acesFossil fuel addiction is impoverishing the planet, and we have only a few short years to act before the window for action will close, forever.Photo: Mutasim BillahLast year was a bad year for the future of humans and other creatures of the Earth. The U.S. failed to act on climate, and the victory of dozens of Tea Party Republicans in November eliminated any prospect for serious action for at least the next three years.

This is tragic. Barring future technological or political miracles, we have now blown by the chance we had to stabilize the carbon blanket surrounding the planet at 450 parts per million (ppm) of CO2. Yet it is not “too late” for action. Ambitious politics this decade, culminating in carbon legislation in 2013 or ’15 or ’17, can still stabilize CO2 at 500 ppm.

And make no mistake: 500 ppm is worth fighting for, each and every day of our lives. Every tenth of a degree matters, and a planet with a carbon blanket that stabilizes at 500 ppm will preserve a dramatically more livable world than will a blanket of 650, 850, or 1000 ppm. Above all, 500 ppm will give our kids time and a fighting chance to figure out how to roll back concentrations to 450 ppm, and their kids back to 350.

So what’s the plan? How can we build a powerful clean energy majority in Washington, a stronger majority than the one that didn’t get the job done in 2010?

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ACE: the American Clean Energy party

Only a mobilized public has the power to break through the deadly gridlock in Washington. Leading up to 2010, a number of groups tried to build this people power. Grassroots coalitions and organizations including, Energy Action, 1-Sky, The National Teach-in, and faith-based organizers worked to inspire and mobilize large numbers of Americans. Al Gore’s Alliance pursued media campaigns, signing up over 2 million people onto their listserv. The Green Groups pursued their own efforts to engage their memberships.

These initiatives, successful in staging one-day educational events, did build a wave of momentum. Coupled with the Environmental Defense Fund/U.S. Climate Action Partnership inside game, the movement crested in the summer of 2009, with the passage of the Waxman-Markey bill. However, the national grassroots effort ultimately had little real political traction. Since 2009, the collapsing economy and the rise of the Tea Party moved the debate backwards, with the Republican Party completely abandoning what had been a tentative openness to climate policy.

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The national climate movement faced many challenges, but in large measure, it failed at mobilizing Americans behind clean energy politics because it didn’t do politics — it did education. By contrast, what can excite Americans and create sustained grassroots energy is participation in political campaigns. Obama demonstrated this in 2008, building an unprecedented grassroots tidal wave. Obama has since been criticized for squandering the people power he unleashed: Imagine if, in 2009, he had mobilized his army with a call for clean energy legislation?

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A clean energy party can move beyond the Obama phenomenon, and broadly tap this grassroots energy. There are millions of Americans — so-called climate hawks — who understand the seriousness and depth of the climate crisis. Climate hawks want to work for political leaders with a commitment to changing the future. They want to do more than participate in C-3 educational campaigns, and email their congressperson. They are looking for a vehicle that can make a real difference. They are ready to give time and money to spreading the gospel of clean energy through participation in dozens of Congressional and Senate campaigns in 2012, 2014, and beyond.

How would ACE work? Simply. Run ACE-endorsed candidates in Democratic and Republican congressional and U.S. Senate primary elections. Most ACE races would be in swing districts — challenging especially dirty energy Democrats in primaries, but also creating space for a clean energy Republican voice.

ACE would be a “single focus” party, endorsing only candidates who pledged to run and govern as “moderate” D’s or R’s (as defined by their district or state) in all areas excepting one. For economic revitalization, jobs, national security, rural development, energy independence, clean air for our kids, climate stabilization, we need a revolution: clean energy!

Why moderate elsewhere? Because clean energy is the defining issue of our time. On all other issues there is time to debate, and room to compromise. But on energy, time has run out. Addiction to fossil fuels is strangling our economy, and impoverishing the planet, and we have only a few short years to act before the window for action will close, forever.

Single focus does not mean single issue. As the battle over Prop 23 showed last fall, clean energy is a winning political formula across the political spectrum, with an extraordinarily positive message and economic vision of the future. By running single focus candidates — otherwise pledging to govern as “moderates” for their state or district — we can prove the power of the clean energy message. We can force Democrats to become leaders, and Republicans to become, once again, open to clean energy policy.

What ACE stands for

The ACE platform would have three planks:

  1. The American Permanent Fund: Every year, each American family receives a check for $1,000, and rising. The source? A fee on big polluters.
  2. Clean energy leadership: Thirty billion a year to capture global leadership in the clean energy technologies that will rewire the world.
  3. Green collar jobs, today: A large-scale loan guarantee program to finance energy efficiency retrofits of state, city, and federal buildings — putting millions of Americans to work.

ACE would run a mix of “celebrities”, charismatic local candidates, and lots and lots of young people: why not Leo DiCaprio, Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Jessy Tolkan, Woody Harrelson, Hunter Lovins, Mike Tidwell, Heidi Cullen, Billy Parish, James Woolsey, Sally Bingham, Tom Friedman, Betsy Taylor, Richard Czizik, Tom “Smitty” Smith, Wahleah Johns, and student leaders in congressional districts across the country? Remember, you only have to be 25 years old to run for Congress. Movement leaders with flexibility in their day jobs would have time to move to a red or purple state or district to which they are connected, establish residency, and run.

The original model for ACE is the Progressive Party at the turn of the 20th century. The party was founded on a set of policy ideas — confronting the power of monopolies; consumer regulation; women’s suffrage. Running successful candidates as both Democrats and Republicans, Progressives forced the national debate in their direction. While the Progressives never controlled Washington, they achieved many of their policy goals.

Today of course, ACE’s evil-twin would be the Tea Party. The Tea Party depends on money from the Koch brothers and other large funders, but it has undeniably tapped real grassroots energy. In existence for just two years, and in (partial) opposition to the Republican Party establishment, the Tea Party successfully ran candidates in key Senate, House, and gubernatorial races across the country.

More significantly, the Tea Party phenomenon has completely changed the debate on climate — driving former Republican supporters of climate action either out of office (Mike Castle and Bob Inglis) or into retreat (John McCain and Lindsay Graham). Incredibly, of the 37 Republican Senate candidates this pa
st year, not one acknowledged the scientific fact of human-induced climate change. As has been the pattern since the 1970’s — from direct mail, to talk radio, to Fox News, to the Tea Party — the Right has been the innovator in American grassroots politics.

Climate hawks need to build their own political base, one powerful enough to demand that politicians pay attention to the physics of the planet. ACE, however, would be much more than a clean energy Tea Party. Above all, ACE has a practical, powerful, real-world platform for progress. The ACE we are holding is a relentlessly positive vision of economic revitalization and American energy independence.

So why not ACE?

Third parties always fail. Won’t ACE just push spoilers, like Ralph Nader?

No. ACE will run candidates only in primaries. There will be no effort to create a third party, and thus no spoilers.

Couldn’t ACE be taken over by left wing activists, becoming a marginalized umbrella party for progressive causes?

No. The central principle of ACE is that, outside of clean energy issues, candidates must run and govern as moderates. ACE would establish a party constitution with this principle that can only be changed with a super-majority. The part would elect a committee that vets candidates at the national level, and either allows or disallows them to run as ACE candidates.

What about right-wing media? Won’t ACE candidates be branded eco-socialists?

These days, any Democrat faces this kind of charge. The response is to stay the course and win at the grassroots. The Tea Partiers, when labeled right-wing crazies, have been very successful at this.

Where will the money come from?

ACE will never be funded like the Tea Party, by right-wing billionaires and fossil fuel corporations, but wouldn’t need to be. Once up and running, ACE will unleash a wave of grassroots energy, and would follow a grassroots membership-based funding model. Local candidates would raise their own money, while ACE leverages the national brand and pursues media effort to create interest in local candidates.

Fighting for the future

At the end of the day, ACE would be a winner because clean energy is powerful politics. Yet today, in our current political system, no one is making the case. Progressive Democrats don’t have to, and moderate Republicans are scared to. ACE can prove that if you tell the clean energy story, and you tell it well, you will win elections.

The symbol for ACE is the Ace of Hearts: not green or blue, but blood red. We have the solutions. We love our country.

I have talked to a dozen national climate leaders about ACE. Several think it has a potential as a game changer. If you’d like to join the conversation, sign up here. We will be having a national conference call to discuss ACE on Jan. 19 at noon Eastern. Details here. Please pass this opportunity along to anyone you know who would be interested.

Who knows? Maybe ACE will hold a founding convention in Chicago in the summer of 2011. Maybe we’ll see you and tens of thousands of Americans there.