A funny thing is happening on the way to the global climate change summit in Copenhagen in December.

After years of costly delays, companies, industries, and nations are finally taking a hard look at the science—which, these days, is tantamount to staring into the abyss. They’re gradually agreeing that urgent action is needed to curb the greenhouse gases that are warming the earth’s atmosphere, melting glaciers and Arctic ice sheets at an alarming rate, touching off cascades of severe weather, and threatening food and water supplies.

The trend is either a huge opportunity or a harbinger of bad times for meetings and events, depending on how the industry chooses to respond.

We’ve been through the debates about whether the science is legitimate. (It is.) We’ve heard the scary, exaggerated claims that climate action will bankrupt the global economy, and we’ve seen them answered.

In 2006, U.K. economist Nicholas Stern concluded that addressing climate change would cost 1 percent of global gross domestic product, but that failing to prevent its impacts would reduce GDP by up to 20 percent.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congressional Budget Office reported that climate legislation would cost the average American household about $15 per month by 2020, before accounting for the jobs that will be created, the costs avoided due to reduced pollution, or the health benefits and increased productivity that will result from fossil-fuel reductions.

The Copenhagen summit is crucial, perhaps our last chance to reach a workable climate deal as a global community—and our grandchildren will never forgive us if we fail. But our industry will have to learn a new set of skills and a whole new lexicon to get from here to there.

Planners and suppliers have rarely had to think about the energy efficiency of the buildings where meetings take place. But the best facilities are learning that efficiency is a competitive advantage: After reducing their operating costs, they can brand themselves green and draw on a growing clientele pursuing sustainable meetings.

Our industry consumes fossil fuels in so many different ways. We use it to haul freight and shuttle participants. It’s there in the trade-show collateral we produce, in the food and beverages we serve. Meeting professionals will soon have to become much more accurate about calculating their events’ carbon output and much more diligent about reducing it.

The biggest challenge will be air travel, where there is no immediate option for replacing carbon-based fuels. In June, the International Air Travel Association put a price of more than a trillion dollars on the combination of fleet efficiencies and carbon offsets that will be needed to make its members’ operations truly sustainable. (Sarcasm alert: Thank goodness the airlines have deep enough pockets to absorb that kind of investment.)

The good news for meetings might be bad news for airlines: Our industry has the know-how to slash air travel and still make the most of participants’ on-site experience. In fits and starts, we’re learning to make selective use of virtual meetings, co-locate face-to-face gatherings, and alternate large meetings with smaller local or regional gatherings, all while maximizing the face-to-face interaction at the heart of a successful program. This expertise will become more important as climate change forces the issue.

The bottom line is that none of this can wait. Earlier this year, sustainable business strategist Joel Makower asked his online audience what they planned to do with their next 5,000 days—because, he said, that’s the time we have left to avert catastrophic, irreversible climate change. By mid-century, we have to reduce our carbon output by 80 percent. Not as an industry. As a global community. And not because one or many columnists say so, but because the science doesn’t lie.

Meetings can be a part of the solution, and we can make our industry smarter, more efficient, and more resilient along the way. For better or worse, we have little margin for error.

A word from home: On October 5, The Conference Publishers celebrated 25 years in business. The anniversary has given me good reason to think about the dozens and hundreds of meetings industry colleagues who’ve helped us reach this point. From our blog earlier this week: “So many clients have become valued colleagues, and some of those colleagues have become life-long friends. So very many people have been so important to our first 25 years, and it’s been a privilege to be a part of that community.”

Mitchell Beer, CMM is President and CEO of The Conference Publishers Inc., one of the world’s leading specialists in capturing and repurposing conference content. Beer blogs at theconferencepublishers.com/blog. Send comments, facts, arguments, or column ideas to mitchell@theconferencepublishers.com.