The bottom line from that bill: If you neglect all the offsets and loopholes, we're aiming for a 4% reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2020. Make your blood stir? Obama's not proposing real solutions to real problems; he's ticking off items on a list. He got a healthcare bill, and just maybe he'll get an energy bill (though that's an increasingly slim maybe). But we don't need the bill. We need the thing.
I'm putting this all on Obama, even though it's clear that he can't do it by himself. He'd need a movement to make real progress. That's the tragedy, though. He's already got a movement. He was elected with millions of us sending him money, knocking on doors, standing in snow banks with signs. He commands a standing army (albeit one that's growing rusty from disuse and a little demoralized).
And it's not just here. Around the world, we at 350.org were able to organize giant demonstrations last year — 5,200 of them in 181 countries. We did it by rallying people around a tough but understandable goal: reducing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, which, according to NASA scientists, is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere. Since we're already past that point — at 390 ppm — we need to work harder than we could ever have imagined. We really do need to get off oil in the coming decade.
But to have a chance, we need a leader. We need someone to stand up and tell it the way it is, and in language so compelling and dramatic it sets us on a new path. On this planet of nearly 7 billion, at this moment in history, there's exactly one person who could play that role. And so far he hasn't.
Bill McKibben, a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, is the founder of 350.org and the author most recently of "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet." A longer version of this piece can be found at tomdispatch.com.