03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lessons from Jon Stewart and the Green Tea Parties: Recast the Coalition for Climate Protection

This past weekend, people in 181 countries came together for what may have been the "most widespread day of environmental action in the planet's history." At over 5200 events around the world, people gathered to call for strong action and bold leadership on the climate crisis.

But you wouldn't have known it here in the U.S., in part because the organizers of these "green tea parties" don't have a dedicated network like Fox News to trumpet their actions into every living room.

Young people led the protests here in the U.S., coordinated by groups like Energy Action Coalition and Focus the Nation.

It's good to know these are the people who will be taking political and economic power in the next 20 years. But we need to accelerate their ascension, and help assure that it happens with both wisdom and smart strategy.

Jon Stewart has become a barometer for the political attitudes of the progressive youth that watch him. As such, The Daily Show's gauge of political sentiment ought to be considered by those in Congress working to find policy solutions for global warming.

Stewart uses humor the way Rush Limbaugh uses anger - to harness the emotional content of our discontent, and focus it on his political aims. More than just a cult hit, Stewart has become a leading source of news for young people, and quite often a newsmaker as well. His famous 2004 exchange with the hosts of CNN's now defunct Crossfire gave voice to a frustrated progressive youth that felt that principle had been crowded out of the political discourse by talking points. This year he made headlines again with his scathing exchange with CNBC's Jim Kramer.

Young progressives are deeply ambivalent about the leading House and Senate climate bills. They want action now, but share Stewart's concern that "Cap'N Trade" is nothing more than the Great Carbon Copout. And given that interest groups from Greenpeace to the industrial behemoth GE have lined up to express concerns with the bill, it's not difficult for the average observer to see a storm brewing.

This week's hearings on the Senate climate bill will be an important milestone in the climate debate. Most observers expect the bill to pass author Barbara Boxer's committee. But many climate advocates consider it dead after that.

The core problem may be the provisions in the bill that represent a sell-out to coal interests. Certainly it is important to transition the coal industry and protect the workers and communities that rely on it. But the current legislation gives too much and gets too little. By essentially delaying for up to a generation the transition away from coal, it could well make climate much worse.

And that's just with the compromises made to date. There is no telling what the cap-and-trade formula - now called "pollution reduction and investment mechanism" will look like after six Senate committees, a Senate floor vote, House action, a conference committee, and two more floor votes.

In light of these facts, it's time for Congressional leaders and - more important - young progressives to have a "Plan B" -- an alternate strategy to build a broader and more powerful alliance for climate protection, without today's focus on winning over coal.

By emulating the impressive US CAP alliance that first made national climate legislation a potential reality - but recalibrating its members and the intensity of their support - we can harness today's pro-climate momentum to pass a measure that is more broadly supported and more effective than the current 900-page bills.

The alliance for better climate legislation can include almost all the interests represented in US CAP, but with a more politically effective focus on traditional manufacturers, information and communications technology, auto makers, natural gas and oil interests, zero carbon energy sources, and of course clean technologies.

Horse trading will be a part of it. But rather than giving away the substance of the bill, we can make smarter strategic choices that maintain or enhance the environmental benefits while winning deeper political support.

An effective climate policy would set a clear price on carbon, at the level needed to drive down emissions to the levels science indicates. It would be transparent and easy to understand. It would be fair to displaced communities, workers and industries - transitioning them rather than deepening the hole we have dug for ourselves.

The gold standard for that is of course a straightforward tax or fee on every ton of emissions. Congress has been unduly allergic to such clarity, partly because winners and losers are easier to discern than with the cloud of confusion that the present bill offers.

But there are many ways to accomplish the objective. Keep the focus on the principles that need to be met, not the name of the policy mechanism. Any approach that puts a clear price on carbon sufficient to cap our emissions, and refunds the revenues back to consumers so they can make rational decisions.

Moreover, a stable price would give industry a sound economic basis for undertaking the large investments required to develop new, more efficient technologies and alternative fuels, without the opportunity for gaming the political process in favor of one solution or another. The political importance of this level playing field is a vitally important element for success that is often overlooked. Assuring interested parties that success depends on their ability to deliver results, rather than just votes, greatly reduces the incentives to manipulate the final legislation.

When better options exist and current practices are enraging even the strong proponents of action, a course correction is needed. As the saying goes, when you've lost Jon Stewart, you've lost progressive America, and our future political and business leaders.