The urgency of climate change

President Obama addresses the United Nations’ Climate Change Summit on Tuesday.
President Obama addresses the United Nations’ Climate Change Summit on Tuesday. GETTY IMAGES

The climate is changing faster than our efforts to address it,” President Obama told the U.N. climate change summit on Tuesday. The evidence is all too clear:

▪ Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Organization said the level of carbon dioxide in the air in 2013 was 42 percent above the level that existed before the Industrial Revolution. And getting worse.

▪ Global emissions of greenhouse gases rose 2.3 percent in 2013 to record levels, according to a tracking initiative called the Global Carbon Project. In the United States, emissions rose 2.9 percent.

▪ Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that this summer was the hottest on record for the planet, and that 2014 is on track to become the hottest year ever.

▪ A draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted devastating effects on the planet if emissions continue unchecked. Higher seas, destructive heat waves, climate extremes, torrential rains and searing droughts would become widespread and possibly endanger all life on the planet.

The climate-change summit is an attempt to galvanize support for a climate-change treaty due to be hammered out next year at another summit in Europe. Mr. Obama tried to put the best face on U.S. efforts as a way of encouraging other nations to act. He said the United States will meet its goals to cut carbon pollution 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020, and promised to keep working at it.

But resistance in Congress has blocked attempts to take effective legislative action, and that’s likely to continue. Case in point:

When the president’s chief science adviser, John Holdren, testified before a House committee on global warming last week, Republican members of the panel were openly hostile to the administration’s plan to reduce air pollution. When Mr. Holdren suggested they read the scientific literature supporting the reality of climate change and its dire impact on the planet, he was rebuffed by Rep. Larry Bucshon, R-Ind.: “Yes, I could read that, but I don’t believe it.” Other members of his party seemed to share his view.

Faced with this know-nothing attitude, the administration has no option but to use executive authority under the Clean Air Act to impose national limits on emissions of greenhouse gases. At the same time, Mr. Obama should seek a binding deal with other countries at next year’s summit in Paris that stops short of an actual climate-change treaty, considering that gridlock in Congress would most likely block ratification.

Beyond that, there are a host of actions that individuals and businesses can undertake to cut emissions.

The “People’s Climate March” in New York that drew more than 300,000 participants shows the power of private citizens to call attention to their cause.

On the corporate front, a number of well-known private companies — Philips, Fortum, Nestlé, among others — have joined a business initiative to support a price on carbon emissions as an effective method of lowering greenhouse-gas emissions. Other companies should join them. Meanwhile, the heirs to the Rockefeller fortune are ordering that their $860-million philanthropic trust divest itself of fossil fuels, saying their use is badly damaging the planet.

No single action is likely to have a significant impact on climate change, but if governments can’t agree on what to do, individuals and the private sector can lead the way.