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Column: Climate Change: An Urgent Debate

Following two of the most destructive years for climate catastrophes, President Obama is now calling for a “wide-ranging” conversation with scientists. Let’s talk.

As climate scientists who’ve together spent decades studying how and why our climate is changing, we welcome that opportunity. “Frankenstorm” Sandy brought a message for you and all of us: climate change impacts are here now, right now.

Climate change clearly contributed to Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive superstorms in U.S. history. On the stretch of the Atlantic Coast where we call home, sea level is rising four times faster than the global average. Global warming is heating the Atlantic Ocean and increasing atmospheric water vapor loading, both of which contributed to Sandy’s power and deluge.

Were Sandy just a single disaster, the story might end there. Unfortunately it is not. The insurance giant Munich Re reports annual weather-related loss events have quintupled in the United States, costing Americans more than a trillion dollars.

This year we have suffered through a string of record-breaking extreme weather events, all worsened by climate change. These included “Summer in March,” the hottest month in U.S. history (July 2012), the worst drought since the 1950s and a wildfire season that is rivaling the worst ever, a record set only six year ago. In 2011, the United States broke its record for the most billion-dollar weather disasters in a year: 14 totaling $47 billion. And this year’s number of disasters puts it on track to be No. 2.

The last few years are part of a longer trend of climatic disruption that is impacting communities and the world here and now. Already, observations indicate that the ranges of more than a thousand species are shifting poleward and up mountainsides to escape the increasing heat; CO2-driven ocean acidification is starting to dissolve coral reefs; the number of regions experiencing drought have doubled since the 1970s; over the last 10 years, wildfires in the American West burned twice as much land area each year as they did just 40 years ago; twice as many new high temperature records have been set in the past decade compared to new record lows; and both the minimum area and minimum volume of Arctic sea ice each summer are well below their values of 30 years ago with new records set in 2012.

The danger of such large changes, accompanied by an increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather, loss of biodiversity, imperiled food systems, a 2-to-4-foot sea level rise, and myriad national security risks, will present enormous challenges to our nation’s infrastructure and landscapes and to the well-being of people and communities around the globe.

An increasingly disruptive climate and a bankrupt nation could be the legacy we leave our children. According to projections presented to the U.S. Congress by Tufts University economist Frank Ackerman, inaction will cost our nation more than 1 percent of GDP by 2025 - more than $200 billion a year. And costs will skyrocket from there to an estimated $1.8 trillion a year by 2100.

The next four years — the second term of President Obama’s administration — will be critical. Faith Birol, chief economist for the usually conservative International Energy Agency, has repeatedly said that real progress toward a low-carbon economy needs to start very soon to avoid warming of 6 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Patience and credence can no longer be given to those denying climate change. The delays that these so-called “skeptics” and vested fossil-fuel interests are causing in the face of convincing detection and attribution only increase the staggering costs of adaptation and relocation.

Having seen the devastating impacts of Sandy, at least a few leaders in Washington seem poised to acknowledge what scientific analyses have clearly shown: human activities are causing climate disruption. Whether encouraged and forced by regulations, product standards, a cap-and-trade policy, or a carbon tax (possibly with a proportional dividend to every American), we need a national policy to initiate the transition to a low-carbon economy.

Investing in energy efficiency and switching from use of coal, petroleum, and natural gas to primary reliance on renewable wind and solar energy is a change that we CAN make. Switching away from petroleum would also build independence from OPEC and fossil fuel cartels. According to Bloomberg Finance, the best wind farms in the world already produce power as economically as coal, gas and nuclear generators, and solar energy is proving a good investment in many states. Iowa now generates nearly 20 percent of its electricity from wind energy and Colorado and Oregon more than 10 percent.

Clean energy is the fastest-growing industry in the U.S. today, growing at a rate of 8.3 percent, creating vital American jobs despite the depressed economy and the fact that over the past century fossil fuels have received subsidies 75 times the size of those for renewables since the mid-1990s. We saw inspiring political leadership when Sandy struck. Now we need equally bold and visionary action that taps into the best in ingenuity and technology that our country has to offer. Encouraging both economic development and environmental well-being requires creation of a modern, clean energy system that protects both our nation and our environment. The scientific community is eager to engage in the conversation the President seeks, but we all must recognize that the conversation must turn quickly from talk to action.

This story can have an ending we can live with. It is up to us.

Michael MacCracken is chief scientist for Climate Change Programs at the Climate Institute in Washington. James J. McCarthy is a professor of ocean science at Harvard University and former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.