Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Marine Ecosystems Pressured from the Top and Bottom

A study published in the Feb. 23 issue of Science finds that climate change is contributing to ecosystem shifts in in the North Atlantic. Increased flows of cold, fresh water from increased melting of permafrost, snow and ice in the Arctic region are changing the abundances of phytoplankton, zooplankton and fish that live near the ocean's surface. Scientists had attributed these changes to the collapse of cod fisheries from overfishing In places like the Georges Bank off the coast of Massachussetts (shallow area in the NASA image above). The new study suggests that climate change is also playing a strong role.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that Northwest Atlantic ecosystems are being affected by climate forcing from the bottom up and overfishing from the top down," says Charles Greene, a Cornell oceanographer and lead author of the Science paper.

-- T.Y.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

A Pristine Ecosystem Revealed by the Collapse of Antarctic Ice Shelves

These organisms living on the Antarctic seabed are part of an ecosystem that was all but inaccessible to scientists — until two giant ice shelves, Larsen A and B, disintegrated. Before they collapsed five and twelve years ago respectively, the ice shelves covered 10,000 kilometers of the sea bottom. Dramatic warming in this region caused the shelves to break up, giving scientists aboard the German research vessel Polarstern an opportunity to study the pristine marine ecosystem at the ocean floor. The copyrighted photos were taken by Julian Gutt of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research.

For more information about this research, see here, and here.
-- T.Y.

An Excellent Article on Responding to Climate Change

Andrew Dessler, a climate expert at Texas A&M University, has written an excellent posting on the elements of an effective response to global warming over at Grist. If you cover global warming as a journalist, or you simply feel that responding to climate change is all but hopeless, you really should read this article. It compellingly describes how we could respond to climate change over the long haul, with the goal of stabilizing our impact on the climate system at a manageable level. Dessler has also written a "The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change", a book that looks like an excellent resource for any reporter who might have to cover this issue.

-- Tom Yulsman

Colorado Considers Bill to Greatly Expand Use of Renewable Energy

This guest posting by Hank Lacey considers an effort by Colorado legislators to greatly expand the use of renewable energy sources to generate electricity in the state. The legislation builds on Amendment 37, passed by voters in 2004. The amendment requires Colorado’s top utility companies to provide 10 percent of their retail electricity sales from renewable resources by the year 2015. Hank Lacey, a lawyer turned journalist who is currently covering the Colorado legislature for the Colorado Springs Gazette, describes the effort to boost the requirement to 20 percent by 2020. -- T.Y.

Coloradans may soon be getting alot more electricity generated from renewable sources such as the wind and the sun.

If a bill that expands the requirements of Amendment 37 is enacted, investor-owned utilities such as Xcel Energy and Aquila will have to produce twice as much electricity from renewable resources as Amendment 37 requires. Municipal utilities, such as Colorado Springs Utilities, and the rural electric cooperatives will be definitively brought under the umbrella of the renewable mandate for the first time.

HB 1281, which is the vehicle for these changes, passed the state House of Representatives on second reading Friday. The bill will be considered for a third and final time in the House early next week, then move on to the Senate.

The measure will require the large investor-owned utilities to generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020. A portion of that will have to come from solar power. It will also require the munies and the coops to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, including a portion from the sun.

Some legislators sought to weaken the bill on the House floor Friday. One amendment offered by Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, would have specified that hydroelectric power would count as a renewable source. The bill's sponsors, Reps. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, and Rob Witwer, R-Golden, argued that the bill is intended to encourage development of new energy sources. Hydroelectricity has been a commercially viable energy source for

Another lengthy floor fight centered on continuing efforts by the state's largest rural electric cooperative, Intermountain Rural Electric Cooperative, to secure the right to "opt out" of the requirements. IREA successfully invoked that right under Amendment 37. Legislators killed that amendment, too, but only after Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, and Reps. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, complained that HB 1281 overrides the will of IREA's customers that voted to exempt the utility from renewable energy production standards last year.

Gov. Bill Ritter said at a news conference Thursday that IREA's objection to the bill would not be a reason for him to veto it. The Colorado Rural Electric Association, an industry association of the state's rural electric cooperatives, supports the bill. So does Xcel and Colorado Springs Utilities.

HB 1281 is one of the cornerstones of the "new energy economy" promised by Ritter and the Democratic majorities in the General Assembly.

Amendment 37 was adopted by the state's voters in 2004.

-- Hank Lacey

Thursday, February 22, 2007

EU Pledges Unilaterally to Reduce Carbon Emissions by 20%

Earlier this week, the European Union agreed to cut its emissions of greenhouse gases by 20% within 13 years — but you might not have found out about it if you only read U.S. news sources.

In Europe, environmentalists grumbled that a 30% cut was needed if there was to be any hope of stabilizing temperatures. (I'm not sure where they got that figure. Don't we have to zero out emissions to fully stabilize temperature increases?) But EU officials said a bigger cut would be economically harmful if it was done unilaterally. So they plan to press the U.S. and China to commit to a 30% cut in a post-Kyoto agreement.

Is this credible? According to an article in the Guardian, "the EU's original 15 members are well short of reaching their 8% cut by 2012" under the Kyoto protocol. So if they can't do 8% over 1990 levels, how are they going to do 20 or 30% over current levels?

Meanwhile, here in the United States, the EU's new commitment to combat global warming was barely covered in news reports. The Washington Post relegated it to a tiny brief. And Michael Nisbet reports over at Framing Science that global warming did not make it onto the list of the 10 most heavily covered news stories since the first of the year, as indexed by the Project for Excellence in Journalism. This is despite the flurry of coverage around the release of the IPCC report.

I guess we'll have to wait for hurricane season for the next barrage of coverage.

-- T.Y.

Colorado River to Take Hit from Global Warming

Anyone who has paid close attention to water issues in the West will find much that's familiar in a new report from the National Research Council about the Colorado River. The report warns that increasing population growth in the interior West, combined with droughts made worse by global warming, will be putting increasing pressure on the Colorado.

The report notes that the Colorado River Compact, which divied up the flow between the upper and lower basin states, was signed in 1922 — right after a particularly wet period in the interior West. The average flow for the purposes of the compact was pegged at 16.4 million acre feet a year. Today, according to the report, the average flow of the river is 15 million acre feet per year. And tree-ring records show that extended droughts lasting decades or even longer are a recurrent feature of climate in the West, causing the Colorado's flow to fall significantly below average.

Now, based on many climate model simulations, "the preponderance of scientific evidence suggests that warmer future temperatures will reduce future Colorado River streamflow and water supplies," the report concludes. "Reduced streamflow would also contribute to increasing severity, frequency, and duration of future droughts."

This is occurring against the backdrop of a burgeoning population in the West. Arizona alone saw its population rise by 40 percent just since 1990. Here in Colorado, population grew by 30 percent. Although Westerners have made strides in reducing per capita water use, continued conservation will not be enough in the face of rising population and dropping availability of water, the report states.

It offers no simple solutions. Instead, it calls for continued conservation, use of innovative technology, greater cooperation between Colorado River basin states to prepare better for drought, increased communication between water managers and scientists, and, of course, more study:

"The report thus recommends a comprehensive, action-oriented study of Colorado River region urban water practices and changing patterns of demand be conducted. The study should evaluate a range of issues, including demographic projections and water demand forecasts, impacts of urban water demands on riparian ecology, and contemporary urban water policies and practices."

No surprises there, but the issues raised by the report are a reminder of the compelling need for good environmental journalism in the West. Reporters who are knowledgabe about the complexities of water in the West are desperately needed — to avoid common mistakes, such as the one made in NPR's All Things Considered broadcast on the report by Elizabeth Shogren yesterday. It wasn't a huge mistake, but it betrayed a lack of knowledge of how the reservoir system on the Colorado River works. Shogren stated that Lake Mead "keeps taps flowing in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Colorado. The problem is that Colorado gets no water from Lake Mead.

Lake Powell, impounded behind Glen Canyon Dam, is a kind of hydrological bank for the upper basin states — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming. It helps the states meet their obligations under the Colorado River Compact to send a specified amount of water down the river to the lower basin states — Arizona, California and Nevada. When drought prevails, the upper basin states can take water out of the bank and send it downstream, meeting their compact obligations while also satisfying their own water demands. Meanwhile, Lake Mead is used by the lower basin states to store water for their own uses. According to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, "Hoover Dam helps ensure a dependable water supply for municipal, industrial and other domestic uses in southern Nevada, Arizona and southern California. More than 16 million people and numerous industries in these three states receive Colorado River water that was stored by Hoover Dam."

No taps in Colorado depend on water from Lake Mead.

-- T.Y.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Environmental Journalism at its Best — Again

Ray Ring, Northern Rockies editor of High Country News, has won a prestigious Polk award for political reporting. Ray investigated the financing of referendum campaigns against land-use regulations in six Western states. "National libertarian groups are not just funneling big bucks into this campaign to protect a few property owners from eminent domain," Ray wrote. "They have their sights set on something much bigger — laying waste to land-use regulations used by state and local governments to protect the landscape, the environment and neighborhoods." After his story appeared, and word of what was going on spread, the referenda were defeated by voters in three states; and the courts knocked down or scaled back two others. Only one state out of the original six, Arizona, approved its referendum.

Congratulations to Ray for great work!

Monday, February 19, 2007

Australia to Ban Incandescent Light Bulbs to Combat Global Warming

It's true, according to this article in Australia's Courier-Mail.

Guest Blog: Opinion Column in Science Times

The following is a guest posting:

The addition of conservative columnist John Tierney to the staff of the New York Times's Science Times section has to be one of the most bizarre--and irresponsible--editorial decisions in awhile. Tierney's new column, "Findings," runs on the front page of the section, mixed in with the standard-issue news and feature stories. And while particularly astute readers might pick up on the fact that Tierney is an opinion writer rather than a science reporter, it's a good bet that general readers won't make that distinction. So while the section's staff reporters and other contributors work hard to maintain some shred of objectivity in their stories, those stories are now running side-by-side with Tierney's politically charged commentaries--and the result is a serious blow to the whole section's credibility, and a public misled by opinion masquerading as fact.

Check out Tierney's column from this past Tuesday (Feb. 13). It uses Richard Branson's $25 million prize for a solution to global warming as a way to begin talking about Al Gore (the connection is tenuous). Tierney's real intent is to attack Gore and his film, "An Inconvenient Truth," which is old news at this point, since it's been out for almost a year. One senses Tierney's been rubbing his hands together for about that long trying to find an appropriate venue for his attack. He accuses Gore of "hype" and of extrapolating "a short-term trend into a disaster," and of various other crimes against science (and indirectly against humanity). To those with good working knowledge of climate change, Tierney sounds just half a step removed from right-wing fiction writer and global warming denialist Michael Crichton. But to the majority of readers, he sounds like he's reciting facts that call into question Gore's entire endeavor (which has been, for the most part, lauded by climate scientists).

Tierney also uses this column as a pulpit for a message he's been hammering for years: There's no point in trying to change people's habits, so the only solutions to environmental problems will be technological. "As far-fetched as it seems today," Tierney wrote on page one of the section, "removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere could turn out to be a lot more practical than the alternative: persuading six million people to stop putting it there." Of course, this statement is a lot more true if you are opposed, as Tierney clearly is, to any sort of federal or international environmental regulation. To run political commentary like this on the front page of the Science Times is to etch opinion into the minds of many readers as fact. Why more people haven't raised red flags is a mystery.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Top Bush Official Caught in Bed with Oil Lobbyist

Maybe literally. The San Jose Mercury News reports the following:

"WASHINGTON - Nine months before agreeing to let ConocoPhillips delay a half-billion-dollar pollution cleanup, the government's top environmental prosecutor bought a $1 million vacation home with the company's top lobbyist."

You just can't make this stuff up.

Former Assistant Attorney General
Sue Ellen Wooldridge

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Global Warming and Red Herrings

Two arguments are often made by skeptics of climate change. The first is that the link between human activities and global warming is not definite. The second is that while "climate alarmists" claim that a consensus exists among scientists on this issue, there is no such thing as consensus in science.

Both arguments are red herrings.

Skeptics who say that the link between climate change and human activities "isn't definite" are throwing up a red herring because the statement distracts from what they really mean: Despite the very strong body of evidence favoring a link between human activities and significant climate change, they do not favor action for other reasons — usually economic reasons. Policy action never requires certainty. So folks who raise this argument should be asked why they demand certainty with climate change.

The answer, of course, is that they want to ensure inaction.

Science never proves hypotheses and theories with 100 percent certainty. From the perspective of logic, it is impossible to rule out every possibility, because we have not conducted every conceivable observation or experiment, and we haven't lived in the future. It is always possible that we haven't thought of something. So we can only test the predictions arising from theories. And as the philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out, if the predictions hold up with repeated testing, then the best you can say is that the theory has been well "corroborated."

I like that word and I try to use it when I can in my science stories.

So folks in the petroleum industry who make the lack of certainty argument are technically right. The link isn't, quote — definite — endquote. It never will be. But it is very well corroborated that human activities are causing significant changes to the climate.

When they say it to us, we might ask them whether they think the predictions made by their corporate economists are "definite," or whether their calculations of petroleum reserves are "definite." They would have to answer "no." And then we could ask whether their companies should not drill for oil in a promising spot because the predictions that oil is there are not "definite."

The "no consensus on climate change" red herring is just as distracting. Once again, policy can proceed without consensus on the underlying scientific issues. We might just decide that action is warranted as a kind of insurance policy — just in case the scientific projections are right. Speaking now as a citizen, not a journalist, I would say that we should have taken that approach long ago, before the current consensus emerged. If we had, we would be in a much better position both geopolitically and environmentally.

In this case, of course, a consensus really does exist. "Consensus" means "general agreement." And the word "general" means "affecting or concerning most people." I think it is completely accurate to say that most scientists who study one aspect of climate change or another and who publish in peer reviewed journals agree on some of the fundamental aspects of climate change, but by no means all aspects.

There is simply no question that most such scientists would agree that humans are very likely responsible for most of the observed warming over the past 50 years, and that potentially disruptive changes are likely to continue. This is one of the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

But if the word "consensus" bothers you, call it a "general agreement." Or forget trying to affix a one- or two-word label and be punctiliously precise like Libby Rosenthal and Andy Revkin did in their story for the N.Y. Times on the day of the IPCC release. They referred to the conclusion from "the leading international network of climate change scientists."

Global warming is a huge and complex subject with many unknowns. For example, will it snow more or less here in Colorado? Some of the predictions are for more snow and some are for less, and the science is uncertain. What about sea level? How fast will it rise and how high? The IPCC was pretty conservative there, backing off some of the scary scenarios floated last year about 20 feet of rise by the year 2100. But those scary scenarios are still credible. You can say with utter accuracy that paleoclimate records demonstrate the following: The last time the Arctic was as warm as computer models say it will be by the year 2100, sea level was indeed 20 feet higher.

Should we be worried? Stepping out of my role as a journalist again, I'll say unequivocally: I think so. But there's no consensus on this question. And maybe that's the problem.

-- T.Y.

Spending on News Quality is Good for Newspapers

Investing money to improve the quality of news coverage actually makes newspapers more profitable, a study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia has found.

Murali Montrala and Esther Thorson led a team of researchers to examine profitability at newspapers. They analyzed financial data for small to medium-sized newspapers and found that the quality of news coverage strongly influenced the bottom line.

It should be no surprise that producing a better product leads to better profits. But it must be for the corporations that own newspapers — and the Wall Street firms that are flogging newspaper management to lay off reporters and editors to slash newsroom expenses in what now looks like a self-defeating effort to uphold large profit margins. "If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then pretty soon the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money," Thorson was quoted in a news release as saying. She is a professor of advertising and associate dean for graduate studies in the School of Journalism at Mizzou.

The study by Thorson and her colleagues shows that readers are deserting newspapers not just because of competition from the Web but also because newspapers are offering their readers less content and lower quality. Interviewed this morning on American Public Media's Marketplace program, Thorson said, "You know, I'm worried about the newspapers in all the little cities across the United States. They are our one depth instrument for allowing citizens to understand what's going on in their own communities. We're losing those just as fast as we're losing content and quality in any of our news sources."

-- T.Y.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

2006 was a Scorcher

NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York reports that last year was the sixth warmest year in a century. Different scientific groups have come up with slightly different rankings. But there seems to be no question that 2006 was one of the warmest years on record.

Global Warming Bumped by Anna and the Astronaut Scandal

Matthew Nisbet reports on his blog Framing Science that the week after the release of the IPCC report on climate change, the issue failed to make it into the top five news stories. According to the News Coverage Index of the Project for Excellent in Journalism, Iraq policy and events, Smith's death, the presidential campaign, and the obsessed astronaut in diapers, pushed global warming out of the spotlight. (Well, I guess it really doesn't get much better than an obsessed astronaut in diapers allegedly attempting to commit murder.)

As Nisbet points out, there was plenty to report on global warming in the aftermath of the IPCC report, including the fact that both British Prime Minister Tony Blair and German PM Andrea Merkel both said they will be pushing for greater action. But it was all Anna all the time on the cable news channels, as a disgruntled Jack Cafferty himself pointed out on CNN. On air, according to the PEJ, he said, "That’s the only story we reported [yesterday] for two solid hours and we weren’t the only ones. . .Her death was tabloid gold and apparently, we just couldn’t help ourselves.”

Commenting on the tabloid sensitibility of the cable networks, none other than Bill O'Reilly pointed out on his Fox News radio talk show today that when Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s airplane went down years ago, his network focused a camera on the waters off of Long Island for hours on end. They went with that story for an interminable period — with little other than wave-tossed waters to show. Maybe they hoped that the body would just bob to the surface. This time around, they got their body, when Anna Nicole's so-called "death video" turned up (showing her being administered CPR as she was rushed to an ambulance).

How could the single biggest threat to our planet's life support system ever hope to compete?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Global Warming Increasingly a Policy Story

According to a a report from the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, 106 bills, resolutions and amendments addressing global warming were introduced into the 109th Congress, which ended in December. This is up from just seven in the 105th Congress (1997-1998).

Legislative activity on climate change has climbed steadily, year by year. The Pew report also notes that the issue is increasingly becoming bipartisan, with proposals being introduced on both sides of the aisle. "The growing interest suggests that a bipartisan consensus is developing around the need to address climate change," the report concluded.

With the Democrats now in power, we might expect a wave of new legislation. I wonder whether the Bush Administration will continue to hold back the tide of bills that would institute mandatory caps on carbon emissions, or a carbon tax. It should be an interesting year.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Environmental Journalism at its Best

Writing for one of our favorite publications, High Country News, Michelle Nijhuis has won a prestigious science journalism award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The prize was given for a series of three stories on climate change in the West. One of the stories, Save Our Snow, describes how Aspen is trying to come to grips with the reality of climate change. Another, The Ghosts of Yosemite, integrates history and the pioneering work of Joseph Grinnell in Yosemite National Park with current day research by biologists who are documenting the changing composition of species in the Sierra brought about by environmental shifts, including a warming climate. And a third story, Dust and Snow, describes the possible impact of a combination of increasing fallout of dust in the Colorado Rockies, perhaps from over-grazing in the Southwest, and increasing temperatures from global warming.

Michelle Nijhuis represents one of the very best in our profession. I urge you to check our her stories to see how she so deftly writes about technical subjects in a compelling and engaging way. As her editors once said of her, she "possesses both the mind of a scientist and the heart of a poet." And she understood early on that a rise in global average temperature doesn't really mean much. What really matters is what's happening on the ground in particular places, like Yosemite, and how people living in particular regions such as the West will be affected by a changing climate. Congratulations Michelle!

-- T.Y.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Hope for Storing Carbon?

Carbon dioxide produced by power plants and other industrial facilities can be safely stored underground, helping to avert global warming, recent research by MIT scientists suggests. The scientists say their research shows that the CO2 should not resurface and enter the atmosphere, as is feared.

Without carbon sequestration, expanding use of coal to produce electricity would present significant climate risks. But many scientific, technical and economic hurdles remain, not the least of which is making sure that pumping CO2 underground isn't done in vain.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Reframing Global Warming While Equating Skeptics with Holocaust Deniers

Although global warming still can't compete with Iraq and the so-called "death tape" of Anna Nicole Smith (yes, one has surfaced on the web showing paramedics administering CPR), it continues to garner attention from columnists and pundits. Toay's installment comes from Ellen Goodman in her Boston Globe syndicated column.

"It may be, paradoxically, that framing this issue in catastrophic terms ends up paralyzing instead of motivating us," Goodman writes. "Remember the Time magazine cover story: 'Be Worried. Be Very Worried.' The essential environmental narrative is a hair-raising consciousness-raising: This is your Earth. This is your Earth on carbon emissions." Faced with the catastrophe, people just go into a state of denial.

Goodman calls for a reframing of the issue: "Can we change from debating global warming to preparing? Can we define the issue in ways that turn denial into action? In America what matters now isn't environmental science, but political science."

In his excellent blog, "Framing Science," Matthew Nisbet aplauds Goodman for writing "one of the best summaries I've seen on just how central public communication is to this issue," and for issuing a "call to arms" on reframing climate change.

But there are two issues Nisbett does not discuss. They deserve an airing. First, Goodman indulges in a typical liberal rhetorical maneuver to frame the issue of climate change skepticism in apocalyptic terms, not only undercutting her laudable main point but also casting grave doubt on her credibility.

"Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future," Goodman writes.

Excuse me, but being skeptical about the scientific basis for global warming is nowhere near on a par with Holocaust denial. That is an utterly offensive statement — one that seems to comes up more and more in liberal discourse about climate change. If this is reframing the issue, count me out. I'll take run-of-the-mill catastrophism, thank you very much.

The second issue is this: What role should journalists play in reframing climate change from one of catastrophe in the making to a moral and religious issue, a corruption of science issue, and an economic issue, as Nisbet puts it?

I would argue that it's not the job of a daily news reporter to reframe the issue, at least not per se. A daily reporter's job is to ask challenging questions designed to elicit news and essential information, and to go where the story leads. And if the story leads to new details about catastrophe on the way, that's where we have to go. But it is also a reporter's job to try to stay ahead of the story. And if doing that means asking experts like Mathew Nisbet whether a reframing of the issue is in the offing, or essential, that would seem like a great story to me. Moreover, the questions reporters ask may well contribute to a reframing of the issue. Should this be a reporter's mission? That word "mission" makes me nervous. We're supposed to report the news, not make it. On the other hand, if something is happening out there — if others are taking on this mission, that's where we need to go with our reporting.

And please do note: I'm making a deliberate distinction between daily news journalism and other forms. As a magazine writer, I would feel no qualms at trying to change the terms of the debate.

Lastly, I see a story here about the expropriation of "Holocaust denier" for use with reference to global warming skeptics. I suspect there are some people who are mighty angry at Ellen Goodman today. That would make an excellent jumping off point for a potentially compelling story.

— T.Y.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Here's a curious item, courtesy of the BBC: The Norwegian government has unveiled architectural drawings of a "doomsday vault" designed to store seeds from all known food crops and keep them safe from the Apocalypse — that is to say, safe from global warming, nuclear war and asteroid strikes. Construction gets under way next month on the island of Spitsbergen, with the opening of the unique seed bank scheduled for 2008. The vault will be built 364 feet inside a mountain.

Next, what about an ark?

-- Tom

The Next Global Warming Debate: Adapting to Climate Change

The IPCC report last week pointed out that no matter what we do now to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, we are committed to a warming climate and rising sea level for centuries to come. This is because the oceans have been absorbing something like 80 percent of the heat retained in the climate system by greenhouse gases, and that energy will gradually be released over a long period of time. In addition, carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere today will stay there for at least 100 years (if it isn't absorbed into the ocean).

One might think that the inevitability of continuing climate change would prompt a discussion of how to adapt to stronger storms, more frequent and blistering heat waves, longer lasting and more intense drought, rising sea level, and the like. But among many environmentalists, the subject of adaptation is simply taboo. Those who raise the issue, such as the University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, Jr. are considered climate change skeptics, or worse. Now, Pielke, Dan Sarewitz of Arizona State University, and two other colleagues have made a compelling case for adaptation in a commentary in the journal Nature: "Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation".

Pielke and his colleagues point out that in addition to the change that we're already committed to, "climate-related impacts on society are increasing for reasons that have nothing to do with greenhouse-gas emissions, such as rapid population growth along coasts and in areas with limited water supplies." And "those who will suffer the brunt of climate impacts are now demanding that the international response to climate change focus on increasing the resilience of vulnerable socieites to damaging climate events that — like Katrina — will occur regardles of efforts to mitigate emissions." Overall, the authors say we should be considering policies that would make socieities more resilient to a host of environmental changes and impacts, including but not limited to climate change.

Expect environmentalist knees to jerk on this issue. As journalists, it's our job to observe and describe that jerking, but also to give a fair look at the arguments for adaptation. This is one of the big untold stories about climate change.

Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Cynical Washington Pundit Weighs in on Global Warming

Robert Samuelson must have been in a cheery mood when he wrote these cynical words, appearing in today's Washington Post: "The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution."

But then he goes on to describe some solutions, including a high oil tax and increased research on nuclear power, electric batteries, alternative fuels and capturing carbon dioxide. Many potential solutions are either available or are in development. And even the Bush Administrtion's own projections offer some reason for hope.

For example, the Department of Energy conservatively estimates that biofuels could displace at least 30 percent of our liquid fuel consumption by the year 2030. No panacea for sure. None of the potential solutions are. And we certainly don't know whether they will avert the worst possible outcomes of global warming. But Samuelson fails to point out that this is a 50- to 100-year project. We built the current oil infrastructure in considerably less than that amount of time. So why does he so easily dismiss the possibility that we can achieve the same kind of transformation again?

As I warned in my previous post, we can't trust the political reporters — especially the ones in Washington — to cover the coming policy debates about global warming, at least not alone. Their view from inside the Beltway is way too jaundiced.

-- Tom

Congressional Poll on Global Warming: Republicans still skeptical that humans are causing it

In a National Journal Poll (pdf file), Democratic and Republican House and Senate members were asked the following question: "Do you think it's been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that the Earth is warming because of man-made problems?" The unsurprising results suggest that ideology is a very strong screen through which partisans interpret science. From the National Journal:

Eighty-eight percent of the Democrats supported mandatory limits on carbon dioxide emissions, with just a slightly smaller percentage supporting a market-based cap-and-trade system. Among Republicans, just 19 percent supported mandatory limits on CO2, but 42 percent actually supported the cap-and-trade system.

As Michael Nisbet points out in his excellent "Framing Science" blog, the differences in public opinions about global warming are "a combined result of strong opinion-cues from party leaders and the ideological safe zones created by Fox News, political talk radio, the WSJ, conservative columnists, and other right-wing venues."

The hang-up for Republicans in the poll seems to have been the words, "beyond a reasonable doubt." Many acknowledged that the climate was warming, and that humans may be playing a role. But they balked at the idea that the science is settled — at least on the overall question of human culpability for climate change. It looks like the poll was conducted before the release of the IPCC report. Even so, it is striking that such a large majority of the country's leaders repudiate the judgement of most of the scientific community.

What this suggests is that even though the scientific debate over 'global warming: yes or no' is over, debate over policy responses is likely to be extremely intense and partisan in coming years. This raises a critical question for journalists: Who is going to take the lead in covering these issues? Will it be environmental journalists, who have the scientific grounding as well as the breadth of knowledge of other fields, such as economics and policy, to cover the debates effectively and with sophistication? Or will it be political journalists, many of whom think issues consist of only two sides, red and blue, and likely will not have the knowledge to integrate the science, economics and policy? I suspect it will be the latter. Maybe it's time to start lobbying editors for a team approach to covering the politics of global warming.

-- Tom

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Ecological Footprint

Growing population and affluence are the main causes of environmental stress, according to a new study, published in the February issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. Meanwhile, the research shows that urbanization, economic structure and the age of the population have little impact on our ecological footprint.

The study identified 20 nations that will likely have the biggest impact by the year 2015. Following the United States at the top of the list are China and India. For more information, read this summary at Eurekalert.org.

For environmental reporters covering growth and sprawl, this is an interesting perspective. Check it out.

-- Tom

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: http://stripe.colorado.edu/~yulsman/nature04141.pdf.

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?

Friday, February 2, 2007

IPCC Report: What's a Journalist to Do?

By Tom Yulsman

In the aftermath of publication of the "IPCC report." today, the Bush administration is taking credit for playing a "a leading role in studying and addressing global climate change." In a press release posted to the web, U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman said this:

"The Administration welcomes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which was developed through thousands of hours of research by leading U.S. and international scientists and informed by significant U.S. investments in advancing climate science research. Climate change is a global challenge that requires global solutions. Through President Bush's leadership, the U.S. government is taking action to curb the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and encouraging
the development and deployment of clean energy technologies here in the United States and across the globe.

"EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson chimed in with his own self-congratulatory remarks: "Through our commitment to sound science and innovation, the Bush Administration has built a solid foundation to address the environmental challenges of the 21st Century."

The press release goes on to claim that the U.S. "leads the world in advancing climate science and addressing our impact on Earth's climate," thanks to $29 billion in "climate-related science, technology, international assistance, and incentive programs — more than any other country."

It seems that Bush has gone from saying that we couldn't do anything about climate change because we didn't know enough about it to saying that we've been doing a huge amount all along. In reality, what obviously has happened is that the politics of the issue has shifted profoundly. With the change in power in the Congress, corporate support for action on climate, and ExxonMobil's recent decision to admit that climate change is real and we ought to be doing something about it, the administration no longer has any cover for claiming that the issue needs further study. Of course one could argue that action was justified years ago, even before Bush became president — as an insurance policy against something we could never be absolutely certain would happen but which has long looked likely enough to warrant a significant policy response.

The IPCC report explicitly recognizes something that climate scientists like James White here at the University of Colorado have been saying for quite some time now: Warming and sea level rise will "continue for centuries due to the timescales associated with climate processes and feedbacks, even if greenhouse gas concentrations were to be stabilized." In other words, no matter what we do now, we should expect significant change for a very long time to come.

Issues for journalists to address:

What is included in the $29 billion the administration is claiming to have spent on climate science, technology, incentives and assistance? In the technology area, does this include so-called "clean coal" and nuclear power, and how much do those expenditures compare with spending on energy efficiency and renewable energy? I think we all know the answers, but they should be documented.

And now that the IPCC has explicitly said we should expect our planet's climate system to change significantly no matter what we choose to do now, what should we do about this? (How do you spell "adaptation"?)

Lastly, journalists really should hold the administration accountable for its actions (suppressing and misrepresenting climate science) and inaction (failure to take climate change seriously until now — if it is, in fact, taking it seriously now).

Given a statement today from Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman, some might argue that the administration is not being serious enough. According to an "AP report", Bodman continued the administration's opposition to mandatory reductions in greenhouse gases, saying this would hurt the economy. He claimed that the United States is "a small contributor" to greenhouse gas emissions. For the record, as a country the United States is the single largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and overall we are responsible for about 27 percent of all emissions. Does that sound like "small" to you?

Thursday, February 1, 2007

KPCW Weighs In with Tom on Media Coverage of Global Warming

This morning our very own Tom Yulsman spoke with the morning host on KPCW 91.9 FM out of Park City, Utah. He talked about the recent burst of media attention on global warming.

Check in later. If the station posts the audio file on their Web site, I'll put a link here.