I spoke in the Netroots Nation Environment Caucus yesterday, just as word was leaking out that the Senate would abandon a comprehensive energy bill in favor of a far narrower measure, basically the Pickens plan combined with Home Star, land and water conservation and a couple oil spill response provisions. Harry Reid is trying to characterize this as a delay, but it looks more like a cancellation to me.

There’s real reason to be concerned about subsidizing natural gas through the Pickens plan (which would give major funding to creating natural gas vehicles) and turning it into the next ethanol, especially when we know about the terrible consequences of extracting natural gas through processes like fracking.

But the bigger issue that environmental advocates had in the caucus was the total failure of the Democrats to accept the challenge of protecting a boiling planet, despite an overwhelming voting majority in both Houses. This isn’t just coming from people outside the system, but from within it. Here’s the statement from Sen. Jeff Merkley yesterday:

“This proposed energy and oil spill legislation laid out this afternoon is an enormous disappointment and a huge missed opportunity. Our nation desperately needs a strong energy strategy that creates a million new clean energy jobs and puts us on a path to ending our addiction to overseas oil.

“I am convinced that while some particular policy approaches may not be able to get 60 votes, a bill that focuses on those critical outcomes could. Instead of a bold stride, this proposal offers only small steps.

“Some believe that there is not enough time in the legislative calendar to do the hard work it would take to meet this challenge. I say that rebuilding our economy and ending America’s most dangerous vulnerability are too important not to make the time.”

Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) expressed similar concern and frustration in an interview with FDL News this morning. “We can’t afford not to get started on this transition,” he said.

Strong words. But the words are even stronger outside of Congress. The renewables industry, hopeful for a serious renewable energy standard to kickstart their business, called the bill “beyond comprehension”, especially as an RES has passed the Senate in committee on a bipartisan basis. Joe Romm declares “the failed Presidency of Barack Obama”, and Rolling Stone piles on.

But really, this is a key moment for the environmental movement, and by extension everyone concerned with saving the planet, in other words everyone. When Robert Gates tried to shut down the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell in April, the LGBT community didn’t passively accept it, they fought – and took it hard to their targets, namely the President and the Democratic Party. They chained themselves to the White House gates. They heckled the President at fundraising galas. They threatened to cut off all funding. In the end, they got about 30% of what they wanted and they didn’t give off any satisfaction after that.

What will people do in the face of this capitulation? Will they accept? Will they consent? Or will they make those who caused this uncomfortable? Will they put their representatives in a position where they don’t want to be? That is the key question. The Senate basically gave up yesterday. Will the activists?