August 20, 2013
Atlantic City . (Wayne Parry/Associated Press)
By the end of the century, this scene may look different. (Wayne Parry/Associated Press)

If you are at the beach this week, you probably don’t want to hear about the latest climate report, as opposed to weather report. Spoiler alert! Here’s the scientists’ assessment: Unless we reduce carbon emissions dramatically, we are looking at a sea-level rise of 21 inches to 36 inches by the end of this century. In other words, the toddlers you see playing in the tide pools or screaming in glee as they race the edge of the surf will know a world where many of our current beaches are eroded or gone and many of the world’s largest cities are in danger. This scientific report, produced by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and leaked to the press, is the most definitive report yet that human activity is responsible for climate change and that our children and grandchildren will face a dramatically different physical world without action by us. Such action currently seems beyond political possibility.

Our response to global warming fits the paradigm in Barbara Tuchman’s book The March of Folly. Tuchman examined several historical fiascos, among them the Vietnam War, and concluded that most historical tragedies have this in common: the action (or inaction) in question was perceived as wrong during its own time and not just in hindsight and there were clear, contemporaneous alternatives to it. Ditto for climate change. We know it is happening, we understand its consequences better than ever, and we know what to do to about it: raise the price of carbon (so it reflects the real price its dispersal places upon us) and thus hasten the conversion to other energy sources. Despite this knowledge, on we march to a sea coming closer.