President Obama’s recent words, uttered with Chinese President Hu Jintao at his side, sounded a welcome note for those concerned about climate change: even though the goal of reaching a legally binding agreement at the upcoming UN Copenhagen summit remains out of reach, the president said, "our aim there…is not a partial accord or a political declaration but rather an accord that covers all of the issues in the negotiations and one that has immediate operational effect." This statement was an important step. Nonetheless, many obstacles–chiefly stemming from continuing US intransigence–still stand in the path of a successful global agreement.

Whatever happens among the officials gathered in Copenhagen, climate activists are using the occasion to explore new directions. In this issue we look at how the world can move forward after Copenhagen, including ways to develop clean energy and to adapt to a hotter planet.

The international stalemate is partly a result of the North-South divide, separating wealthy countries from the un- and underdeveloped world. The South wants the North to make the sharpest emissions reductions: rich economies played an outsize role in creating the crisis, they argue, so they should pay the bigger price. The North demands that developing economies make similar commitments, despite their struggles to industrialize. The inability to resolve this tension reflects the inadequacy of political systems–both globally and in countries such as ours–to respond to the task before us. If a clean energy revolution is to occur in the South, rich countries must provide funding as well as technology. But US politicians show little support for "climate reparations." China has called for industrialized countries to devote 1 percent of their GDP–about $350 billion annually–to help the South go green. So far the United States is prepared to give only $1.2 billion. There are North-South differences on the science as well. Most large economies say an atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450 parts per million and a global temperature rise of 2°C are tolerable. But poor nations–particularly low-lying island nations, which will suffer most–are demanding that atmospheric CO2 levels be returned 350 ppm and that global average temperatures be held "as far below 1.5°C as possible."

The world needs the United States to play a constructive role. But despite powerful voices like those of Al Gore and founder Bill McKibben (who reviews Gore’s book on page 15), our public discussion has been warped by coal and oil industry-funded "climate skeptics." Even in the unlikely event that decent climate legislation is passed here, the Senate would need a supermajority of sixty-seven votes to ratify a Copenhagen treaty–votes that simply aren’t there.

During his campaign Obama spoke eloquently of green recovery, but since his election he has not aggressively pushed this agenda. Given the scale of the challenges he has faced, from healthcare to Afghanistan to the recession, this might be understandable. But the Obama administration has the power to act responsibly on climate change outside legislative channels. It is considering approval of an EPA finding that would classify greenhouse gases as dangerous, opening the way to their regulation under the Clean Air Act. The administration could use its regulatory power to shutter coal plants and clean up agriculture, and embrace industrial policy to facilitate a clean energy revolution. While the United States must be part of any international agreement that addresses this global crisis, the fight against climate change begins at home.