With all due respect to Ohio Republicans and their collective affection for the late William McKinley, whose second term in the White House was cut short 114 years ago by an anarchist's bullets, the most important event of President Barack Obama's trip to Alaska was not the return of Mount Denali to its rightful name. What deserves greater attention from all Americans are the strong words the current president had regarding climate change and the urgent need for action on an international level.
"On this issue — of all issues — there's such a thing as being too late," Mr. Obama told representatives of 20 Arctic nations meeting in Anchorage. "And that moment is almost upon us."
The president could scarcely have chosen a better place to make his dire forecast. Record wildfires that have consumed nearly 5 million acres, retreating glaciers and melting permafrost have made Alaska a case study in the adverse consequences of excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Rising temperatures have made forests more susceptible to fire — drier and more insect-infested — even as the warming conditions have caused the glaciers to shed an estimated 75 gigatons of water annually, contributing to higher-than-expected sea level rise.
None of this is in any serious scientific dispute, yet efforts to reduce the burning of fossil fuels, the chief cause of global warming, have been wholly inadequate to date. Indeed, President Obama's own strong words would have seemed more forceful had he not just last month agreed to allow Royal Dutch Shell to drill for offshore oil in the Arctic circle — a "twofer" of poor decision making as it both enables greater global oil consumption and puts a sensitive environmental area at great peril. Perhaps next time Mr. Obama will take a lesson from President McKinley's successor and use the big stick of his presidential pen to block such bad climate policy instead of merely speaking softly, or loudly for that matter.
But at least Mr. Obama is pointing the United States in the proper direction and is now doing so with a heightened sense of urgency. Meanwhile, if anyone believes the consequences of climate change are benign, they ought to be paying closer to attention to what's happening in Europe as countries struggle to deal with the growing tide of immigrants, most of them Syrian refugees. Now imagine a refugee crisis on a global scale as coastal areas flood, crops are lost and cities are evacuated — a circumstance Secretary of State John Kerry appropriately likened to World War II and one that would lead to far worse conflicts than the current riots and unrest.
This is the time for bold action. U.S. oil production is already at record high levels. Gas prices are falling and are expected to fall further. Now is the time to steer a course to reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Mr. Obama expects U.S. to cut emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2025, much as China has pledged to do. But that won't be adequate unless the next United Nations summit in December produces a binding international agreement that will hold the U.S. and other nations accountable for that and perhaps more.
Conservative politicians — including many of the 17 Republican candidates for president — will no doubt continue their flat-earth response to all this by cynically attacking the science, denying the evidence and promoting growth in fossil fuel production as an economic necessity. But, as Mr. Obama also observed, such deniers are finding themselves increasingly alone and "on their own shrinking island." Worse, what a costly burden will be forced on the next generation should the U.S. and other nations fail to take appropriate (and overdue) actions to at least cap global fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.
Those in Congress who would prefer a business-as-usual approach ought to at least travel to Alaska and see for themselves what's going on. The EPA estimates that average winter temperatures in the state have warmed by 6.3 degrees over the last 50 years while the state has lost 12 percent of its protective sea ice each of the last three decades. Livelihoods are threatened, the ability of Alaskans to feed themselves is diminished, and some native villages have been forced to relocate as the loss of sea ice has worsened coastal erosion. These are the facts, and, as Mr. Obama noted, the clock is running out for an appropriate international response.