“At the core of the global warming dilemma is a fact neither side of the debate likes to talk about: It is already too late to prevent global warming and the climate change it sets off,” writes environmental author and advocate Mark Hertsgaard in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Environmentalists won’t say this for fear of sounding alarmist or defeatist. Politicians won’t say it because then they’d have to do something about it. The world’s top climate scientists have been sending this message, however, with increasing urgency for many years.

… Until now, most public discussion about global warming has focused on how to prevent it — for example, by implementing the Kyoto Protocol, which comes into force internationally (but without U.S. participation) on Wednesday. But prevention is no longer a sufficient option. No matter how many “green” cars and solar panels Kyoto eventually calls into existence, the hard fact is that a certain amount of global warming is inevitable.

The world community therefore must make a strategic shift. It must expand its response to global warming to emphasize both long-term and short-term protection. Rising sea levels and more weather-related disasters will be a fact of life on this planet for decades to come, and we have to get ready for them.

Among the steps needed to defend ourselves is quick action to fortify emergency response capabilities worldwide, to shield or relocate vulnerable coastal communities and to prepare for increased migration flows by environmental refugees.

Hertsgaard is right: Most folks, green groups included, have been largely ignoring this elephant in the living room.  

Even if the world community does a U-turn tomorrow and embraces the challenge of completely revamping our energy and industrial systems (and we all know how likely that is), we’re still toast. Climate change is here, it’s now, it’s happening, it’s inescapable. Cutting greenhouse-gas emissions will just make it less catastrophic. (Not that we don’t still need to be cutting — cut, cut, cut, says Hertsgaard!)

If greens thought it was hard to rally people with the message that action must be taken to avoid future warming, how tough will they find it to galvanize action with the message that climate disaster is unavoidable but we must try to make it slightly less bad?  

This is a change of approach for Hertsgaard, who has long used sunny language in talking about climate change by touting a “Global Green Deal” that would “make restoring the environment the biggest economic enterprise of our time, a huge source of jobs, profits and poverty alleviation.” It’s the sort of message that has picked up steam with the Apollo Alliance, and that more and more environmental activists are getting hip to.  

But how to effectively combine the sunny and the gloomy? Greens want to inspire — need to inspire, as the fear-n-doom approach obviously hasn’t been working.  And yet somebody has to be responsible and speak truth about what’s happening to the climate — we need to prepare for coming disasters, now. Can environmental groups and climate activists effectively communicate both of these messages?  Now there’s a PR challenge.