Who’s to blame for America’s 40-some years of stagnation on energy policy — cowardly politicians or a lazy public? Time‘s Bryan Walsh finds some fault with both in a new post.

The case against politicians:

Energy is one of those bipartisan issues that any politician can dust off — usually whenever gasoline prices have gotten a little high — promise to change and then promptly drop until the next crisis. Most of our politicians seem to lack what you’d need to really change how America uses energy:  the will to take on the strong fossil fuel lobby and the persistence to see changes through over the long-term.

The funniest illustration of this trend is Jon Stewart’s bit last week skewering the last eight U.S. presidents for promising to move the nation off foreign oil and onto renewable energy, yet failing to deliver. But Stewart fails to note that these presidents weren’t simply feckless; many of them, notably including Obama, were actively obstructed by Congress members, mostly Republican, in hoc to fossil fuel companies.

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Back to Walsh, who also has a case against the public:

But we all bear responsibility for that failure, because we fail to see — and take — the hard choices that would be necessary. We’d rather live in energy fairyland, as a new New York Times/CBS News poll demonstrates. …

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59% of Americans polled believe it is very or somewhat likely that within the next 25 years the U.S. will develop an alternative to oil as our major source of energy. That might hearten greens but it also shows how unrealistic Americans are on energy. Right now fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — are responsible for 85% of America’s energy supply, and it would take a Herculean effort to displace oil in just a quarter century. …

It’s always a mistake to read too much into one poll (and you can find the raw data here [PDF]), but to me this survey helps explain why energy policy seems immovable. We don’t really want to understand it — and that ignorance saves us from having to make the hard choices. At least for now.

There are no easy answers to our energy quandary. But there are some easy partial answers. If people tell pollsters they’re not ready to pay more for energy independence, give them energy policy that lets them pay less for energy independence. Give them — all together now — energy efficiency.

One place to start would be the Home Star bill that would drive the retrofitting of 3.3 million homes — enough to save the energy equivalent of the oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico 44 times over, at roughly 1/40 the cost of cleaning it up.