KEYSTONE Global warming is the hottest story of our time, and it will get even bigger as the full implications of melting ice caps and rising sea levels percolate through the media pipeline and into general public awareness, a panel of journalists said last weekend during the American Bar Association's environmental law conference.The discussion was focused on how the media has covered the story and whether or not public perception of global warming has changed in recent months and years. Among the questions the panelists tried to answer is why it has taken so long for the story to reach critical mass. Most of the panelists credited Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," with helping to generate attention. The Democratic takeover in Congress has also advanced public debate, the panelists said. And even though the basic global warming science heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is "third-grade" stuff, according the Wall Street Journal's John Fialka, the issues have been clouded by a massive, industry funded propaganda and disinformation campaign aimed at creating uncertainty.But now the issue is taking center stage, and journalists must help explain the evolving story in terms that readers can understand, by showing them how the impacts will affect their lives, the panelists agreed.Widespread impacts"If the scientists are anywhere near right, we can expect massive dislocations," said Fialka, of the Wall Street Journal's Washington, D.C., bureau. As always, the biggest burden will fall on the poor when sea levels rise and disease vectors grow in developing countries, he said, adding that those impacts will subsequently require the charity of developed industrial countries.The next section of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, focusing on global warming impacts, is due to be released at a meeting in Belgium next month. A draft version of the report says that, within a few decades, hundreds of millions of people will face water shortages, while tens of millions will be flooded out of their homes. Tropical diseases like malaria will spread, pests like fire ants will thrive and by 2050, polar bears will mostly be found in zoos. By 2080, hundreds of millions of people could face starvation, according to the IPCC draft report. "We live in a country where more people care about the death of Anna Nicole Smith than the death of a planet," said moderator Judy Muller, a long-time NPR contributor and associate professor at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School of Journalism.Most of the panelists agreed that there has been a huge change in public perception of the global warming issue just in the past year. After explaining that the story has been reported for several decades, they tried to answer the question of why it has taken so long to catch hold.The challenge at this point may be explaining the full import of global warming, said ABC News correspondent Bill Blakemore, who's been reporting on the issue for more than two years.Blakemore, who has covered numerous wars over the years, said global warming is the most challenging story he's worked on."It's surreal to have pre-eminent scientists tell us very seriously that civilization as we know it is over," Blakemore said. "The scale is unprecedented. It touches every aspect of life."Cost and consensusFor one thing, it's becoming clear that global warming is going to cost big-time across all sectors of the economy."All the major stakeholders are going to take a hit unions, the energy industry, everybody," Fialka said."The public debate is lagging way behind scientific consensus, which is as strong as the consensus on the link between smoking and cancer," said author Eugene Linden, who penned a recent book on the issue called "The Winds of Change; Climate, Weather and the Destruction of Civilizations."According to Linden and Blakemore, the global warming issue has been the subject of a massive, industry-sponsored disinformation and propaganda campaign aimed at creating the perception that there is still a scientific debate on the basic facts of global warming."We have been spun by Exxon and Peabody Coal," Blakemore said, comparing the situation to the long-running effort by tobacco companies to create uncertainty about the health risks of smoking.Only one of the panelists, Colorado Springs Gazette editorial page editor Sean Paige, took a contrarian view. Paige, the only panelist who wasn't prepared to jump wholeheartedly on the global warming bandwagon, said a decade of sensationalistic coverage of environmental issues has resulted in a cry-wolf syndrome."Maybe the wolf is at the door now," Paige said, referring to global warming. "But the public has tuned out. We (journalists) haven't been skeptical enough of the environmental anxiety industry," he said."And nothing focuses the mind like an impending tidal wave of regulation," said Paige, referring to the potential for top-down federal rules to regulate greenhouse gases from a Democractic Congress.Paige, describing himself as a layered skeptic, said there's still room for a global warming debate. "What can be done and what will it cost?" Paige asked. Journalists should be asking whether it's really wise at this point to pour massive resources into prevention when the money might be better spent on adaptive measures. Paige said it's not clear that capping greenhouse gas emissions, for example, will make a meaningful difference in curbing the warming trend.Political contextPaige also said he sees a form of eco-McCarthyism on the rise, with the fixation on "consensus" leading to a muzzling of dissenting voices. "Let's silence everybody who doesn't agree," Paige said, characterizing the mood as he perceives it and claiming that there are legitimate scientists out there who have valid questions about the state of global warming science. But those voices are not being heard, he said, expressing concern about the potential loss of civil liberties in the rush to find a solution to the problem."We had a chance to have a reasonable debate," Linden replied. "Instead we had denial. The Bush administration and a Republican Congress had years and years to frame a response to global warming that doesn't involve government regulation," Linden continued.But that never happened because the Republican leadership never acknowledged that global warming exists, said panelist Margaret Kriz, who covers energy and the environment for the National Journal."The people who set the agenda didn't believe, so for all practical purposes, it didn't exist," Kriz said, singling committee chairs like James Inhofe, who loudly claimed that global warming was a hoax, using his leadership role on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee as his pulpit. Linden said those denialists are now losing credibility by changing their tune."They're now saying the climate is changing, but that it's natural," he scoffed. "It's not as if global warming will only hit liberals. It's an equal-opportunity destroyer. And the hardest thing of all will be admitting that those insufferable environmentalists were right," Linden said.'Inconvenient' presentationJeff Hart will present a free slide show and discussion on Al Gore's Academy Award-winning film, "An Inconvenient Truth" at 4 p.m. Saturday, March 17, at the Speakeasy Theater, 103 South Harris, in Breckenridge. The film and the slide show is about the planetary emergency of global warming and what we can do about it. Jeff has 15 years experience managing evaluations of government environmental programs and policies. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (303) 907-4664.Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.