Monday, February 5, 2007

Global Warming Goes Local

With the release Friday of the IPCC report on global warming (caution: 2mb file), climate change became the top online story on Google News. At one point, Google News listed 1,985 new stories. Now that the dust has settled, how do we journalists proceed?

It's clear that the 'yes or no' debate over the big question of whether humans are causing global warming is now over, and that debate about policy options is really getting started. This will certainly be a rich area for exploration by journalists in the coming years. But scientific debate is by no means over. It is shifting to the details of what global warming means. The predicted 3.5 to 8 degree Fahrenheit rise in global average temperature with a doubling of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere doesn't sound all that bad. But a global average temperature doesn't mean much. What we really want to know are the answers to questions like these: How much is sea level going to rise in, say, Florida or Bangladesh?; Are diseases like dengue fever going to spread into new areas, including the southern tier of the United States?; Will drought become more common and intense in the West, putting additional strain on already stressed water resources?

Today's Boulder Daily Camera features a story that may give us a preview of what's to come. The article is about a dispute pitting the City of Boulder and other water users against farmers in the South Platte River basin. Colorado law requires farmers to replace the water they take from wells. And in 2006, the state's water court shut down the wells of farmers in the South Platte basin because they were not abiding by the law. Today, the farmers will face off in water court in Greeley against the City of Boulder. According to the Camera, they are hoping that the court will allow them to draw some of the water they had been removing from wells.

At the heart of the battle, pitting a city against one group of farmers, is the West's complex system of water rights. But it is, of course, taking place in a bigger context that will be getting increasing attention in future years: With population growth putting increasing demand on water resources across the West, conflict between municipal and agricultural users is likely to increase. And this will only be magnified if global warming leads to significant changes in runoff patterns and more frequent periods of extended droughts. Make no mistake about it: The science shows that such changes may be on the way. For just one example, see this review article from the journal Nature, published in 2005:

How are we going to manage this situation? Should we be planning to build more storage capacity? How much of a commitment should we be making to preserving agriculture in a region where growing crops is much more difficult than in better-watered areas to the east? What does the science say about global warming's impact on our region? These and related questions are likely to form the basis of stories for years to come. Are you ready to cover them?

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