The clock on climate change

A polar bear watches a whaling crew photographing the animal near Barrow, Alaska. There was record Arctic melting last year.
A polar bear watches a whaling crew photographing the animal near Barrow, Alaska. There was record Arctic melting last year.

It is ironic that the 2012 race for the White House virtually ignored climate change while the United States endured its hottest year on record. Virtually every scientist in the world agrees the planet is heating up, with catastrophic results. The problem can be fixed but time is running out.

President Obama needs to show a lot more mettle. After the 2010 election, Democrats backed off their hopes for getting the first meaningful climate legislation through Congress because of the Tea Party’s triumph. Republicans still maintain a majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, but Mr. Obama needs to move forward. Climate change is not a partisan issue. It affects everyone.

At the very least, Mr. Obama must put together a workable agreement to mitigate future effects of a warmer climate. He also needs to show the rest of the world that the United States — next to China, the world’s leading contributor to global warming — is poised to lead.

To start, Mr. Obama must push legislation that limits cumulative releases of carbon dioxide and other climate-altering gases while allowing utilities and other large industrial sources to trade emission credits among themselves, giving industry the chance to work together to reduce overall emissions. That model has been successfully used to reduce the sulfur-dioxide emissions causing acid rain. Signing a cap-and-trade law soon will give industry the regulatory certainty it wants.

Courtroom battles over greenhouse gases likely will intensify during Mr. Obama’s second term. Government lawyers need to use the powers of the Clean Air Act to successfully defend tighter rules for power plants created under former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson. They have begun shifting energy markets more toward cleaner natural gas and renewable energy, a positive sign.

Mr. Obama also needs to give U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D., Mass.) a green light on climate change diplomacy here and abroad once the Senate confirms, as expected, Mr. Kerry as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as secretary of state.

America’s climate records go back to 1895. Critics rightfully claim that’s a snapshot in time, given that Earth is about 4.5 billion years old. But it’s more than just another anecdote. Each of 16 consecutive months recently were above normal, a first in 118 years of record-keeping. The 2012 heat smashed the previous single-year record set in 1998.

There is less excuse for delay now, because that 1998 record was set nine years before the world’s top climatologists — the United Nations’ 1,500-member Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — released a landmark 2007 report that links man-made pollution and climate change, a Nobel Prize-winning effort.

Moreover, 2012 yielded more signs of symptoms than flukes. There was the record Arctic melt, the American heartland’s worst drought in 50 years, and Hurricane Sandy. More than 34,000 daily high records were set at U.S. weather stations compared to only 6,664 record lows.

The next steps especially are significant, not only for the United States, but also for the Great Lakes region. The Great Lakes ecology is one of the most susceptible to climate-change effects, and its industrial base — especially that of Ohio — is enormous. Ohio is the nation’s fourth largest energy user, second only to Texas for carbon dioxide.

The nation, and world, must change course before catastrophic climate changes become unmanageable and irreversible.