort Collins feeling stronger than I did on my arrival, and that will give me the ability to keep fighting for our readers and for the planet for at least another 12 months. It might not have been the right decision for everyone, and it may not be the right decision for me a year from now, but it's the one that ultimately filled me with hope and direction. Those are things we all need.
Plus I got to see black-footed ferrets and ride in a Tesla.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
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What Is PTSD?<p><a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">PTSD</a> can occur when someone is exposed to extreme exposure traumatic experience. Typically, the trauma involves a threat of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Along with war veterans, it happens to refugees; to victims of gun violence, rape and other physical assaults; and to survivors of car accidents and natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes.</p><p>PTSD can also happen by witnessing trauma or its aftermath, often the case with <a href="https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd" target="_blank">first responders</a> and <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-many-faces-anxiety-and-trauma/202006/invisible-wounds-the-frontline-heroes" target="_blank">front-line workers</a>.</p><p>All this adds up to tens of millions of Americans. Up to 30% of combat veterans and first responders, and 8% of civilians, <a href="https://www.ptsd.va.gov/professional/treat/essentials/epidemiology.asp" target="_blank">fulfill the diagnostic criteria for PTSD</a>. And that criteria is not easily met: symptoms of PTSD include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive trauma memories, difficulty sleeping, avoidance of reminders of trauma, negative emotions, and what we call "hyperarousal symptoms."</p>
Fireworks Can Trigger Flashbacks<p>Hyperarousal, a core component of PTSD, occurs when a person is hyper-alert to any sign of threat – constantly on edge, easily startled and continuously screening the environment.</p><p>Imagine, for instance, stepping down the stairs in the dark after hearing a noise; you're worried an intruder might be downstairs. Then a totally unpredictable loud sound explodes right outside your window.</p><p>For people with PTSD, that sound – reminiscent of gunfire, a thunderstorm or a car crash – <a href="https://theconversation.com/veterans-refugees-and-victims-of-war-crimes-are-all-vulnerable-to-ptsd-130144" target="_blank">can cause</a> a panic attack or trigger flashbacks, a sensory experience that makes it seem as if the old trauma is happening here and now. Flashbacks can be so severe that combat veterans may suddenly drop to the ground, the same way they would when an explosion took place in combat. Later, the experience can trigger nightmares, insomnia or worsening of other PTSD symptoms.</p><p>Those of us who set off fireworks need to ask ourselves: Are those few minutes of fun worth the hours, days, or weeks of torment that will begin for some of our friends and neighbors – including many who put their lives on the line to protect us?</p>
Who Else Is Affected?<p>Millions of others, though not diagnosed with PTSD, may similarly be affected by fireworks. <a href="https://adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics" target="_blank">One in five Americans</a> have an anxiety disorder, many with symptoms of hyperarousal. Also impacted are those with autism or developmental disabilities; they find it difficult to cope with the noise, or just the drastic change from life routines. Then there are people who have to work, holiday or not: nurses, physicians and first responders, who have to be up at 4 a.m. for a 30-hour shift.</p><h3>How to Reduce the Negative Impact</h3><p>There are ways to reduce how fireworks affect others:</p><ul><li>For those with PTSD, the unexpected nature of fireworks is probably the worst part. So at least make it as predictable as possible. Do it in designated areas during designated times. Don't explode one, for instance, two hours after the designated time window. And avoid setting them off <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jul/04/fireworks-ptsd-fourth-of-july-veterans-shooting-survivors" target="_blank">on the 3rd</a>. People are less prepared then.</li><li>If you're aware that a veteran or trauma survivor lives in the neighborhood, move the noise as far as possible from their home and give them prior warning. Consider putting a sign in your front yard noting the time you'll set the fireworks.</li><li>Remember, it doesn't have to be super loud to make it fun. Consider using <a href="https://thehill.com/opinion/energy-environment/504964-its-time-for-silent-fireworks" target="_blank">silent fireworks</a>. And you don't have to be the one who lights the fireworks. Simply enjoy watching while your city or township does it safely.</li></ul>
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By Jeff Berardelli
For the past year, some of the most up-to-date computer models from the world's top climate modeling groups have been "running hot" – projecting that global warming may be even more extreme than earlier thought. Data from some of the model runs has been confounding scientists because it challenges decades of consistent projections.
International Effort to Evaluate Climate Models<p>For the past 25 years the international community has been evaluating and comparing the world's most sophisticated climate models produced by various teams at universities, research centers, and government agencies. The effort is organized by the World Climate Research Programme under the United Nations World Meteorological Organization.</p><p>Climate models are complicated computer programs composed of millions of lines of code that calculate the physical properties and interactions between the main climate forces like the atmosphere, oceans, and solar input. But models also go a lot further, incorporating other systems like ice sheets, forests, and the biosphere, to name a few. The models are then used to simulate the real-world climate system and project how certain changes, like added pollution or land-use changes, will alter the climate.</p><p>Every few years there is a new comprehensive international evaluation called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP). In the sixth such effort, known as CMIP6 and now under way, experts are reviewing about 100 models.</p><p>Information gleaned from this effort will act as a scientific foundation for the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) next major assessment report, scheduled for release in 2021. The goal of the report – the sixth in 30 years – is to inform the international community about how much the climate has changed, and, importantly, how much change can be expected in coming decades.</p>
A Conundrum Emerges<p>Over the past year, the CMIP6 collection of models being reviewed threw researchers an unexpected curveball: a significant number of the climate model runs showed substantially more global warming than previous model versions had projected. If accurate, the international climate goals would be nearly impossible to achieve, and there would be significantly more extreme impacts worldwide.</p><p>A foundational experiment in every report addresses "sensitivity": If you double levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) that were in the air before the Industrial Revolution, how much warming do the models show? This doubling is not expected for a few more decades, but it is a quick way to communicate the critical role of greenhouse gases in changing the climate.</p><p>The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by 35% since the 1800s because of the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, global temperatures have already increased by more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit.</p><p>In the first IPCC assessment report, published in 1990, the answer to that question about the impact of doubling carbon dioxide gave a fairly wide range of results – between 2.7-8 degrees F of global warming. Since then, four more assessments issued six to seven years apart reached nearly the exact same conclusion on sensitivity.</p><p>But that sensitivity may, for the first time, change significantly in next year's assessment. Why? Because starting last year, numerous models in the CMIP6 collection displayed even bigger spikes in temperature upon doubling of CO2 concentrations. We're in serious trouble if the climate sensitivity falls in the mid or upper range of the previous assessments. But if the new, higher estimates are correct, the impacts on civilization would be catastrophic.</p>
In the above CarbonBrief interactive visualization, the bars offer a comparison in the range of sensitivity in the CMIP5 models (gray) and CMIP6 models (blue).
New and Encouraging Evidence Is Emerging<p>At first, scientists were uncertain whether the new model runs were on to something, so the international modeling community dug in to produce multiple studies. The results are not yet conclusive, but a gradual collective sigh of relief seems to be materializing.</p><p>"Evidence is emerging from multiple directions that the models which show the greatest warming in the CMIP6 ensemble are likely too warm," explains Dr. Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies.</p><p>For example, <a href="https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2020-23/" target="_blank">a study</a> released April 28 evaluated the past performance of the models making up the CMIP6 ensemble. The team assigned weights to each model based upon historical performance of their warming projections, weighing the poorer performing models less. By doing so, both the mean warming and the range of warming scenarios in the CMIP6 ensemble decreased, meaning the warmest models were the ones with weaker historical performance. This result supports a finding that a subset of the models are too warm.</p><p>That conclusion is supported by another new study evaluating one particular model – the Community Earth System Model (CESM2) – that showed greater warming. Using that model, the researchers simulated the climate in the early Eocene era, about 50 million years ago, when rainforests thrived in the Arctic and Antarctic. The CESM2 simulated a historical climate that seems way too warm compared with what is known about that era from geological data, indicating that the model is likely also too warm in its future projections.</p><p>Two other recent studies of the CMIP6 models being evaluated use clever analysis methods to <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.earth-syst-dynam-discuss.net/esd-2019-86/&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNHYwFB-1KqndGfJ4sXdrrm9DpbLaQ" target="_blank">narrow the range</a> of future warming projections and also <a href="https://www.google.com/url?q=https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/12/eaaz9549&sa=D&ust=1589209938203000&usg=AFQjCNEhKY1YZ19qgjSZ_hJM14JmzqXOXw" target="_blank">reduce the projected warming</a> of the CMIP6 models by 10 to 15%.</p><p>Through the intensive research spurred by the CMIP6 climate-sensitivity curveball, scientists have been able to turn a confounding challenge into a confidence builder, providing even greater certainty than they had before in both the abilities of the climate science community and in the computer models used. Moreover, the experience has helped unearth uncertainties remaining in the modeling process.</p><p>Experts conclude much of this uncertainty probably lies in the complexity of clouds. "We have been looking as a community at why the models with greater warming are doing what they are doing – and it's tied to cloud feedbacks in the southern mid-latitudes mostly," explains Schmidt.</p><p>In fact, <a href="https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/6/26/eaba1981" target="_blank">a new study</a> addressing the increased sensitivity was published in Science Advances stating, "Cloud feedbacks and cloud-aerosol interactions are the most likely contributors to the high values and increased range of ECS [sensitivity] in CMIP6."</p>
Understanding the Complexity of Clouds<p>It's long been known in climate modeling circles that cloud processes and interactions are a potential weak link for climate modeling. That reality has been brought front and center by the urgent challenges posed during this CMIP6 evaluation period, but the current evaluation of models also provides an opportunity for discovery and improvement.</p><p>Cloud complexity comes from the reality that clouds have a multitude of sizes, altitudes, and textures. Some clouds cool Earth by providing shade, reflecting sunlight back into space. Others act like a blanket, trapping heat and warming the world.</p><p>Given that about <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/icesat_light.html" target="_blank">70% of the globe</a> is covered by clouds at any given time, it's no surprise that they play an integral role in regulating the climate. The challenge is to figure out which types of clouds will increase, which will decrease, and what the net effect will be on cooling or warming as the climate changes.</p><p><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0310-1" target="_blank">One study</a> last year reached an alarming conclusion: Left unchecked, the release of CO2 into the atmosphere may lead to a tipping point where shallow low clouds disappear – leading to runaway, catastrophic warming of nearly 15 degrees F. While scientists see that outcome as only a remote possibility, it drives home the urgent need to better understand clouds.</p><p>"We have a saying at NOAA: It isn't rocket science – it's much, much harder than that," quips Dr. Chris Fairall, ATOMIC's lead investigator. "One of the major problems for modeling is there is not clean separation of scales." The photo below is one that Fairall took from the NOAA P-3 aircraft.</p>
Investigating the Secrets of Clouds<p>To address the urgent question about the dynamics and role of clouds in a warming world, NOAA and European partners launched their ongoing research effort unprecedented in scale. The U.S. contribution, ATOMIC – short for Atlantic Tradewind Ocean-Atmosphere Mesoscale Interaction Campaign – is an international science mission that was featured recently on "<a href="https://www.cbsnews.com/video/study-aims-to-examine-links-between-climate-change-and-clouds/" target="_blank">CBS This Morning: Saturday</a>."</p>
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