03/13/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated May 13, 2014

The Climate Crisis is Here

Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Peter Morton, a co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain, is on the Board of Trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Los Angeles -- Here in California, we have been experiencing the worst drought on record. More than a meteorological curiosity, this has been a calamity for many people and a hardship on the economy, the world's 8th largest if we were an independent country.

Crops are dying in California's once lush fields, source of half the country's fruits and vegetables, wildfires have been raging throughout the state, ranchers have sold cows they can't feed, wells are running dry and towns are running out of water, salmon fisheries are threatened as streams dwindle to a trickle. The governor of the state has declared a drought emergency, and the cost of the drought has soared past $5 billion, by some estimates.

This is what climate change looks like.

We've been hit by droughts before, and we would face more in the future even if we weren't loading up our atmosphere with heat-trapping carbon pollution. But the scientific models are also clear that climate change will make droughts like this more frequent and more severe. It is causing sea levels to rise, worsening the impact of coastal storms and allowing diseases and pests to spread more widely, among other consequences.

Yet the truth is that in Los Angeles, where I live, we don't grow food and our taps have not run dry, so we're feeling less of the impact from this drought. And that is part of the real problem with America's struggle to address the climate crisis, the gravest environmental threat of our time.

Too many folks still don't get it.

Because they are not directly affected, too many people remain oblivious to the reality that climate change is already here and that we are already paying a huge price for it. Too many are unaware of the far, far greater expenses we will incur in the future from climate disruption, caused by humans pumping 90 million of tons of heat-trapping pollution into the atmosphere every day. Too many politicians, backed by the oil, natural gas and coal industries, point only to the costs of cleaning up this pollution.

They always exaggerate these costs. Worse, they refuse to admit that we are already suffering the consequences of our inaction, and they deny that any more calamities are to come. Yet the facts tell a different story:

-- Across the U.S. in the first six months of 2012, 24,000 heat records were broken, and 2013 was one of the 10 hottest years on record. Drought affected about two-thirds of the continental United States in 2012 and was blamed for $30 billion in agricultural losses and another $1 billion in destruction from wildfires.

-- The flow of the Colorado River, which winds across the western third of the U.S. to northern Mexico and provides water for 30 million people, is at its lowest levels since measurements in Arizona began more than 90 years ago. The most recent draft of the government's National Climate Assessment warns that with a changing climate, in the Colorado River Basin, "...drought is projected to become more frequent, intense, and longer lasting than in the historical record."

-- The Rocky Mountains in Canada and the U.S. have seen nearly 70,000 square miles of forest die since 2000 due to outbreaks of tree-killing insects that are now able to survive in the warmer winters.

-- Water scarcity already affects every continent. Around 1.2 billion people, or almost one-fifth of the world's population, live in areas of physical scarcity, and 500 million people are approaching this situation.

-- Ocean acidification, caused by the massive carbon pollution in the air, has contributed to the death of 40 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Half the corals in the U.S. and its territories, and as many as 70 percent worldwide, including Australia's Great Barrier Reef, are severely degraded or at risk of extinction. Coral reefs are home to one-fourth of all marine species and provide habitat to fish and shellfish that feed half a billion people.

-- After nearly 2,000 years with relatively little change, sea levels rose an average of seven inches just during the 20th century. In this century, if current warming patterns continue, sea levels could rise 10 to 23 inches, according to the Intergovernmental panel on Climate Change. In the U.S., roughly 100 million people live in coastal areas within three feet of mean sea level.

-- By 2050, we can expect up to 1 billion additional "climate refugees" who will be driven from their homes by drought, famine, flooding, coastal erosion and monster storms. This unprecedented scale of refugee movement threatens to destabilize entire regions.

But we are not powerless to slow and eventually reverse the accumulation of atmospheric carbon pollution that is driving climate chaos. As individuals, as consumers and as citizens, we can all play a role in eliminating waste, living more efficiently, getting more of our energy from clean sources and demanding action from our elected officials.

We can waste less food (40 percent of the food in the U.S. goes uneaten) to lower the demands on our fossil fuel-intensive agricultural system. We can choose a climate-friendly diet, high in locally produced, organic foods, especially fruits, vegetables and grains, and low in meat. (Particularly beef, which, largely due to methane emissions from cows, has a carbon footprint at least 10 times larger than chicken).

We can drive less, buy more fuel-efficient cars, and insulate our houses. Increased efficiency, in fact, is the unsung hero in the climate battle. Over the past 40 years, according to a recent report by the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading environmental group, "efficiency's contribution to meeting the nation's overall energy needs exceeded that of all fossil and nuclear resources combined." Using the best technology, factories and businesses can produce more with less dirty energy.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we can demand that our leaders acknowledge the real threats of climate change, ignore the fear-mongering from the fossil fuel industry, and take the steps necessary to cut the carbon pollution that is choking the planet. The NRDC and other conservation groups have outlined a number of steps that the government should take, but one stands out: cut the carbon pollution from fossil-fueled electric power plants.

These plants are the source of 40 percent of America's carbon pollution, and the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority and the obligation under the law to take action. The polluters, predictably, cry this will devastate the American economy, but NRDC has conducted an exhaustive study that shows a flexible, state-by-state approach can cut carbon pollution sharply at a reasonable cost.

Solving the climate crisis is not a technical problem, it is a political one. Politicians will take steps to restore the environment and protect human health if, and only if, citizens and voters demand it. The public generally favors clean air and water and limits on carbon pollution. But the fossil energy industry, powerful and wealthy, has mobilized its forces to block progress.

That means citizens who want to move climate to the top of the political agenda will have to mobilize as well, by supporting, with determination, persistence and funding, organizations that are dedicated to averting climate chaos.

Apathy is not an option. We have a moral obligation to future generations to act on climate change now.

Peter Morton, a co-founder of the Hard Rock Cafe restaurant chain, is on the Board of Trustees of the Natural Resources Defense Council.