This post originally appeared on the National Journal's Energy Experts blog. It is a response to the question: "What's holding back energy and climate policy?"

We are in a race for sure, but it is not a race among various national issues. It’s a race to slow the pace of our rapidly changing climate. The planet is warming faster than previously thought, and we cannot afford to wait for national politics to align to make progress in slowing the dangerous rate of warming.

Recent events, like the tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, propelled gun control front and center. Last year’s elections shifted the national conversation on immigration. Climate change, too, should demand the attention of our national leaders.

The evidence of climate change is clear and growing. In 2012, there were 356 all-time temperature highs tied or broken in the United States. As of March, the world had experienced 337th consecutive months (28 years) with a global temperature above the 20th century average. Global sea levels are rising and artic sea ice continues to shrink faster than many scientists had predicted.

There are indications that Americans are deepening their understanding about climate change, especially when it comes to its impacts. People are beginning to connect the dots around extreme weather events, rising seas, droughts and wildfires, which have been coming in increasing frequency and intensity in recent years. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated that weather-related damages in the United States were $60 billion in 2011 alone. The effects of climate change are upon us, and the impacts will continue to mount until the United States – and other global powers – respond with far greater urgency than they are today.

The U.S. Congress remains sharply divided and seems unable to respond to our national challenges—whether it is around climate change or gun control. However, President Obama has tools at his disposal to drive significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. This is the path he referred to in his State of the Union address, when he said:

“I will direct my Cabinet to come up with executive actions we can take, now and in the future, to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

A Path Forward

WRI recently conducted an analysis that lays out concrete steps that the Administration can take to ensure that U.S. emissions continue to decline and reach its international obligation of reducing emissions by 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. These steps are essential: Without further action, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions will hold relatively constant and would likely rise by 3 percent by 2035 (over 2005 levels).

The four greatest opportunities are to implement:

  • Standards to reduce carbon pollution from both new and existing power plants;

  • Requirements to phase out the use of certain hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), which are most commonly used in refrigeration and air conditioning;

  • Standards to reduce methane emissions from natural gas systems (Read WRI’s recent paper on methane emissions from natural gas systems); and

  • Actions to improve energy efficiency in the residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, for example by setting new energy efficiency standards similar to those that have been languishing at OMB.

There are likewise a number of steps that can be taken at the state and regional level to both cut emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. In many cases, the local level is where the most leadership is being shown, whether it’s installing infrastructure to prevent flooding from rising seas or designing cities to be more resilient to warming temperatures.

Falling Behind

Other countries continue to move ahead while the U.S. government drags its heels. The European Union is on course to reduce its emissions 20% below 1990 levels by 2020 (even though allowance prices in their Emissions Trading System are low). Australia currently has recently implemented national legislation to reduce emissions. And, globally more than 118 countries have renewable energy targets.

When it comes to moving to clean energy, the United States is likewise falling behind. According to the latest data from the Pew Charitable Trust, China retook the number one slot in clean energy investment in 2012 with $65.1 billion, an increase of 20 percent over 2011. In the United States, by contrast, clean energy investment plunged 37 percent, to $35.6 billion.

Taking Action

Certainly, it would be preferable if Congress were to move forward with strong national climate and energy policies. And, Congressional action will likely be necessary to achieve deeper carbon pollution reductions over the longer term.

In the meantime, the administration cannot afford to stand idle. The impacts of climate change – including rising seas levels, droughts, wildfires, and super storms – are not waiting, either.

Like other pressing national issues, our leaders have a moral obligation to protect current and future generations. Taking action would demonstrate that they understand what’s at stake for American citizens and the world.