06/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

As the World Watches, Washington Fails Again on Climate and Energy Leadership

In a world where some of our biggest challenges - soaring energy and food prices, climate change - are global in nature, it's a good idea to leave the U.S. borders for a while to gain a different perspective. My wife and I returned last week from a two-week trip to France and Tunisia -- our first visit to Europe in nine years and first ever to Africa. From my vantage point thousands of miles to the east, the first week of June showcased the best and worst of America's leadership.

Barack Obama's historic clinching of the Democratic presidential nomination was hailed around the world as a key potential tipping point in our history. Like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, we were in an Arab/Muslim country when Obama's delegate count went over the top. Friedman wrote from Cairo, "We've surprised ourselves and surprised the world and, in so doing, reminded everyone that we are still a country of new beginnings." I could sense that everywhere, from our first cab driver in Tunis ("Americans welcome here, but George Bush no!") to the gushing cover stories about Obama in French magazines like L'Express and L'Optimum, to (admittedly left-leaning) British newspapers like The Guardian. It isn't simply Obama's position as the first African-American presidential nominee that the world is embracing, but also the diversity of his life experience (Kenyan heritage, residences from Indonesia to Hawaii to Chicago) that makes him suited to lead in today's globalized, interconnected world.

No challenge is more global than climate change, and the contrast between international 'Obamania' and the U.S. Senate's latest failure on carbon emissions legislation - the same week that Obama clinched his nomination -- couldn't have been more striking. Pulled from the Senate floor after less than four days of debate, the Warner-Lieberman cap-and-trade bill was an all-too-familiar reminder of America's 7½ years of failed leadership on climate action.

It's not the demise of Warner-Lieberman that I lament - it was a flawed bill on many levels. It was the pathetic nature of the debate itself. The New York Times editorialized that Republicans "behaved like babies" and forced a full reading of the 492-page bill. Leading Republican senators presented the same tired, outdated arguments we've heard for at least 20 years, that we have to choose between the environment and the economy. And now there's the convenient debating cudgel of high gas prices. Let's think through the logic of that - we can't 'afford' to take action on global warming because we're paying too much for the hydrocarbons (coal and natural gas costs are way up, as well) that are causing the problem. Seems like bizarre reasoning to me.

(By the way, that U.S. economy of ours, safely protected from those big bad ruinous carbon limits - how's it been performing lately?)

Many in Congress, at least those among the 41 senators with the power to block anything in the all-filibuster-all-the-time scenario of the past two years, clearly want nothing to do with carbon legislation. To make matters worse, the Senate failed yet again last week to extend the critical investment and production tax credits for wind, solar, and other clean energy sources that will expire at year's end. Meanwhile, the climate and economic effects of our fossil-fueled world - deadly heat waves, wildfires, record floods and droughts - are on the front page daily.

Even China (and India to a lesser extent), as reported by The Economist, are getting into action - Chinese provincial leaders now have "save energy, cut emissions" targets as criteria for promotions. And on June 10, scientific academies in five developing countries -- Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa -- joined those in the G-8 nations in calling for much more aggressive action on global carbon reduction.

We in the U.S. can do so much better than our Congress (and our president, with his threatened veto of cap-and-trade legislation) have shown. Whatever happened to global leadership, cutting-edge thinking and problem-solving, technology and financial innovation, and good ol' Yankee ingenuity? I rarely agree with words spoken by GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, but he said he opposed the Warner-Lieberman bill because it would result in "the largest restructuring of the American economy since the New Deal." He might be right. I think we should get started on it as soon as possible.