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

Compromise, Entropy and Taking Responsibility for Our Climate

Government, politics, relationships and most of life are all filled with compromise. Most people have a point beyond which they won't compromise and the art of aligning those points among the negotiating parties determines the quality of an agreement. It is very often the case that the parties to an agreement are both equally satisfied or dissatisfied and the agreement suffers in quality because there is no strong perspective left to drive the outcome. Such is life.

There are two recent examples of compromise which are giving me more than the usual amount of concern because of what they imply about leadership and the tendency to discount real life consequences of policy decisions.

If you think of health care reform as the Great American Novel, we are headed for a version that is the two hour made-for-television movie based on the book. Regardless of your position on the elements of the bill, it is the legislative process that is sending up warning flares. The elements of the legislation that are most popular with the public have been negotiated away to cater to Senators whose views are out of step with that same public. The President has scaled back the vision he expressed during the campaign, the vision that won him the votes of people wanting real change, and accepted a compromise that seems to me to unnecessarily diminished. More political muscle and will could have reached a better outcome. The misplaced urgency of a year-end deadline led to what some would consider ill-advised horse trading. At least that's how it looks from out here in the cheap seats. There are still a few chapters to be written.

Now the outcome of Copenhagen, not entirely within the President's control of course but subject to his influence, starts to make the phenomenon of governmental entropy look more problematic. If a comprehensive, scientifically based set of solutions to the myriad climate change problems is the Great American Novel, the agreement from Copenhagen is a set of assembly pictographs that comes with an Ikea book case. It falls short of what is necessary in serious ways.

The combination of these two events gives me concern about our collective will to pass meaningful, effective, science-based climate legislation. As the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act moves through the Senate, the entropy of the legislative process will have a tendency to increase and the strength of purpose we need to see reflected in the bill may have a tendency to diminish. What makes compromise on this legislation different than that on other bills is the scale of the consequences for failure. And by failure, I mean sacrificing what we know is needed in order to get votes. If we trade away critical elements of the legislation, we may pass the bill without solving the problem.

A failure to fix this particular problem is as serious of a problem as we have ever faced. I grew up with the threat of nuclear war potentially ending "life as we know it". That threat still exists, but imagine my surprise to learn that the real way to end life as we know it is to continue living life as we know it. If we fail to take seriously our responsibility to transcend the right wing echo chamber, the climate-deniers, the faux "debate" about the existence of the problem, the self-interest of politicians to extend their careers, the apathy of people who don't feel tangible impacts in their lives and the many other opposing forces, we will lose. Losing here means pushing our planet beyond a tipping point from which we cannot recover. The scale of loss in that scenario is staggering. No hyperbole here, just facts. We simply cannot sacrifice success in this effort to business as usual.

The Congress is being unduly influenced by a handful of conservative Democratic leaders and the minority party. The desire for progress on important policy issues made the difference in the 2008 elections, but our leaders are in danger of drifting back into the mode of settling for half-measures. This may sit better with television and radio pundits, although not much better, but it fails the constituency that made the difference in getting our leaders elected and it fails the greater good of the American public.

No more horse-trading in life and death decisions. Let's write the Great American Novel and make it about how we succeeded against dark forces, unfortunate circumstances and willful dumbing down of policy initiatives. What do you say, fellow protagonists?