As the clock ticks down to a major climate conference this December, the Obama administration is calling on leaders everywhere to prevent a “collective moral failure of historic consequence.”

“This is a critical year,” Secretary of State John Kerry said, if the world is going to meet the challenges of climate change and transition to a clean energy future. “Future generations will not, and should not, forgive those who ignore this moment.”

He spoke March 12 in Washington to an international audience of diplomats and thought leaders who are looking toward a U.N. Climate Change Conference to be held in Paris. Global negotiators aim to hammer out an agreement in late 2015 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Industrial activity of the last century, fueled by carbon-based fuels, has created the greenhouse effect that is warming the planet, scientists agree. Increasing temperatures are linked to extreme weather events, sea level rises, ecosystem disruption and droughts.

Climate change leads to increasingly extreme weather events, such as 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. (© AP Images)

Kerry said U.S. clean energy policies have lowered emissions and are on target to reduce greenhouse gases from 2005 levels by up to 28 percent by 2025. If these actions are sustained, Kerry said, the United States will “be able to cut our emissions by 83 percent by mid-century.”

Some opposed to action argue that reducing reliance on coal and oil is too expensive and would slow economic growth and cut jobs. Kerry outlined a different future, where the expansion of clean energy technologies is “poised to be the largest market the world has ever known.”

At U.S. urging, Chinese and Indian governments recently committed to adopt more clean energy technologies and reduce emissions under agreements that Kerry called an “enormous achievement.” In previous climate change negotiations, both countries had been reluctant to cut emissions for fear of inhibiting industrial growth.

The United States’ top environment official, Gina McCarthy, also emphaiszed the moral obligation to act on climate change in a March 11 speech.

“I recently met with Vatican officials who are working with Pope Francis on a new encyclical on climate change,” said McCarthy, who is the adminstrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “Pope Francis and many faith leaders across the world see climate as a moral obligation.”