Two new reports by a leading international panel should put the task of addressing climate change on the nation's priority list. President Barack Obama has made a start by investing in cleaner energies and seeking to reduce global warming emissions of greenhouse gases. But the United States will need to do more and do it quickly to reduce the natural and human impacts of climate change that pose global safety threats in the near future.
The reports by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared flatly that "human influence on the climate system is clear" — a needed shot at critics who want to sidetrack the public debate over global warming with junk science instead of looking at real strategies for reducing the impact of rising temperatures. Into the second half of this century, the threats from climate change will be felt across the world. Rising sea levels will endanger coastal areas and island nations, putting at risk everything from the fresh drinking water supply to urban infrastructure. Extreme weather could cause a breakdown in the food supply, triggering hunger crises. And the populations of poorer nations in particular could see new threats from disease, the loss of marine life, drought and other changes. In an increasingly interconnected world, these are pressing dangers to global order and American security that call for a robust response.
The exhaustive reports by the world's leading climate science body, written by more than 300 authors from 70 countries, call for the world community to work together across a broad front to stem the worst effects of climate change. Nations already have prepared several levels of defense. Africa is strengthening its public health capacity. Europe and Asia are improving early-warning capabilities for natural disasters and better managing their coastal resources. North America is hardening its energy and flood control systems.
The panel struck a hopeful note in its latest report issued Sunday. While acknowledging that greenhouse emissions were rising faster than ever, experts said there was still time to act and called for a heightened sense of urgency from the world's political leaders. The challenge is to fold the piecemeal approaches by nations, states and cities into comprehensive global action toward investing in cleaner fuels.
Obama should follow through with the action plan on climate change he rolled out last year. Cleaner power plants and cars, more efficient appliances and construction, and investments in cleaner energy are critical areas for presidential leadership, especially given that Congress will not pass a climate bill any time soon. The administration also should press on the international front for a global climate pact in the next year. Using his executive power to address climate change at home will bolster the president's credibility with China, India and other countries. It also could provide an opening for the United States to create a $100 billion global climate fund it proposed in 2009. These are all ambitious efforts, but the risks are increasing, not going away.