With the fiscal cliff in his rear-view mirror and Congress yet to take up arms over the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama has a window of opportunity to begin doing what his predecessors did not: Use the power of the office to marshal support for an international plan to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases that have put the earth on a fast track to climate chaos.
More than any world leader, Obama is well-positioned to jump start flagging efforts by the international community to agree on a strategy. Regrettably, he has preferred to address climate change largely at home, and then only in fits and starts.
Politics and the fragile economy have kept global warming well down on Obama's policy agenda, even as it moves up the scale of voter concerns with each new heat wave or superstorm.
The president, to his credit, has not entirely ignored the threat of a climate out of whack. But his attentions have been inconsistent. He did raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards, and last month clamped tighter controls on soot from smokestacks and vehicle exhaust.
Yet, he also is pushing a dramatic expansion of domestic oil and gas production, and recently declared that he won't act boldly to address climate change at the expense of jobs and the nation's carbon-based economy. In that respect he is marching with his predecessors, unwilling to risk political capital on a matter of no immediate import.
The problem for Obama, though, is that time and tide wait for no one, not even a president.
A growing body of scientific studies have concluded that the planet is warming faster than anticipated, accelerating the frequency and strength of climate disasters, with both immediate and long-term consequences. Flooding, drought, famine and rising sea levels are already a drag on the global economy. And, barring a dramatic reduction in carbon emissions by the major polluting countries, catastrophic climate change is likely to disrupt global supply lines for diminishing supplies of food and energy well before the end of the century.
The latest international conference on climate change ended last month with plenty of room for despair. The meeting of 195 nations illustrated that the major polluters remain fixated on today's economic concerns as time runs short. Sadly, it's been that way for 20 years, and this country has done little to change that.
Given the stakes, then, it is well past time for a U.S. president to take a major role in concluding a global plan that scientists already are concerned may come too late.