Houston is widely known as the “energy capital of the world.” It’s also been dubbed the “new capital of Southern cool” by GQ magazine.
Welcome to both Houstons!
Hosted by Rice University and housed at the Royal Sonesta Houston Galleria, SEJ’s 31st annual conference is the first time the SEJ community will be meeting in person in more than two years, and we couldn’t be happier to have y’all back in the Lone Star state.
A lot has changed in the decade since the 2012 SEJ conference in Lubbock. Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the country and where the same industry that’s behind much of its success is also largely responsible for a warming world that’s leading to a wide range of climate-fueled calamities — many of them experienced here. Houston provides a front row seat to cause and consequence, and offers the opportunity to explore both environmental challenges and successes.
The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points to already “irreversible” changes affecting weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. As the acclaimed climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe (whom you’ll get to hear from during the conference) told Texas Monthly, Texas is already one of the most vulnerable states to extreme weather and climate disasters. Due to the state’s geographic location and size, Texans experience hurricanes, tornadoes, supercell thunderstorms, hail, drought, blizzards, ice storms and floods — some of them in what can feel like the same day. Houstonians are rarely spared by these disasters.
Some parts of Houston have seen three 500-year flood events in three years. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped up to 60 inches of rain in some areas, making it the largest rain event in U.S. history. Since then, there have been more floods and more near misses from storms coming from the gulf. More recently, Winter Storm Uri led to outages that left millions of Texans without power and water for days in freezing conditions. Hundreds of people froze to death, while thousands of others were poisoned by carbon monoxide as they tried to keep warm.
The disasters may not discriminate, but the recovery from them has been unequal. We have repeatedly seen how inequities in society are exacerbated in the aftermath of climate-fueled disasters. Whether it’s the additional pollution burden that fenceline communities face due to their proximity to industrial facilities or in the disbursement of recovery resources, Black and Brown communities often find themselves holding the short end of the stick. Houston typifies such challenges — and leads the way in imagining a more just future.
Dr. Robert Bullard, fondly anointed the “father of environmental justice,” began his seminal work into the placement of landfills and waste facilities in communities of color right here in Houston about four decades ago. His work bolstered a burgeoning environmental justice movement, one that recognized that the environment included not just the natural world but our human-made surroundings. Dr. Bullard spoke at the very first SEJ conference in Boulder in 1991, and he’ll be back to welcome you all to Houston at our opening reception on Wednesday, March 30.
That work has continued to gain strength here. Today, local nonprofits and communities are leading the charge in designing low-cost, air-quality monitoring systems. Where the state and local governments have failed, mutual aid groups have stepped in to protect and support one another. The county is going after polluters more aggressively for repeatedly endangering the health and safety of residents. And Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner is leading mayors across the country in trying to prepare for the havoc that climate change will continue to wreak on their cities.
As co-chairs of SEJ’s 2022 conference, our hope is you’ll immerse yourself in these varied and complex issues. The workshops and panels are designed to expand your familiarity with environmental topics and give you the hands-on skills you need to cover your beats. The nine tours — led by a crew of stellar journalists — will take you down the Houston ship channel on a ferry; to the wooded areas around the Big Thicket; along a contentious section of I-45 that the state is trying to expand; and to refinery row, where communities have long lived in the shadow of massive petrochemical plants.
While Texas has been in the news recently for some of the most restrictive laws on abortion and voting rights, we hope that as journalists, you’ll agree that our mission is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. To that end, join us to help shine a light on the injustices in the state and hold those responsible to account.
Your #SEJ2022 conference chairs:
Perla Trevizo, reporter with the ProPublica/Texas Tribune Investigative Unit
Naveena Sadasivam, staff writer at Grist