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Time to act is now Global warming panel's impact report ought to be followed by policy steps

The dry will get drier. The wet will get wetter. The poor, of course, will suffer the most. As many as 30 percent of the Earth's species face an increased risk of extinction. Even getting some handle on the flow of the greenhouse gases that contribute so much to the problem of global climate change cannot be expected to offset the need for some sometimes-massive adaptations in the way hundreds of millions of human beings live.

And the question of what to do about these now undeniable problems needs to come out of the realm of scientific inquiry and into the lap of political leaders. That handoff is happening this month and next with the release of the final two chapters of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The part announced Friday went further than anything to date in quantifying the existing and future damage to the planet's ecosystems due to the increasing overall temperature of the planet, an increase caused in large part by the human habit of burning things to keep warm, keep cool, make things and get around. The next part, to be released in May, is supposed to outline some more concrete steps the world's government can and should take to mitigate the damages.

Between the dawdling of the developed world and the fact that China and India have fueled their rapid acceleration into the 21st century economy with 19th century coal-fired technology, even the best efforts to reduce carbon emissions won't, realistically, be enough. But the adaptations that are being discussed -- giant seawalls and other water-control projects, massive relocations, changes in farm techniques -- will at once be more urgently needed and harder to accomplish unless efforts to retard the growth of carbon in the atmosphere also are stepped up.

The political foot-dragging is almost sure to continue, and it is telling that one White House environmental official seized on the part of the IPCC report that noted the possibility, in the medium term, of increased agricultural outputs in some of the world's warmer temperate zones. But looking for the bright side to global climate change is not responsible policy. Action, from developing new energy sources to helping the poor of Africa deal with more drought and the poor of Asia avoid more floods, is necessary, and soon.

The report notes that the poor are more likely to be harmed because it is the rich who can adapt, re-engineer their cities, repurpose their industrial facilities, find new ways of doing things and, if they are at all clever, make money while doing so. But can and will are not the same thing. We need leadership, in government and in business, to see the problems and seize the opportunities.

And we needed it yesterday.

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