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Column: New Climate Report Gives Us Another Chance to Get It Right

The people who are paid to spread doubt and confusion about our changing climate have been working overtime this week, because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a scientific body that includes thousands of the world’s best climate scientists, has just issued its latest assessment. The IPCC report is the Olympics of climate change — once every few years the best in the world show us the results of thousands of the most recent research studies. Inevitably, it brings out the peddlers of doubt, people who do their best to muddy the waters about our changing climate. It’s so predictable you could write a book about it.

In fact, I did write one. Six years ago, when the last IPCC assessment came out, I left my day job in journalism and started work on The Climate War. I thought it would be a book about how we finally started to get serious about climate change — I figured we had to, because that report declared that global warming was “unequivocal” and that most of the observed warming was “very likely” caused by human activity.

Instead, it became a book about how we didn’t get serious. The peddlers of doubt won that round and, in 2010, they defeated climate action in the U.S. Senate.

Now the IPCC is back with a new report. Basically, the scientists are as sure that human activity is warming the planet as they are that cigarettes cause cancer.

That means we have another chance to get it right. And we have a deeper understanding of how high the stakes are. Here are a few nuggets from the new report:

∎  Ocean levels may rise by 3 feet by the end of this century if emissions are not curbed. Stand on the shore in Lower Manhattan, Miami or Mumbai and contemplate what that means.

∎  The chances of an extreme heat wave have more than doubled, and heavy rainfall events are expected to intensify and occur more often.

∎  The carbon pollution we put in the atmosphere now — the stuff that’s causing global temperatures to rise — will stay here for a long time. One-fifth of it will still be up there in 1,000 years. That’s why we have to move to clean energy now, because the problem is very hard to fix once the pollution is in the air.

∎  The oceans are becoming more acidic due to excess amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That has damaging impacts on marine life, coral reefs and the global food chain.

∎  A recent “pause” in warming — much trumpeted by the peddlers of doubt — is partly caused by natural variations in the climate and is unlikely to last as we load more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. (During this “pause” we’ve had 12 of the 14 hottest years since recording keeping began in 1880.)

The short version is that the path we’re on — pumping billions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year — is not sustainable. Like a factory dumping toxic waste into the river where you fish for dinner, it has consequences for our health. In the case of climate change, those consequences will be stronger and more expensive storms, the spread of insect-borne diseases, longer droughts, worse floods and less international stability.

So what are we to do with such scary predictions about an enormous global problem? Well, most us of us will turn the page and read about something else — then go to work, pay the bills, and raise our families. In other words, do all the things over which we have some control, and leave global warming to someone else.

The problem is that someone else isn’t going to solve this until we demand that they do. There are lots of people who make money off the current way we use energy, and it requires citizen action (and smart incentives) to change things. That means pushing lawmakers to move the country toward cleaner energy, even if it results in us paying a little extra now to avoid a lot extra later. (Note to consumers and taxpayers: Hurricane Sandy alone cost you $65 billion. Since research suggests climate change causes stronger storms, think about what the future bills may be.)

It also means rejecting irrational attempts to undermine science with false information. Our elected officials, in particular, have a responsibility to conduct a debate grounded in facts, not just whatever someone happens to type on the Internet.

One example of misinformation is a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal claiming climate change may be good for the planet. It’s full of unsupported spin, like the claim that “most experts believe that warming of less than 2 degrees Celsius from preindustrial levels will result in no net economic and ecological damage.” That is a complete misunderstanding of the debate about when irreversible damage occurs (possibly at 2 degrees), not when serious negative consequences begin (they start right now, around 1 degree). It also cherry-picks small and highly speculative “benefits,” while ignoring the vastly bigger and more certain threats we face. The piece reads like a blog post declaring that the moon landing was faked — conclusions based on the distortion of stray details that miss the big, obvious truths.

The good news is that the world has begun to act. Europe has put limits on carbon pollution, as have countries representing one-third of global economic activity. The United States has started limiting greenhouse gas pollution from cars and will soon place limits on power plants as well. Even China has started to test cap-and-trade programs in seven regions. It’s not enough yet, but it’s a start.

There are good ideas for solving this challenge across the political spectrum. All responsible voices — that is, those that deal in facts — are needed in this debate. But we must move with a sense of urgency. The climate is not going to wait until we’re all comfortable with this new reality.

Let’s not miss another chance to get serious about this urgent problem.

Eric Pooley, a former managing editor of Fortune, is a senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund (www.edf.org), and the author of The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth (Hyperion, 2010).