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What were we thinking? We dump more than 21 million tons of greenhouse-gas pollution into the atmosphere every day. Did we think it wouldn’t matter?

Unlike some other pollutants that dissipate over time or that weaken as they become diluted, greenhouse-gas pollution can last for centuries and continues building up in the atmosphere. As it accumulates, it forms a barrier around the planet that traps heat.

Average global temperatures have already increased by one degree Fahrenheit over the past century, and 13 of the hottest years on record have occurred since 1990. Until recently there was a lingering scientific debate about whether the rise was the result of human activity or something else. That debate is now over. Carbon dioxide emitted from burning fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas—is the problem’s largest source.

More than 20 years ago, some scientists predicted that our excessive dependence on fossil fuels would cause temperatures to rise, and that as a result we could expect more severe storms, heat waves, and droughts. Sea ice would melt and sea levels would rise. All of these are now happening. In fact, a recent report indicates that Arctic ice is actually melting three times faster than previous models indicated.

As the layer of greenhouse-gas pollution thickens, our planet is entering uncharted territory. An additional rise of two to three degrees Fahrenheit will cause climate-associated disasters to worsen. Warming above that level risks large-scale, irreversible changes, including the extinction of many species, the more rapid spread of water- and pest-borne diseases, and the loss of coastal areas to rising sea levels. The world we would leave for our children and grandchildren would be a very different place.  

There is still time to prevent the worst consequences by reducing greenhouse-gas pollution now. Each of us can start by minimizing our own carbon footprint. We can encourage local governments to pass energy-efficient building codes, as New York City has done for its municipal buildings, or pressure state governments to pass energy-efficiency legislation, as New Jersey has. Most important, Congress must adopt mandatory limits on greenhouse-gas pollution, reducing emissions by at least 15 percent to 20 percent by 2020, and by 80 percent by mid-century.

The climate crisis is global. Since the United States contributes one-quarter of the world’s greenhouse-gas pollution, we should lead the world in addressing the problem. In doing so we can build a new energy economy that will create jobs and opportunities for American business and farmers to produce clean power, clean cars, and clean, sustainable fuels.

This is the most important challenge we have ever faced. But we know the cause and the solutions. To get active, click here.—John Flicker

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