With the recession deepening and numerous other world crises brewing, President-elect Barack Obama may be tempted to postpone any action on global warming until after his first year in office. This would be a huge mistake for a host of reasons, but most particularly because time is running out for mankind to take the needed actions to thwart the most disastrous effects of climate change.
The planet is not merely approaching a perilous situation when it comes to the effects of man-made greenhouse gases; that day has already arrived. The relevant scientific community has reached a clear consensus: Many decades of unchecked fossil fuel consumption has pushed the planet far beyond the natural cycle, and the impact of this enhanced warming, especially the forecast rise in sea level this century, could ultimately lead to human suffering on an epic scale.
Certainly, there are other pressing issues facing the incoming administration. Difficult foreign policy challenges from the Middle East to North Korea and the lagging economy and continuing woes in the credit and real estate markets are more than enough to keep any White House occupied.
But the harmful effects of climate change, while not necessarily as immediate as some other potential threats, could outweigh them all over the long term. And little will be accomplished this year to reduce global warming without U.S. leadership that's been absent far too long.
During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to take many of the necessary steps to move the nation toward a low-carbon economy. He endorsed a reasonable cap-and-trade system that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050. And he promised to move the country away from foreign oil and toward renewable energy and so-called green jobs.
Nothing has changed that should defer these goals. The president-elect even has a ready vehicle to help get a lower carbon economy rolling in the proposed multibillion-dollar economic stimulus package that he wants Congress to pass. The plan ought to include major new investment in alternative sources of power, energy conservation programs, public transportation and other green opportunities.
At the very least, the U.S. needs to have its new policies in place before next December's conference in Copenhagen when representatives from 170 countries will push for a new climate change treaty under United Nations auspices. There is no better chance to assert U.S. interests - or to put the world on a path toward change - than to demonstrate a willingness to engage in an issue the Bush administration spent most of eight years merely denying.
Make no mistake, there will be significant opposition in Congress and from certain deep-pocketed traditional energy interests such as coal producers. Flat-earth types and other naysayers will no doubt suggest that an economic downturn is no time for added burdens on the business community. Some delay may even appeal to the president-elect with centrist tendencies.
But none of the global warming remedies is apt to happen overnight, and the cost of delay is far greater - not only for the business community but for everyone living on the planet.