Our view

Pay heed to report on climate change

April 7, 2014 

  • In summary

    Report by U.N. climate panel states that the world already is experiencing some of the dire effects of climate change.

Last week’s report by the United Nations climate panel will be dismissed by some deniers as just another effort to scare us about global warming. They’re right about the report being scary but wrong to dismiss it.

The U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been collecting, summarizing and reporting information about climate change since 1990. Each new report – the previous update was released in 2007 – brings worse news.

This report is harrowing not just in what it predicts for the future but also in what it tells us about what is occurring now. It notes that global warming, induced largely by the release of greenhouse gases, threatens food and water supplies, affects security and economic growth worldwide, and will worsen many existing problems, including hunger, drought, flooding, wildfires, poverty and war.

And instead of merely anticipating the effects of climate change, we already are experiencing some of them, such as more severe weather events, the migration of plants and animals to cooler areas, and changes in oceanic acidity and the resultant deterioration of coral reefs. The longer society delays in reducing planet-warming greenhouse gases, the report concludes, the more severe and widespread the harm will be.

This is not a position paper by a small group of radical environmentalists. It is the cool-headed consensus of experts the world over, the summary of thousands of scientific studies conducted by hundreds of scientists from 70 countries.

It makes clear that we shouldn’t think of catastrophic climate change as one apocalyptic event. Think of it, instead, as a series of crises.

One of the panel’s more alarming conclusions is that rising temperatures already are depressing crop yields, including those of corn and wheat. In the coming decades, farmers might not be able to produce the food needed to feed a growing world population, and the result could be hunger, starvation and ensuing chaos, especially in the developing world.

And yet, in the face of these dire warnings, much of the world, the United States included, seems unable to rally itself to take appropriate action. In the U.S., with Congress unable to break the stalemate on legislation to reduce carbon emissions, President Barack Obama has been reduced to confronting climate change by way of executive orders.

This month, for example, he announced a strategy to begin slashing emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas released by landfills, cattle and leaks from oil and natural gas production. Methane accounts for just 9 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution, but the gas is more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, so even small amounts can have a big effect on global warming.

Measures announced March 28 include reduced venting and flaring of methane from oil and gas production on public lands; development of a program to capture and sell methane produced by coal mines on federal land; new standards for landfills; and a program to accelerate the use of machines that reduce methane emissions from cattle.

But while this is helpful, it is relatively small potatoes. The nation needs a comprehensive battle plan, including a carbon tax to discourage use of fossil fuels; incentives to develop and use more clean energy sources such as solar and wind; and renewed emphasis on increasing energy efficiency at all levels.

And, as the U.N. report makes clear, there’s no time to waste.

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