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Wake up to the reality of climate change

By Bill Richardson
updated 10:15 AM EDT, Mon March 31, 2014
A farmer and his children plant a field with bean seeds and fertilizer in southern Ethiopia in 2008, a year after severe floods destroyed most of the food crop. Ethiopia is the country 10th most vulnerable to climate change effects, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2013/10/29/world/climate-change-vulnerability-index/index.html'>according to a 2013 report by Maplecroft</a>. A farmer and his children plant a field with bean seeds and fertilizer in southern Ethiopia in 2008, a year after severe floods destroyed most of the food crop. Ethiopia is the country 10th most vulnerable to climate change effects, according to a 2013 report by Maplecroft.
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10th most at risk: Ethiopia
9th most at risk: Philippines
8th most at risk: Cambodia
7th most at risk: DR Congo
6th most at risk: Nigeria
5th most at risk: South Sudan
4th most at risk: Haiti
3rd most at risk: Sierra Leone
2nd most at risk: Guinea-Bissau
Most at risk: Bangladesh
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bill Richardson: New report says the science is clear: The world is warming in dangerous ways
  • Impact of climate change is being felt on every continent, the report finds
  • He says governments and companies are taking steps to respond to the threat
  • Richardson: Ultimately, setting a national price for carbon is the way to transition to the future

Editor's note: Bill Richardson is the former governor of New Mexico, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, former U.S. Energy Secretary, and a current board member of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization on environmental issues. He serves on the boards or consults with companies in the energy field. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- "Nothing poses a bigger threat to our water, our livelihood and our quality of life than a warming climate." Those are my words from 2006 upon the signing of an executive order on climate change for New Mexico when I was governor.

Almost a decade later, this statement still holds true. But now we have even more information about climate change, both the risks and solutions.

Bill Richardson
Bill Richardson

The just-released report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a collection of more than 800 leading climate scientists, reaffirms that climate impacts are already occurring and having a dramatic impact on society. Climate change is driven by our dependence on fossil fuels and is expected to get worse. In order to shift directions, we need nothing less than to rethink how we power our country.

Here's what we know:

The climate science is settled. The IPCC report is the latest addition to a staggering body of scientific research connecting our energy choices to costly climate disruption. The report is consistent with several other authorities -- such as the National Academy of Sciences, U.S. Global Change Research Program, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration -- that bring stronger language and greater certainty about climate change and its risks. Just as we know that smoking causes cancer, we understand that human activity causes climate change.

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Climate change is happening now and we are all feeling the effects. Earlier this month, the American Association of Advancement of Science reminded us that "climate change is happening here and now."

We are now witnessing how it is changing our world: The past winter was the eighth-warmest on record. For 348 consecutive months -- 29 years -- global temperatures have been above average.

The latest IPCC report finds that impacts from climate change are "widespread and consequential" and they are being felt on every continent and in our oceans. The world last year experienced 41 weather-related disasters that caused damages totaling at least $1 billion. Over the past decade, the western United States experienced seven times more large-scale wildfires than it did in the 1970s. Climate change has made it much more likely that we will suffer severe droughts like the one that recently swept across Texas and my home state of New Mexico.

Finally, without action, things will get a lot worse. As climate impacts mount, they will bring more damage to our economy and communities. Even 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of global temperature rise could cut yields of crops like wheat, rice and corn, driving up food prices. Unless greenhouse gases are reined in, many more people will be at risk from devastating flooding, similar to what residents faced in Boulder, Colorado, last year. Overall, economic losses from climate change will cause a significant blow to the global economy, even at the lower end of climate projections.

So what can we do in the face of a changing climate?

Fortunately, local leaders, including mayors and governors, are responding to climate impacts and building more resilient communities. For example, city officials from Chicago to Miami are taking steps to reduce urban flooding with permeable pavement, dampen extreme heat with green roofs, and redesign levies to withstand stronger storm surges.

At the federal level, the Obama administration has called for additional funding for climate resilience and just unveiled a climate data initiative to arm communities with better information about climate change.

Opinion: Climate change could cost more than $100 billion a year

But, it's clear that we need to do more. According to the IPCC, by significantly reducing emissions we can avoid the worst consequences of climate change and cut economic damages by half.

We're making progress already. Americans are embracing clean energy, buying solar panels at a record pace as the price has plummeted by 80% in just four years. Many large companies, like Apple, Google and Walmart, are investing heavily in renewable energy. Even ExxonMobil is among dozens of U.S. businesses now operating with an internal price on carbon.

And important new emissions standards are coming. Under the U.S. Climate Action Plan the president announced last year, the Environmental Protection Agency is moving ahead with standards to reduce carbon pollution from existing coal-fired power plants -- the largest source of U.S. emissions. These rules are the most significant opportunity to cut U.S. emissions in the near term and will help the country play a leadership role in the run-up to a universal climate agreement in 2015.

The science tells us that much deeper reductions are needed in the decades ahead. Ultimately, a national price on carbon would be the most effective way to expedite a transition to a safer, low-carbon future.

The evidence is overwhelming: Further inaction guarantees disaster. Alternately, we can re-balance our energy mix and rise to the challenge of the 21st century. Let's hope that a decade from now we will look back with confidence that we stood up to the global climate crisis.

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