DAVOS, Switzerland - Don't put off action on global warming just because times are lean - that's the message Al Gore, world environmental leaders and U.S. executives sent Friday to President Barack Obama.
Worries are mounting that economic troubles are sapping momentum, in the U.S. Congress and in other world capitals, for costly investment in clean energy and cutting carbon emissions.
"The oceans are being choked off of oxygen. They are dying as a result of this process we are seeing before our eyes the melting of the polar ice cap," Gore said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. "The assumption that we can continue on this path is an assumption that is collapsing."
Many countries are looking to Obama for aggressive action after frustration at the Bush administration's refusal to sign international pacts on reducing emissions of carbon, blamed for global warming.
Gore, U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer and executives were discussing the fate of a U.N. meeting in Copenhagen this December aiming for a global agreement on reducing emissions. Questions remain over the new U.S. government's position on the Copenhagen meeting, which is seen as crucial.
"We need an agreement this year, not next year or some other time," Gore said.
Still, Gore expressed optimism in Obama, calling him "the greenest person in the room" for making environmental funding a big chunk of the $819 billion economic stimulus bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives this week.
But he and other panelists acknowledged that the financial crisis will be a key challenge. Governments could shy from forcing polluting industries to pay for their carbon emissions or using taxpayer money for expensive new clean energy investments - even if they prove more efficient in the long term.
"Undeniably the financial crisis is making things more difficult," U.N. climate chief Yvo de Boer, told Associated Press Television News. "There is a shortage of finance, you see that many renewable energy projects are being put on the back burner."
But he added, "If you look at the economic recovery packages of the European Union, the United States, Japan, China - they are all using this as an opportunity to change the direction of economic growth, and that I find encouraging."
Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who will host the Copenhagen meeting, urged countries to agree to reduce global emissions by 50 percent by 2050, and said industrialized countries should reduce by 80 percent.
"We have to be vigilant so that the crisis does not derail this," he told the AP.
The onus is not only on Obama. Climate negotiators are looking anxiously at developing giants and heavy emitters China and India. And Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin disappointed some activists with his non-committal stance on climate change in his keynote address at the Davos forum.
Media magnate Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp., joined the call to ensure that investment in clean energy doesn't collapse.
"There's a real risk that the alternative energy industry could die again," he said later. "I really hope that the new president will not let that happen."
The head of the New York Stock Exchange, Duncan Niederauer, agreed.
"We've got to stay the course on energy efficiency," he said. "It's time we get serious about it and push it through."