For the average person, it is sometimes difficult to appreciate the depth and breadth of the threat represented by climate change. Flip around the cable TV channels, and it's not hard to find completely contradictory views of the issue. And at a time when Washington seems unable to handle its most basic fiduciary chores, the possibility that lawmakers might seriously address this long-term global threat seems unlikely at best.
But if Americans are to truly understand what's happening to the planet and what it might mean for them, a good starting point would be to consider the most authoritative and comprehensive review of scientific evidence currently available. And as it happens, that very document was published last month. The latest analysis produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), compiled by hundreds of scientists and dozens of authors from around the globe, shows that climate change is real, it's largely caused by man, and it's the greatest environmental threat we face.
That's not alarmism, it's reality. Of course, know-nothing deniers will be as dismissive of the IPCC findings as they've been of similar reports in the past. That the IPCC is under the auspices of the United Nations will be used to stir up nationalistic suspicions. That climate change policy is highly inconvenient for the fossil fuel industries will cause the big coal and oil companies to continue their disinformation campaigns.
None of which changes the reality that climate change poses a serious threat, and as the evidence mounts, it's actually become easier to distinguish these basic changes in the ecosystem from the normal ups and downs of weather. No one super storm or drought or tornado is traceable to global warming, of course, but the data are simply too overwhelming to ignore. Each of the last three decades has proven successively warmer than the previous. Any recent slowing of that trend or plateau, as the report notes, has more to do with variables such as volcanic activity and the solar cycle over the last five years than it does the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
How quickly will it worsen? How bad will it get, particularly for coastal communities threatened by rising sea levels? Forecasts vary, and much more needs to be known about the impact of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. But as a recent study published in the journal Nature suggests, the hottest monthly temperatures ever recorded in the past century and a half could become the baseline norm in less than three decades.
Yet what's most troubling about the IPCC report is what little impact it's had on the public consciousness. Perhaps the timing was terrible, given the focus on the debt ceiling and the Obamacare impasse of recent weeks. Or maybe it's simply the way reporting of climate news is too often translated into a false equivalency — as if the massive data set and scientific consensus represented by the IPCC report was off-set by the outlandish views of a relatively small cadre of deniers. Or perhaps it's the mistaken opinion that little can be done about the problem.
Whatever the cause, climate change can't be left as a back-burner issue. The U.S. and other countries have an opportunity to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and, at minimum, delay or soften climate change's worst effects. The rules proposed last month by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to reduce carbon emissions from power plants represented a step in that direction but only a small one given how few coal-fired facilities were likely to be built. Applying similar standards to existing power plants next year will have a greater impact — and will be more controversial.
That's why it's essential that Americans know the truth about climate change and the dangers the world faces. Surveys show most Americans believe global warming is happening. Even Texans do — by more than a 2-to-1 margin, according to a recent survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. But such beliefs sometimes soften when confronted with the hard choices required to reduce harmful emissions.
Just because the IPCC can't offer absolute certainty on the full effects of man-made climate change is no reason to do nothing. The longer the U.S. waits to take corrective action, the less effective it will be. That such remedies could also make the nation more energy secure, less polluted and more fuel-efficient and create thousands of green energy jobs ought to be considered as well. Climate change isn't just a threat, it's also an opportunity to put humanity on a more sustainable and prosperous path.