Global Warming’s Rainmakers

News outlets launch a glut of green business conferences

News outlets large and small, in the U.S. and overseas have, for years now, talked about a coming energy “revolution” akin to the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century. The belief that wind, wave, solar, geothermal, bio-power, and the like will incite such a profound transformation in our world order explains, in part, why one recent study found that green business stories have “mushroomed” in 2007. It also explains why some news organizations’ interest in the subject has migrated beyond the page.

This year, at least four major publications-The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, The Economist, and Scientific American-have launched what they expect will become annual conferences about green business and corporate sustainability practices. As it is with carbon dioxide and global mean temperature, there has been a bit of a lag time between cause and effect here-many of the CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, VCs, investors, and policy wonks that the conferences aim to attract started burnishing green credentials years ago (General Electric, for example, launched its popular “Ecomagination” campaign in 2005). According to Bruce Brandfon, Scientific American’s publisher for the last seven years, the advent of the media-sponsored green business conferences is the result of a “perfect storm,” pairing the urgency global sustainability with the financial willingness to achieve it.

“Why is it happening now? The simple answer is: the money is going there,” Brandfon told me. “The subject of energy sustainability and green technologies is a very interesting and important subject for our readers. But the reason people are doing these conferences is the following: it’s clear that the line has been crossed where the cost of non-compliance is greater than the cost of compliance. So, unless you are building a sustainable business model, your competition will eat you alive. A glaring example would be the global automobile business.”

To help prepare its business-minded readers for that new world, Scientific American will co-host the first annual Going Green conference in partnership with Always On, an online social network whose self-described mission is “an obsession with being the first media brand to identify the sweet spots in the market, where technology innovation is disrupting behavior and creating explosive new entrepreneurial opportunities for both startups and big businesses.”

Unfortunately for them, a lot of people are obsessing about that right now, and hosts and sponsors vie for a lot of the same conference-goers, including the most notable rainmakers in commerce, finance, and policy. SciAm is unique, however, insofar as the rest of the pack is comprised of business publications. In March, The Wall Street Journal initiated its first annual “Eco:nomics” conference (yes, if only a colon could make such a difference) and gave the event conspicuous coverage in one of its regular Journal Reports, which appear Mondays. The paper has published the special sections on single topics ranging from technology to markets to sports for more than twenty years. The coverage of Eco:nomics, which appeared on March 24, was the second Journal Report on the environment. The first, which parsed the most likely winners and losers in the “Environmental Gold Rush,” was last October.

The more recent report was notable for its fairly candid interviews with a number of the conference’s more illustrious participants, including G.E.’s Jeffrey Immelt, venture capitalist John Doerr, and Wal-Mart’s H. Lee Scott Jr. Farther inside, a suite of thorough news articles on subjects such as whether or not green business can mollify the U.S.’s economic woes and why the federal government is helping green businesses overseas raise money, buttressed the interviews. The section if filled with green ads, but editorial decisions and conference affairs operate independently, according to Dow Jones spokeswoman Emily Edmonds. “The reports are solely driven by the Journal’s news department,” she wrote in an e-mail, “and supported by ad sales in a manner that is consistent with every other section in the Journal.”

The conferences themselves are definitely profitable and many news outlets have been hosting such events for at least five years, though topics change. “The conference business is a growth engine for the Journal franchise,” Edmonds said.

I put the same question about profitability to Brandfon:

Absolutely. For a media company to be profitable today, it has to find a way to present its information to audiences in different formats based upon how they want to receive it. That’s why the move to digital delivery is inevitable, because at some point we simply aren’t going to be able to deliver the content wrapped in a beautiful, glossy wrapper every month or week.

Would he consider the conference an act of journalism?

I would call the conference a demonstration of journalism can be presented in different formats based on how the people want to receive it. The wonderful thing about this is that if journalism is a two-way street, which I think it is, this gives the audience the opportunity to not only absorb the content, but also participate in it. Now, I don’t think a trade show, for example [the Consumer Electronics Show], is a conference. But this is two and half days where people are going to be able to learn as well as talk amongst themselves, and ask questions, and probe the subject a little more deeply.

The conferences are designed to be private, off-the-record affairs where individuals can trade ideas freely, Brandfon said, but the editorial staff is free to request interviews or other coverage from participants in a fashion similar to The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of Eco:nomics. I asked him why Scientific American is getting into the mix with a bunch of primarily business-oriented publications. “We know the following about Scientific American,” he replied. “That some people read it just for the excitement of string theory, and some people read it because they are going to take specific action about what they read and see in the magazine.” Those actions could include a decision to develop a sustainable business platform, make an investment in an emerging technology, or choose an environmentally-friendly policy option.

“It’s fundamental to the editorial mission of the Scientific American brand,” Brandfon said. “Scientific American is a company, not a magazine, and that will become more important and evident as we move forward with conferences and digital delivery and other titles, etc. But in the end, the purpose of the company is really make the world a better and safer place, to make these complex, very difficult challenges, not simple to understand, but easier to deal with-to give us the confidence that we can succeed whether its creating a better environment, or more sustainable energy, or curing malaria in Africa, or protecting privacy at the same time that we’re defending our security.”

If that is the goal then we are indeed in luck, because there is backup. Fortune will launch its first-annual “Brainstorm Green” on Monday and The Economist has already been busy hosting roundtables on corporate sustainability issues. In March, The Economist also sponsored the third “State of the Planet” conference, hosted by The Earth Institute at Columbia University.

Who’s next? Forbes? BusinessWeek? More events certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing. But by then, the world’s green CEOs and financiers might have pretty full conference schedules.

Or, as Brandfon speculated, the situation could be even better: “I think once the science, public policy, and financial communities manage [environmentally sustainable operations], the business opportunity doesn’t become as urgent. If we’re successful, it will simply be a fundamental, routine way to do business. People will make money. There will be solar energy companies that will be as important as ExxonMobil. The market cap of other green companies will be more than Google. It’s gonna happen.”

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.