With growing numbers of scientists declaring that the global climate crisis is approaching a point of no return, there is a huge and bewildering disconnect between our physical world and our political environment. Our government’s response to the prospect of runaway climate impacts is one of paralysis.

The negligence of the Bush administration is understandable. The White House has become the East Coast branch office of ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy. The fossil-fuel lobby is essentially writing the administration’s climate and energy policies. As a result, climate change has become the preeminent case study of the contamination of our political system by money. This is not political conservatism. This is corruption disguised as conservatism.

How hot will it have to get?

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The case of Congress, however, seems a bit different. The inaction of Congress in the face of a civilization-shattering threat seems less like corruption and more like simple, old-fashioned, bipartisan cowardice.

Several Republican senators and representatives are offering puny efforts to address the climate crisis — all of them lame given the urgency and magnitude of the challenge. Congressional Democrats, given their widespread support for the Iraq war and the War on Terror, should be using climate change as a key issue to distinguish themselves from their Republican counterparts. But their equally ineffective approaches testify to the failure of our political system to effectively engage nature’s challenge.

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Even those congressional Democrats who acknowledge the threat seem petrified by the prospect of any meaningful action. For starters, virtually all their proposals center on market-based “cap and trade” mechanisms, which are dismally inadequate in the face of the problem. We cannot trade our way to deep cuts in our emissions. Carbon trading is most useful as a fine-tuning instrument — to help countries achieve the last 10 or 15 percent of their obligations. It is not the workhorse vehicle to propel a 70 percent energy transition. We cannot finesse nature with accounting tricks.

What is missing from all of their deliberations is the sense of desperation and helplessness shared by all of us who are shaken by each new terrifying report about our increasingly unstable climate.

One group is trying to shake Congress out of its lethargy. The Climate Crisis Coalition is launching a drive called ClimateUSA to put the issue of global climate change squarely on the agenda of the November elections. The goal: to get as many congressional incumbents and challengers as possible to take a visible public position on the issue. The group is drawing on the volunteer energy of the more than 40,000 people who have signed a web-based People’s Ratification of the Kyoto Protocol.

Those volunteers will present candidates in a number of key districts with the group’s platform. The candidates, in turn, will be asked either to endorse that platform or to put forth their own positions on the climate issue.

The group’s three-part platform calls for:

  • The withdrawal of federal subsidies for coal, oil, and natural-gas development — as well as the withdrawal of some subsidies for carbon-intensive agriculture — and the establishment of subsidies to jump-start a renewable-energy economy based on wind, solar, tidal power, biomass, small-scale hydropower, and other sustainable energy and agricultural technologies.
  • The ratification by Congress of the Kyoto Protocol and the formulation of a post-Kyoto framework that would result in a rapid worldwide transition away from fossil fuels to clean-energy technologies.
  • The enactment, as a preliminary step, of the non-nuclear version of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act to begin reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

As the positions of both incumbents and challengers are collected, they will be posted on the ClimateUSA website so voters will know where candidates stand. This is, at best, a very small step toward the very large goal of preserving a hospitable planet.

It is understandable that ExxonMobil, Peabody, and their allies — both in and out of Washington — are deploying immense resources to fight off a clean-energy transition. After all, such a transition threatens the survival of their multibillion-dollar industries.

It is much less understandable why our elected representatives are willing allies in a process that will soon drag the rest of us straight to the bottom of climate hell.