Environment Update
As Globe Warms, Adapt and Mitigate: Our View
As a piece of literature, the latest report from the United Nations' expert organization on climate change is no John Grisham page-turner. Pulled together by 309 authors and editors from 70 countries, the document released this week brings to mind the saying about a camel being a horse designed by committee.

Despite the turgid prose, excessive acronyms and bewildering flow charts, the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change makes an important contribution, most notably with its new emphasis on adaptation.

Three key takeaways:

Global warming is here, now and, yes, global. The list of horribles likely to occur if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked is already familiar to anyone who has been paying attention. Rising sea levels. Displacement. Disease. Food shortages. Violent confrontations over resources. What the report also makes clear, however, is that the threat isn't just distant and theoretical. "The effects of climate change are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans," a summary states. "They are occurring from the tropics to the poles, from small islands to large continents, and from the wealthiest countries to the poorest." In the USA, these effects include more intense heat waves and droughts, shrinking snowpack in the Western mountains, and melting glaciers and eroding shorelines in Alaska.

A global problem requires a global response. Yes, as the world's second leading emitter of carbon dioxide (5.2 billion metric tons in 2012), the United States should play more of a leadership role in curbing greenhouse gas emissions. The Obama administration is taking worthwhile steps to limit carbon dioxide emissions from coal plants and methane emissions from natural gas production. Better still, though politically difficult, would be a tax or other mechanism that puts a price on carbon pollution.

U.S. actions will mean little, however, if developing nations, particularly China, don't also move to curb their emissions. China (9.9 billion metric tons in 2012) passed the U.S. in 2006 as the world's top emitter of CO2 and continues to build coal plants at an alarming rate.

At the U.N. this fall, nations are supposed to offer a mix of commitments to cut carbon pollution and provide funds to help poor nations cope with climate change. That's to be followed by a summit in Lima, Peru, to draft a final treaty and a signing ceremony next year in Paris. If the latest U.N. report prods policymakers to reach a deal after years of inconclusive talks, it will have served an important purpose.

All is not lost. Even if world leaders manage to agree on new emission limits, the treaty wouldn't kick in until 2020, and a certain amount of warming is already "baked in" for decades to come. That makes adapting to a warmer world an important part of the response, and here the outlook is less gloomy than the scary predictions suggest.

Humans, it turns out, are pretty good at adapting to changing circumstances. People already know how to build dikes and seawalls. Technology can help identify threats. Research and development might produce cleaner energy to replace fossil fuels. Geo-engineering might be able to trim the amount of warming. Advances in agriculture can protect crop yields. Sophisticated risk management practices can be applied to a changing climate.

None of this changes the need to address the drivers of global warming, and one thing the report doesn't spend a lot of space on is the tired debate about the science. It simply notes that the world's leading climate scientists are 95% to 100% certain that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the middle of the 20th century. So every day spent on arguments about whether man-made climate change is real is a day better spent on mitigation and adaptation.