Miami turns spotlight on the environment

Photos by Marlena Skrobe

Global specialists focus on hot issues, challenges

The first-ever global conference of environmental journalists in Miami opens Wednesday with a splash of high-level Washington officials, ocean experts and stars of the literary and academic worlds.

Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, talks about  investing in conservation in a terrible economy.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, the head of the Ocean Futures Society, speaks of growing up as the son of ocean pioneer Jacques Cousteau and appears along with his daughter and son and his niece and nephew, all Cousteaus and all involved with the environment.

Best-selling novelist Carl Hiaasen recalls his youth in Florida and tells how he turns the wacko daily news of gritty and glitzy Miami into riveting, blockbuster books.

A live satellite feed beams in experts from the Antarctic to talk about perhaps the greatest environmental threat to the Florida peninsula: the slow but inexorable rising level of the Atlantic Ocean.

And from Donna E. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and the host of the 21st  annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, a big hello.

Jay Letto, the staff director of the five-day event, says the conference  “is our grandest yet.”

Hundreds of journalists are streaming to the Miami conference from around the world and, as in the past, the event is attracting the heads of federal and state government agencies, university and independent experts, environmental leaders in business and representatives of non-governmental groups. The organizations range from the Sierra Club and the National Resources Defense Council to the division of environmental strategy at Home Depot and the American Wind Energy Association and the International Council on Mining and Metal.

Among the others from Washington: Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Jon Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service; Marcia McNutt, the director of the U.S.  Geological Survey, and Steven Platnick, the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Earth Observing System as well as the chiefs of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service.

There will be more “government agency heads than ever before,” said Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and one of the two chairs of the conference.

Most of the conference is being held in the InterContinental Miami hotel on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Some sessions are at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.

For the first time, an entire online newspaper, The Miami Planet,  which, which you are now reading, is being devoted to reporting the highlights of the conference and publishing scores of stories on South Florida and its environment.

“The conference is so huge that no one can go to all the events,” said Joseph B. Treaster, the editor of the newspaper and a professor at the University of Miami after more than 30 years at The New York Times. “The Daily Planet will fill in people on the events they couldn’t personally attend and be full of story ideas for the hundreds of environmental journalists and others in Miami for the conference.”

The Transatlantic Media Network of the Center for International & Strategic Studies in Washington is bringing a contingent of journalists from across Europe. A group of journalists from Latin America – from Argentina to Panama – is coming under the sponsorship of the Americas Business Council Foundation. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists is presenting several discussions, one focused on the Galapagos Islands, hard by the Equator in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.

Thursday is for field trips, or what the society calls tours. Bus-loads of journalists and others set off for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s undersea laboratory in the Florida Keys, a shark-tagging operation and a hike in the Everglades with renowned swamp photographer Clyde Butcher and Peter Ramos, the superintendent of the Big Cypress National Preserve. Others explore the National Hurricane Center on the campus of Florida International University in suburban Miami and take a boat ride to an island in Biscayne National Park to see a government complex outfitted with solar panels and then glide past the waterfront Turkey Point nuclear power plant.

“I can’t recall a conference with quite the range of issues, experiences, locations and facilities,” said Beth Parke, the executive director of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Friday morning a panel of scientists faces journalists from The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, NBC Nightly News and Die Zeit of Germany on the connections between climate change and extreme weather and on the growing dangers of coastal living as the oceans rise.

“Miami,” said Burnside, the co-chair of the conference, “is ground zero for sea-level rise. It’s the most vulnerable major U.S. city.”

Other panels on Friday look into wetlands around the world, ways to deal with pollution and how journalists report on disasters, natural and not-so-natural.

Friday night everyone breaks into specialty groups on subjects like  energylike energy and world fisheries and heads for restaurants, many on South Beach, for discussions, often led by global experts.

Saturday evening the Monterey Bay Aquarium gives a “sustainable seafood” dinner at Eden restaurant on South Beach. Then the show moves across the street to the stunning Setai Hotel for the Society’s annual awards and, as a part of Fashion Week in Miami, a parade of eco-friendly gowns and cocktail dresses created by some of the hottest designers.

Sunday, the center becomes Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden. Carl Lewis, the director, is going to be speaking about developing hybrid mangos and other research and experiments. Breakfast is fruit and pastry. Then some of Florida’s most accomplished environmental writers take the stage to tell what inspired them and how they do their work. Among them: Michael Grunwald, the author of The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise, and Craig Pittman, who has written about what he calls “Manatee Insanity” and has a new book coming out, called The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World’s Most Beautiful Orchid.”

Angela Posada-Swafford, the senior editor in the United States for the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante, is a co-chair of the conference. She calls Miami a “pink and blue and hot and sexy city.”

“Lots of breaking stories will come out of this conference,” she said.

The host University of Miami and the staff and members of the Society of Environmental Journalists have been working on the conference for nearly a year. All the panels and field trips are being led by Society members, and experts have been drawn from the University of Miami and other universities in South Florida, including Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University.

Shalala, the president of the University of Miami, said the university is “pleased to welcome this group of working journalists who play a vital role in educating the public.”  Before coming to Miami, Shalala was a Peace Corps volunteer in Iran, worked for eight years as the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services during the Clinton Administration and was the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the president of Hunter College of the City University of New York.

This is the first time that the Society has convened in a subtropical zone. In 2010 the conference was held at the University of Montana in Missoula. Its first conference was at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colo., in 1991.

“It was inevitable” that the Society “hold a blockbuster meeting” in Miami, said Parke, the Society’s executive director. “South Florida is such an important location on the environment beat. Miami is a fascinating urban area with an ecosystem to match.”

Letto, the staff conference director and a founding member of the Society,  said, said “Miami allows us access to the ocean and marine issues.

“Of course,” he said, “the Everglades are right there too.  Miami also gives us access to major urban environmental issues, which we’ve not had in a few years.”

The appearance of the five surviving descendents of Jacques Cousteau, who pioneered scuba diving and brought the ocean into American living rooms on television, is a first, the Society says. Jacques Cousteau’s eldest son, Jean Michel and his two children, Celine and Fabien, and Phillipe Cousteau Jr. and Alexandra Cousteau, the son and daughter of Jean Michel’s brother, Philippe, have never come together for a public event, the Society says, even though throughout their lives they have been linked by the sea.

Celine Cousteau has worked with her father, Jean Michel, at his Ocean Futures Society which he founded.  Jean Michel’s son, Fabien, founded and runs Plant-A-Fish, an organization that works to cultivate and nourish ocean plants and animals.

Alexandra Cousteau and Phillipe Cousteau Jr. founded EarthEcho International, an educational organization dedicated to the conservation and preservation of the oceans. Their father, Philippe Cousteau, died at 38 in a seaplane crash in Portugal in 1971.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 17 and 18, the Transatlantic Media Network is conducting a separate set of environmental meetings with its European journalists at the University of Miami and plans a trip into the Everglades. On Wednesday, the Society is holding a workshop on multi-media journalism at the University of Miami. At the Inter-Continental Miami that morning, at 8 a.m., the Douglas W. Reynolds National Center for  Business Journalism at Arizona State University starts a workshop called “Covering the Green Economy,” which runs until 3:30 p.m. It overlaps with a session on international environmental reporting. Reginald Dale, the director of the Transatlantic Media Network, and John Schidlovsky, the director of the International Reporting Project, in Washington, are among the panelists.  The opening reception starts at 5 p.m. and segues into dinner.

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