“The Heat is On,” says The Economist. The warning is emblazoned on the magazine’s Sept. 9 cover, over a photograph of a parched desert where the only sign of life is the indefatigable cactus. Inside is a 24-page special report on climate change anchored by a photograph of a firefighter with his back turned to a raging wildfire.


But the images belie the editors’ true intentions. The “heat” that is on is not a reference to rising temperatures during the twentieth century or any other physical evidence of trends in global warming. Rather it is an entreaty to the public, the business world and government (especially America’s) to mitigate human contributions to climate change, and to do it now.


With regard to climate science itself, there is nothing terribly special about author Emma Duncan’s special report. She thoroughly and categorically sums up the major facets of this most clamorous debate. The first half of the report’s 11 articles read like a well-articulated FAQ on climate science: is climate change a hoax? What’s with all the scientific uncertainty? Are hurricanes growing more frequent or intense? Is warmer weather really that bad? What will happen to flora and fauna as the planet heats up? What happens when sea level rises? Each of those questions has been covered individually and in more depth elsewhere. What is truly special about Duncan’s report is that she quickly dismisses the naysayers who tout the unknowns in climate science as a banner excuse to avoid cutting back on deleterious emissions of greenhouse gases. She writes in the story’s leader:


“So is it really worth using public resources now to avert an uncertain, distant risk, especially when the cash could be spent instead on goods and services that would have a measurable near-term benefit?


If the risk is big enough, yes. Governments do it all the time. …”


Global warming poses threats that are both long-term and global, making it, according to Duncan, “one of the hardest policy problems the world has ever faced.” But the real threat, as she points out, is that world leaders become bogged down or beaten down by such difficulties, “and in that way, nothing will be done.”


This reluctance to take a hard line on global warming also ensnares American media. Journalistic norms that mandate “balanced” stories have pushed many writers to give equal weight to dissenting scientific opinion, no matter how trivial or on the fringe, in their articles. In the case of climate change, this lends credence to the arguments of those, such as former White House confidant Phil Cooney, who distort scientific uncertainty for political ends. The extent to which humans are guiding climate change in the face of long-term natural variations and cycles, is an important question in some debates, but completely irrelevant in others. Excessive greenhouse gas emissions are dangerous - enough said. If you don’t believe the literature, stick your mouth on the end of a tailpipe. The risks are there. The heat is on. Emissions must be cut.


But how do we make mitigating greenhouse gases attractive? Money is the obvious response, but perhaps not the best. The Kyoto Protocol attempted to jump the global and long-term hurdles that make policy so difficult, but failed. The protocol’s only child — the market in carbon — has made emissions reduction attractive by making it profitable. “But,” writes Duncan, “deciding whether it is worth taking action against climate change is not as simple as setting the costs of climate change against the costs of mitigation.”

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.