A few weeks ago, TIME magazine called the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline that will bring some of the dirtiest energy on the planet from Alberta, Canada, to the U.S. Gulf Coast the “Selma and Stonewall” of the climate movement.

Which, if you think about it, may be both good news and bad news. Yes, those of us fighting the pipeline have mobilized record numbers of activists: the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years and 40,000 people on the mall in February for the biggest climate rally in American history. Right now, we’re aiming to get a million people to send in public comments about the “environmental review” the State Department is conducting on the feasibility and advisability of building the pipeline. And there’s good reason to put pressure on. After all, it’s the same State Department that, as on a previous round of reviews, hired “experts” who had once worked as consultants for TransCanada, the pipeline’s builder.

Still, let’s put things in perspective: Stonewall took place in 1969, and as of last week the Supreme Court was still trying to decide if gay people should be allowed to marry each other. If the climate movement takes that long, we’ll be rallying in scuba masks. (I’m not kidding. The section of the Washington Mall where we rallied against the pipeline this winter already has a big construction project underway: a flood barrier to keep the rising Potomac River out of downtown D.C.)

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It was certainly joyful to see marriage equality being considered by our top judicial body. In some ways, however, the most depressing spectacle of the week was watching Democratic leaders decide that, in 2013, it was finally safe to proclaim gay people actual human beings. In one weekend, Democratic Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), and Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) figured out that they had “evolved” on the issue. And Bill Clinton, the greatest weathervane who ever lived, finally decided that the Defense of Marriage Act he had signed into law, boasted about in ads on Christian radio, and urged candidate John Kerry to defend as constitutional in 2004, was, you know, wrong. He, too, had “evolved,” once the polls made it clear that such an evolution was a safe bet.

Why recite all this history? Because for me, the hardest part of the Keystone pipeline fight has been figuring out what in the world to do about the Democrats.

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Fiddling while the planet burns

Let’s begin by stipulating that, taken as a whole, they’re better than the Republicans. About a year ago, in his initial campaign ad of the general election, Mitt Romney declared that his first act in office would be to approve Keystone and that, if necessary, he would “build it myself.” (A charming image, it must be said.) Every Republican in the Senate voted on a nonbinding resolution to approve the pipeline — every single one. In other words, their unity in subservience to the fossil fuel industry is complete, and almost compelling. At the least, you know exactly what you’re getting from them.

With the Democrats, not so much. Seventeen of their Senate caucus — about a third — joined the GOP in voting to approve Keystone XL. As the Washington insider website Politico proclaimed in a headline the next day, “Obama’s Achilles Heel on Climate: Senate Democrats.”

Which actually may have been generous to the president. It’s not at all clear that he wants to stop the Keystone pipeline (though he has the power to do so himself, no matter what the Senate may want), or for that matter do anything else very difficult when it comes to climate change. His new secretary of state, John Kerry, issued a preliminary environmental impact statement on the pipeline so fraught with errors that it took scientists and policy wonks about 20 minutes to shred its math.

Administration insiders keep insisting, ominously enough, that the president doesn’t think Keystone is a very big deal. Indeed, despite his amped-up post-election rhetoric on climate change, he continues to insist on an “all-of-the-above” energy policy which, as renowned climate scientist James Hansen pointed out in his valedictory shortly before retiring from NASA last week, simply can’t be squared with basic climate-change math.

All these men and women have excuses for their climate conservatism. To name just two: The oil industry has endless resources and they’re scared about reelection losses. Such excuses are perfectly realistic and pragmatic, as far as they go: If you can’t get reelected, you can’t do even marginal good and you certainly can’t block right-wing craziness. But they also hide a deep affection for oil industry money, which turns out to be an even better predictor of voting records than party affiliation.

Anyway, aren’t all those apologies wearing thin as Arctic sea ice melts with startling, planet-changing speed? It was bad enough to take four decades simply to warm up to the idea of gay rights. Innumerable lives were blighted in those in-between years, and given long-lasting official unconcern about AIDS, innumerable lives were lost. At least, however, inaction didn’t make the problem harder to solve: If the Supreme Court decides gay people should be able to marry, then they’ll be able to marry.

Unlike gay rights or similar issues of basic human justice and fairness, climate change comes with a time limit. Go past a certain point, and we may no longer be able to affect the outcome in ways that will prevent long-term global catastrophe. We’re clearly nearing that limit, and so the essential cowardice of too many Democrats is becoming an ever more fundamental problem that needs to be faced. We lack the decades needed for their positions to “evolve” along with the polling numbers. What we need, desperately, is for them to pitch in and help lead the transition in public opinion and public policy.

Instead, at best they insist on fiddling around the edges, while the planet prepares to burn. The newly formed Organizing for Action, for instance — an effort to turn Barack Obama’s fundraising list into a kind of quasi-official MoveOn.org — has taken up climate change as one of its goals. Instead of joining with the actual movement around the Keystone pipeline or turning to other central organizing issues, however, it evidently plans to devote more energy to house parties to put solar panels on people’s roofs. That’s great, but there’s no way such a “movement” will profoundly alter the trajectory of climate math, a task that instead requires deep structural reform of exactly the kind that makes the administration and congressional “moderates” nervous.

Energy independence: last century’s worry

So far, the Democrats are showing some willingness to face the issues that matter only when it comes to coal. After a decade of concentrated assault by activists led by the Sierra Club, the coal industry is now badly weakened: Plans for more than 100 new coal-fired power plants have disappeared from anyone’s drawing board. So, post-election, the White House finally seems willing to take on the industry at least in modest ways, including possibly with new Environmental Protection Agency regulations that could start closing down existing coal-fired plants (though even that approach now seems delayed).

Recently, I had a long talk with an administration insider who kept telling me that, for the next decade, we should focus all our energies on “killing coal.” Why? Because it was politically feasible.

And indeed we should, but climate-change science makes it clear that we need to put the same sort of thought and creative energy into killing oil and natural gas, too. I mean, the Arctic — from Greenland to its seas — essentially melted last summer in a way never before seen. The frozen Arctic is like a large physical feature. It’s as if you woke up one morning and your left arm was missing. You’d panic.

There is, however, no panic in Washington. Instead, the administration and Democratic moderates are reveling in new oil finds in North Dakota and in the shale gas now flowing out of Appalachia, even though exploiting both of these energy supplies is likely to lock us into more decades of fossil-fuel use. They’re pleased as punch that we’re getting nearer to “energy independence.” Unfortunately, energy independence was last century’s worry. It dates back to the crises set off by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries in the early 1970s, not long after … Stonewall.

So what to do? The narrow window of opportunity that physics provides us makes me doubt that a third party will offer a fast enough answer to come to terms with our changing planet. The Green Party certainly offered the soundest platform in our last elections, and in Germany and Australia the Greens have been decisive in nudging coalition governments towards carbon commitments. But those are parliamentary systems. Here, so far, national third parties have been more likely to serve as spoilers than as wedges (though it’s been an enlightening pleasure to engage with New York’s Working Families Party, or the Progressives in Vermont). It’s not clear to me how that will effectively lead to changes during the few years we’ve got left to deal with carbon. Climate science enforces a certain brute realism. It makes it harder to follow one’s heart.

Along with some way to make a third party truly viable, we need a genuine movement for fundamental governmental reform — not just a change in the Senate’s filibuster rules, but publicly funded elections, an end to the idea that corporations are citizens, and genuine constraints on revolving-door lobbyists. These are crucial matters, and it is wonderful to see broad new campaigns underway around them. It’s entirely possible that there’s no way to do what needs doing about climate change in this country without them. But even their most optimistic proponents talk in terms of several election cycles, when the scientists tell us that we have no hope of holding the rise in the planetary temperature below 2 degrees C unless global emissions peak by 2015.

Of course, climate-change activists can and should continue to work to make the Democrats better. At the moment, for instance, the 350.org action fund is organizing college students for the Massachusetts primary later this month. One senatorial candidate, Steven Lynch, voted to build the Keystone pipeline, and that’s not OK. Maybe electing his opponent, Ed Markey, will send at least a small signal. In fact, this strategy got considerably more promising in the last few days when California hedge fund manager and big-time Democratic donor Tom Steyer announced that he was not only going to go after Lynch, but any politician of any party who didn’t take climate change seriously. “The goal here is not to win. The goal here is to destroy these people,” he said, demonstrating precisely the level of rhetoric (and spending) that might actually start to shake things up.

It will take a while, though. According to press reports, Obama explained to the environmentalists at a fundraiser Steyer hosted that “the politics of this are tough,” because “if your house is still underwater,” then global warming is “probably not rising to your No. 1 concern.”

By underwater, he meant: worth less than the mortgage. At this rate, however, it won’t be long before presidents who use that phrase actually mean “under water.” Obama closed his remarks by saying something that perfectly summed up the problem of our moment. Dealing with climate change, he said, is “going to take people in Washington who are willing to speak truth to power, are willing to take some risks politically, are willing to get a little bit out ahead of the curve — not two miles ahead of the curve, but just a little bit ahead of it.”

That pretty much defines the Democrats: just a little bit ahead, not as bad as Bush, doing what we can.

And so, as I turn this problem over and over in my head, I keep coming to the same conclusion: We probably need to think, most of the time, about how to change the country, not the Democrats. If we build a movement strong enough to transform the national mood, then perhaps the trembling leaders of the Democrats will eventually follow. I mean, “evolve.” At which point we’ll get an end to things like the Keystone pipeline, and maybe even a price on carbon. That seems to be the lesson of Stonewall and of Selma. The movement is what matters; the Democrats are, at best, the eventual vehicle for closing the deal.

The closest thing I’ve got to a guru on American politics is my senator, Bernie Sanders. He deals with the Democrat problem all the time. He’s an independent, but he caucuses with them, which means he’s locked in the same weird dance as the rest of us working for real change.

A few weeks ago, I gave the keynote address at a global warming summit he convened in Vermont’s state capital, and afterwards I confessed to him my perplexity. “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement,” I said. “A movement vast enough to scare or hearten the weak-kneed.”

“There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it,” he replied.

And so, down to work.