Chess.Photo: Ramkumar RajendranThe politics of the radical right have locked the U.S. into energy-policy stalemate, at least through the middle of this decade. With the climate clock running out, is this stalemate also checkmate for the planet?

Despite the ongoing tragedy in D.C., the clean energy movement has real solutions that can both revitalize the economy and stop the destruction of global climate stability. What clean energy does not have enough of — and what the Tea Party does have — are committed political candidates and its own power base in a committed business community.

National Democrats, President Obama included, talk a good game on clean energy. But beyond a handful of legislators who really get the idea (and this may yet include the president), the commitment is shallow. With Republicans scared to death to even acknowledge the science, there is no competitive pressure on the Democrats to deliver.

At the same time, the sustainability movement in business has fostered surprising leadership. Companies from IBM to GM to GE have embraced substantial internal climate initiatives. Other corporations like Nike, Clif Bar, and Starbucks actively fought the oil companies over Prop 23 in California, which would have undermined the state’s landmark climate law.

Some of this interest in clean energy and sustainability is greenwashing, both by politicians and by businesses. But the best of it reflects real leadership by real climate hawks who deeply understand the economic promise of a clean energy future. 

How do we build power behind this vision?

First, politics. Somewhere in your state, there is a charismatic champion for clean energy running for local, state, or federal office in 2012 — someone who is good at politics and who will drive smart public policy. Find this person. Spend a few weekends in their dingy strip-mall office; help them raise money; make phone calls and go door to door. Get them elected. And then do the same thing the next year for a new champion. Office by office, race by race, is the only way forward.

Young people have an especially powerful role to play. The U.S. Constitution empowers citizens to become members of Congress at age 25. The founding fathers clearly believed in the wisdom of the young, a lesson we are ignoring at our peril. Today’s federal legislators are as gray as they have ever been, with senators averaging close to 60, and House members 55. Young climate hawks, if elected in numbers, could bring a game-changing dynamic to Washington. Yet few young people even imagine pursuing this opportunity.

Second, business by business, we need to grow the seeds of a clean energy economy. This means supporting green business with personal shopping dollars, but, much more critically, it means the direct work of transforming our own workplaces in the direction of sustainability. Is there a green team at your business? If so, get on it. If not, start one. Green business success is critical to lend political muscle to smart climate policy. California, again with Prop 23, has shown us how this can be done — even amidst divisive partisan squabbling and budgetary meltdowns. 

Many young people understand the climate crisis and are inspired by the promise of clean energy, but they face a very sterile ground in conventional business education. As undergraduates, they are thus failing to develop the leadership skills needed to become change agents in the workplace, either launching their own green businesses or transforming conventional workplaces. 

Stepping into this void, this fall the Bard Center for Environmental Policy is launching C2C Fellows, a national network for undergraduates and recent graduates aspiring to sustainability leadership in politics and business. C2C stands for Campus to Congress, to Capitol, to City Hall, and also for Campus to Corporation. C2C stands for young people gaining control of their future. By 2016, C2C Fellows will be influencing politics and business at the community, state, and national levels. C2C Fellows will be the power network for young people with the wisdom, talent, and grace to remake the world.

Stabilizing the climate is not the work of a year, of a presidential term, or of a decade. It is the 40-year work of our two generations. In 2010, the ambitious opening gambit of the U.S. clean energy movement — serious greenhouse-gas cuts beginning 2015 — was blocked by Tea Party ideologues and fossil-fuel money. 

This puts us back to stalemate, not checkmate. We have five fewer years to rewire the world. Our transformative work ahead is now harder, but no less critical for the future of human civilization.

This post is excerpted from “Tea Party to Planet: Checkmate?” at the Real Climate Economics blog.