After Copenhagen: Many Climate Stories at Home Still Unwritten

December 23, 2009

For journalists not lucky enough to go to the Copenhagen climate talks, the good news is that climate will be news at home and abroad for years to come. Many regional, state, and local climate stories are still waiting to be written. Some great ones have already been done. SEJ's Climate Change Guide offers a wealth of sources and resources that can help you put together timely and authoritative coverage that cuts through the smoke-screens and spin-wars.


No matter where you live and write, you are likely to find nearby some researchers with solid expertise on climate matters. Disciplines may range from glaciology to sociology. Often they are housed at universities, but many other key research institutions are listed on SEJ's Guide. 

Often, what is known most concretely are a region's vulnerabilities. Predictions from computer models of climate change are often less certain at finer regional scales. But we do know that whether future climate is wetter or drier, the impact on irrigated agriculture in the Colorado River watershed will be critical. Whether or not more hurricanes striking Florida are more intense, sea-level rise will increase their impact.

There are already many information sources rounding up regional impacts of climate change nationwide. One of the most thorough and authoritative is known as the "National Assessment" — first done in 2000  and updated in 2009. More overall regional climate resources are listed here.


The impacts of climate change on New England and the Northeast will likely be profound. The fall foliage that fuels the tourism industry and the softwoods that feed the paper industry may both be hurt. Ski resorts, cheddar cheese, apples, maple syrup, and lobster may all take a hit. Heat waves and smog will be more common. Eventually, a good chunk of lower Manhattan, the financial hub of the nation, would be under water. Many of the best climate research institutions — from Woods Hole to M.I.T. — are in the Northeast, loaded with top-tier experts to interview. And the epic story of the offshore Cape Wind project may offer a foretaste of climate conflicts to come. See New England and Northeast.


Climate change could worsen the destruction of the Chesapeake Bay — once one of the most productive estuaries on the continent and home of a dying and irreplaceable culture. Shifting away from coal as a source of energy — a trend already — could deepen crisis in many mining communities and push them toward a different economic future. Stresses on Appalachian forests could increase. Sea-level rise, storm surge, wetlands loss, and nastier hurricanes could threaten a number of eastern coastal cities, including Washington, DC. The drama of the federal executive and legislative branches as they do or don't deal with climate offers Keystone Kops story which is also a local one in the Mid-Atlantic.


The low-lying coastal areas of the Southeast — whether Gulf or Atlantic — are most directly in the path of incoming hurricanes, whether or not climate change will worsen them (and some scientists think it will). Sea-level rise could ultimately swamp a major part of Florida. Farther inland, climate change could reduce water supply and bring more drought to growing cities like Atlanta — with other impacts on drinking water, agriculture, forestry, transportation, and economic growth. Climate change could turn out to be a sword of Damocles hanging over not just New Orleans, but other cities like Charleston, Miami, Mobile, and Houston. Research institutions throughout the Southeast house experts working on climate-related questions. See Gulf Coast.


The nation's mid-continental bread-basket has surmounted many agricultural challenges — and climate change is likely to confront it with some new ones. The vast corn-and-soy monoculture seemed to find a get-rich opportunity in federally subsidized corn ethanol; but events since have yet to prove it a net solution to climate change or a bonanza for more than a few big-ag players who control DC lawmakers. Whether the weather regime-change is hotter-and-wetter, hotter-and-drier, or both, farmers may be forced to change cropping patterns. As the nation ramps up to the next Farm Bill over the next several years, it will be interesting to see whether agribusiness can address climate effectively — or whether the efforts to develop non-corn biofuels (which got starter funds in the 2008 Farm bill) bear fruit. See Midwest/Great Plains.


The eight U.S. states which border the Great Lakes (along with the Canadian province of Ontario) have in their care roughly 22 percent of the Earth's fresh surface water. The commercial fishery they once supported is now gone — supplanted by a troubled sport fishery. The lakes were the highway of the now-decaying Rust Belt economy. Lake levels have been dropping dramatically, and climate change may have a lot to do with it. Climate change may worsen heat waves and smog in Great Lakes cities like Chicago. See Great Lakes.


Is the mountain pine beetle outbreak that is devastating forests in the Rockies a sign of climate change? Scientists are still studying it. Is accelerated gas-drilling in Colorado a boon or bane? How about oil shale? Wind? Geothermal? How will climate change affect the headwaters of the Colorado and Columbia river systems? Or the ski industry? The many issues include siting of energy transmission corridors, drought, dust-storms, wildflowers, and wildfires. The deglaciation of Glacier National Park is just one of many impacts on parks. One reason writers in this region won't lack for climate stories is the many major research institutions — from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder to the National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden, Colo. See Rocky Mountains.


In the already arid Southwest, water is often the key element limiting not only economic development — but life itself. Dwindling rivers — combined with permanently depleted aquifers — could wither agriculture and strangle urban growth. Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal likely will play a substantial role in the region's climate change discussion. Some parts of the Southwest have high potential for solar. Transmission corridors, dust storms, extreme heat, forest health, wildlife habitat, invasive species, recreational use, and air quality may all prove thorny climate issues. Because dealing with climate has always been a struggle in the Southwest, there are many major research institutions that can offer experts and news. See Southwest.


At the Copenhagen climate talks, California's governor was fond of pointing out that if it were a nation, it would rank among the world's top 10 economies. Vast enough to contain several climate zones, it ranges from the swimming pools of the  water-constrained Los Angeles and the megafarms of the water-subsidized Imperial Valley … to the coastal fishing towns and ancient redwood rain-forests of Northern California. When it comes to climate policy, California is several years ahead of where some people think the U.S. as a whole should be. Los Angeles has one of the biggest smog problems, and its electric power mix is low on fossil-fuels and big on alt-fuels. Watching the wildfires, one gets the idea that "sustainability" (or unsustainability) is not some long-term theoretical concept, but a breaking story on the evening news. See California.


Rainfall and snowmelt make much of the Pacific Northwest what it is. The Northwest is richer in hydropower than almost any other part of the country — hydropower that has supported the aluminum industry, and the aluminum-hungry aircraft industry. The forests that have been an economic mainstay in the region are facing serious climate challenges that are compounded by economic challenges. At the same time, cities like Seattle are taking the lead as the federal government dawdles on issues like clean energy and climate. Seattle has its own climate policy — to go with its energy code, green building code, and bike-friendly transportation system. Research institutions like the University of Washington have led the way here for a long time. See Pacific Northwest.


Climate change is already happening dramatically in Alaska, and even former Governor Sarah Palin admits it. The computer models predicted it, and it is happening. Among the impacts are the melting of permafrost — which not only makes key aspects of Alaskan life impossible, but also releases more greenhouse gases and worsens warming. Global warming has the potential to affect many of the things that matter in Alaska — ranging from salmon to wetlands and native peoples. Alaska is also one of the states in deepest thrall to the oil industry, which spends millions every year lobbying against limits on greenhouse emissions. In Alaska, climate is always a story. See Pacific Northwest.

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