As the Copenhagen Climate Summit approaches, some world leaders predict there will be either no deal or one so weak that it will be virtually worthless.
Little wonder. Climate change could be one of the toughest issues the world has ever faced, less because of the technical challenges than the politics. That's why the growing climate movement is so important to watch. Its success could determine if world leaders feel enough heat to take action.
What makes the politics of this moment so challenging? Unlike other critical issues, this one requires that we take action, based on science, before we see much damage. If we wait until the effects of long-term pollution are fully felt, climate scientists tell us, we will have passed critical thresholds that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to turn down the global thermostat.
Even now, these changes do more than cause occasional heat waves, droughts and monster storms. As the effects of greenhouse gas pollution accelerate, millions of people will experience flooding, rising seas, crop failures, food shortages and drought conditions like those of the dust bowl era.
Still, it's not too late. Cli-mate scientists say we can yet avert the direst - if we halt the increase in pollution by 2015, then bring it down sharply. That means taking action now.
Yet, politicians worldwide have short-term reasons to pass this hot-potato issue off to future generations. After all, "cheap" coal-fired electricity offers high profits for a few companies and their shareholders, while the resulting climate damage is distributed to other people around the world.
And dealing with the crisis requires massive investments toward a transition to clean energy. While such investments will benefit economies in the long run, in the short term they will cost taxpayers money. And entrenched, powerful interests -- from the oil and gas industry to mega-banks -- use their money and connections to push for government handouts to subsidize business as usual. Some are even funding the think tanks and AstroTurf front groups that foster confusion and doubt about climate science.
In poorer countries, citizens want economic growth. They demand it. They want the cars, airline trips, big houses and high energy use we've grown accustomed to in the U.S. And without seeing the wealthier countries stepping up, they won't allow their governments to reduce carbon emissions.
Although every community, every nation and every family stands to lose without action on global warming, the political leaders gathering in Copenhagen to negotiate a climate treaty haven't felt heat from their own citizens -- at least not yet.
The good news is that around the world there are climate heroes, those doing what they can -- putting up solar panels, standing in the way of coal plants, cutting their own household carbon footprints and promoting the clean energy technology we need.
And the pressure is mounting from those who want action. Young people, for instance, are mobilizing into a powerful force for change. Unlike the leaders meeting in Copenhagen, they know they will have to live with consequences of failing to avert climate chaos. These young people are lobbying, they are getting trained in green jobs, and they are building a movement they say is simply about survival.
Don't underestimate these youth. Their energy and hard work helped elect the country's first African-American president.
But it isn't only the youth who are stepping up. People in all sectors of society are coming to see that our elected officials can't get the job done unless they feel the heat at home. That puts a special responsibility on Americans. The world is waiting for leadership from the U.S., the country with one of the highest rates of greenhouse gas pollution. The future of our planet may hinge on whether "we the sovereign people" of the U.S. insist that our leaders step up to this global threat and lead the world toward a viable agreement.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor of YES! Magazine, which has just published a special issue on climate action.