Copenhagen may not have been a giant leap for mankind, but it was a step forward.

So as the Congress returns to work this year, its post-Copenhagen duty remains the same as its pre-Copenhagen responsibility:  to pass an energy bill that both jump-starts the United States’ economy and screws down the nation’s carbon pollution. There are two obvious reasons we must pass energy legislation, one pertaining to our self-interest, and the other to the world’s.

First, our economic self-interest demands action on energy, independent of any international framework on carbon reduction.  Job creation in clean energy remains job No. 1 for this country. Those jobs will not magically spring into existence; they will be created only if the United States Congress passes bold energy legislation.

Did China abandon its plans for a massive buildup of clean energy technologies for lack of a treaty coming out of Copenhagen? Did it cancel its plans to build 30 gigawatts of wind energy in the next decade? Did it shut down its electric-car manufacturing plants in Tianjin? Did it shutter its efficient lighting research in Hong Kong? Did it reduce its development budget for lithium-ion batteries to power electric cars? Of course it didn’t.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Just three weeks after the world failed to reach a binding agreement in Copenhagen, China announced its intentions to build the world’s largest solar-powered electrical generating facility in western China, a plant capable of powering 3 million homes using a vast array of photovoltaic cells. The juggernaut of Chinese investment in these clean energy technologies rolled along without Copenhagen even being a speed bump. China continues to invest $12.6 million an hour in an effort to create whole new clean energy industries.

Why would a country continue on this path in the absence of a treaty out of Copenhagen? The answer does not lie in some noble and selfless Chinese effort to bail the world out of its predicament as recompense for China’s less than stellar performance at Copenhagen. The answer lies in China’s smart, insightful, and visionary recognition that there will be billions of dollars and millions of jobs to be had in the next several decades in the new clean energy economy.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Chinese recognize that the nation that gets a jump start in these fields will have the “first mover” advantage and that it will be difficult for the second players to catch up. The Chinese want to be first, biggest, and most globally competitive from the get-go. The Chinese recognize that the absence of a binding treaty doesn’t belie the fundamental economic facts; if you don’t move on clean energy now, you will be left at the starting gate, with a 20th century economy in a 21st century world.

Our national economic self-interest was the same both before and after Copenhagen. It is in our country’s best interest to lead the world in technological innovation, as it always has. The outcome at Copenhagen should not blind us to both the economic opportunity of action and the economic threat of inaction on the energy front.

We are fully capable of building a new domestic clean energy economy, something I learned while co-authoring Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy. The number of businesses in this country ready to take off in clean energy ought to give everyone confidence.

We should also recognize what really happened in Denmark. For the first time, the United States, long the world’s leading emitter, engaged with the rest of the world on climate. For the first time, other major emitters publicly declared their intentions to cut either their emissions or their energy intensity. For the first time, the developed and developing world had an honest discussion about mitigation.  We now can explore new approaches in bilateral agreements, or within assemblages of developing countries that now represent the bulk of the emissions.

All of us ought to hope the Senate is able to move forward and do the work necessary to forge a clean energy bill this year. I understand it is difficult. I know the Senate may be weary after dealing with health-care legislation. But the emerging clarity of the economic opportunities before us, and the urgent need for action on climate change, do not permit delay.

Given the terrifying new evidence of the increasing rates of climate change and ocean acidification, the question before us is the same one that melancholy Dane asked in Elsinore Castle years back, just a few miles from Copenhagen. As Hamlet said, the question is, “… to be or not to be.”

Only this time, it is all of us in deep trouble, not just an indecisive Danish prince.