The following is a guest essay from James Gustave Speth, dean of the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and author of Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment. The opinions expressed here are his personal views.


Thanks to an outpouring of first-rate science, excellent media coverage, and a resurgent Al Gore, the U.S. public may have turned an important corner in acknowledging global warming as a real and serious threat. To see Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in theaters alongside Nacho Libre and the usual fare is extraordinary indeed.

But if Americans take the next step and ask, "OK, what do we do now?" we encounter five other truths, most of them also inconvenient. They do tell us what we must do, however, and by when.

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First, the United States is a quarter-century late in responding to global warming; serious climate change is already underway and requires action now, not later. There were warnings from the scientific community as early as 1979 and many in the 1980s. We frittered away that chance to respond, and here is what we are up against now. If we want to avoid leaving a ruined world to our children, we are going to have to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by about 60 percent globally and 80 percent in the U.S. and other developed countries, both by 2050.

To do this, global emissions must peak about 2020 and decline steadily thereafter. Developed-country emissions should already be declining. The U.S. is clearly on the wrong path. The Energy Information Administration projects that both U.S. coal use and carbon dioxide emissions are currently slated to increase by 40 percent by 2030.

Bottom line: the issue is not only real and important — it is genuinely urgent. The actions we take in the next few years will be critical.

Second, it would be comforting to think that the international community used the last two decades to build up an effective international framework for climate action — comforting, but wrong. Scholars have lately been developing the concept of treaty "ossification." The example they cite? The climate treaty and its well-known offspring, the Kyoto Protocol. One reason is that the North-South divide has deepened in the negotiations. There has been no agreement yet on how to achieve equity in the greenhouse. Another reason, of course, is U.S. intransigence.

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Bottom line: a huge effort is now required from the U.S. and others to revitalize international negotiations with the aim of moving beyond the Kyoto Protocol and realizing emissions cuts such as those just mentioned. Perhaps a group of eminent international leaders outside of government should negotiate a model agreement to show that it can be done.

Third, though there are modest stirrings in Congress, we are nowhere near real action from our elected officials in Washington. Moreover, despite vigorous maneuvering by the Administration to fend off any meaningful steps to address this looming disaster, our political leaders and others in Washington are not being held accountable for failing to address a threat as serious as that of terrorism. The media still treat the climate issue primarily as a scientific, technical one.

Bottom line: it is time for this issue to become highly salient in electoral politics. Those alarmed about climate change — and that should be all of us — can start voting the issue in this year’s national elections. We need to mobilize politically.

Fourth, even though the public is now aware of the issue, there are only the earliest signs of a popular movement for change. The climate emergency is precisely the type of issue — long-term, complex — where far-sighted leadership from elected officials is at a premium. But we have waited long enough for that leadership, and it is time for citizens to take the helm before it is too late.

Bottom line: it is important to transform the new public awareness into a popular movement. Remember: climate change was also a Time cover story in the mid-1980s, but no movement resulted.

Finally, the good news. The world is awash with major technological and commercial opportunities and excellent policy prescriptions to mitigate climate change — all that we need to reverse the threatening trends and prevent the direst predictions from coming to pass. And many U.S. cities, states and businesses are already showing the way. Indeed, the goal in California is precisely that noted above — an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050.

Bottom line: our greatest gift to the new generation can be a world sustained and whole. But only if we act now. The default option is a ruined world.

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