No, 450 is not politically possible today. Nor is 550. Nor is action sufficient to stave off 1,000 ppm and 6°C warming.

OK, that was clear before because congressional conservatives can certainly block the necessary action and demagogue the energy price issue — and they obviously intend to.

But I think the financial bailout bill story has yet more sobering lessons:

  1. Multi-hundred-billion-dollar-sized government action happens only when there is a very, very big crisis. Yes, lots of people out there think happy talk about clean energy and green collar jobs is mainly what you need to get a massive government spending program. Not gonna happen. The happy talk can help sell the needed policies, but without the crisis, it leads nowhere.
  2. A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for a crisis to be “very, very big” is that it must be labeled as such by very serious people who are perceived as essentially nonpartisan opinion leaders. In this case, it was the panic from people like uber-billionaire Warren Buffet and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and Alan Greenspan and even people like CNBC’s Jim Cramer (yes, he shouts a lot, but he called this meltdown a year ago and has a lot of credibility with the media).
  3. In addition, bad things must be happening to regular people right now. It was quite interesting that the House in particular voted down the original bailout, but reversed itself in large part because of the ensuing stock market meltdown and in part because they started to hear from all of the small and large businesses in their districts that the credit market was freezing up.
  4. The credible people must say that the government action is going to solve the problem. This is a crucial point also missed by lots of people. If Buffet and Bernanke and Cramer said the sky is falling but your plan ain’t going to stop it, then your plan is dead, dead, dead.

What does this say about the climate and peak oil predicament?

  1. We have one very big crisis that requires multi-hundred-billion-sized government action (peak oil). And we have a far, far bigger and more dangerous crisis that requires far, far more government action (global warming). The “good news,” if one can call it that, is the crises are real and imminent — and they do lend themselves to government-led solutions. Also, like the bailout, the total dollar “cost” of the solution is not the total dollar cost to the taxpayer, since, for the bailout, the underlying financial assets the government will buy have value and, for global warming, the cap-and-trade bill plus clean tech push will create massive energy savings and whole new industries.
  2. But we simply don’t have a critical mass of credible nonpartisan opinion leaders who understand the nature of our energy and climate problem. When the heck are people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates going to speak up on dire nature of the global warming situation, rather than, say, scoping out climate-destroying investments in Canada? Yes, we have virtually the entire scientific community begging for strong action, but they aren’t opinion leaders in this country anymore and indeed they aren’t credible to a large segment of U.S. society. Meeting this necessary condition for serious action is greatly complicated by the conservative crusade against climate action, which is not just a disinformation campaign but a concerted effort to label any scientist or journalist or opinion maker who speaks out on global warming as just a stooge of the left-wing eco-imperialists — “environmental activists, attended by compliant scientists and opportunistic politicians, are advocating radical economic and social regulation,” as Charles Krauthammer put it, or “more government subservience to environmentalists and more government supervision of our lives” as George Will put it. In short, the disinformation campaign seeks to discredit all credible calls for action.
  3. Bad things are happening to real people right now thanks in part to human-caused climate change — droughts, wildfires, flooding, extreme weather, and on and on. But many environmentalists and journalists downplay the causality or think it is a mistake to talk about those things. And, of course, we have the disinformation campaign telling everybody either that the future won’t be too bad. Michael Crichton says he is “underwhelmed” by the problem after his “review” of the science. George Will says that climate change might even be “beneficial,” and NYT columnist Jon Tierney writes, “There’s a chance the warming could be mild enough to produce net benefits.” Heck, we even have the GOP vice presidential pick telling 70 million Americans last week that climate change impacts stem from “cyclical temperature changes on our planet.” In this classic denier myth, all we have to do is wait and the storm will pass.
  4. The government-led climate and energy actions that might be politically possible today won’t solve the crisis. That was certainly true of the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill. Consider the peak oil/energy dependence crisis. Billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens is a semi-credible opinion maker who has certainly been raising the alarm on peak oil. But he has ignored the climate problem and offered an energy independence plan that won’t actually make us energy independent and is neither practical nor a good idea. So he is not merely flushing his money down the toilet, he is actually confusing the public on what the actual solution might be. Similarly, some people think that we should focus our messaging on “energy independence not global warming,” but they propose spending $30 to $50 billion a year on technology, a plan that does not seem to have any major Congressional support, nor is it likely to garner much since a government-spending-based approach can’t possibly solve the peak oil/energy dependence crisis, which inherently requires a very strong regulatory component.

I find only one glimmer of hope from the financial crisis. Congress and the executive branch acted before the real disaster happened, before we ended up in another Great Depression, indeed before we even technically entered a recession.

So perhaps we can act on climate before the real disaster happens. Yes, I realize that Washington acted because everyone understood we were only days or weeks away from complete financial meltdown and we obviously can’t wait to act until we get anywhere near that close to the climate precipice.

We must act on climate within the next few years — decades before the real, preventable disaster happens. Indeed, no plausible action the nation and the world will take could have significant impact on the the climate for probably the next three decades. It is the post-2040 Hell and High Water scenario, crossing the point of no return to 6°C (or higher) warming, that we are trying — or rather, should be trying — desperately to prevent.

The response to the financial bailout crisis obviously offers no comfort to people hoping we can act decades before the true climate catastrophe hits. But I choose to see the glass as one-tenth full. Why?

The unknown wild-card factor here is presidential leadership. We have never had an inspirational president who was genuinely committed to serious climate action and who actually campaigned on a broad and deep agenda that would put us on a path to solve the problem.

Right now, Obama’s plan is not politically possible. And not just because conservatives oppose it and will demagogue it, but also because moderates don’t get the problem and have been politically intimidated by the demagoguing. And because scientists, environmentalists, and progressives have had poor and inconsistent messaging. And because the traditional media still does a grossly inadequate job.

But true leaders have transformed what is politically possible in the past. That is where hope lies today.

This post was created for ClimateProgress.org, a project of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.