It wasn’t so long ago that the environmental movement was pushing for a mandatory reduction in greenhouse gas emissions to a level commensurate with avoiding the worst effects of climate change. Now, having lost on that front, that same movement’s biggest public relations maneuver these days is trying to get solar panels back on the White House.

A few of us have spent the past week carefully transporting a relic of American history down the East Coast, trying to return it to the White House, where it belongs.

It’s not a painting spirited from the Lincoln Bedroom or an antique sideboard stolen from the Roosevelt Room by some long-ago servant. No, this relic comes from the somewhat more prosaic Carter roof. It’s a solar panel, one of a large array installed on top of the White House in June 1979.

…we’re carrying the panel back to the White House and asking President Obama to put it back on the roof, alongside a full array of new photovoltaic and hot-water panels. Obama has drawn much of the blame for the failure of the climate legislation, which he didn’t push aggressively; this is a chance to make at least symbolic amends. Thus far, however, we have not gotten a firm response from the administration, even though other world leaders have pledged to join a Global Work Party on Oct. 10 (10-10-10). Mohamed Nasheed, president of the Maldive Islands, for instance, will be on the roof of his official residence bolting down panels donated by the American company Sungevity.

Clearly, a solar panel on the White House roof won’t solve climate change — and we’d rather have strong presidential leadership on energy transformation. But given the political scene, this may be as good as we’ll get for the moment.

I don’t know what’s more depressing – that McKibben correctly explains that one set of solar panels on one house is all we can expect at this point, or that he can’t even get that. The White House agreed to a meeting with McKibben and his activists today, and his organization 350.org reported back that they wouldn’t commit to anything:

(McKibben said) “The White House said they wouldn’t take the panel and that they would continue with their deliberative process in deciding to put solar back on the roof. We passed along the wish of the tens of thousands of people that the Administration would speed up their deliberative process; in any event, we’re actually done deliberating and our supporters are ready to get to work on their own homes, schools and churches on 10/10/10.”

The meeting was hosted by Michelle Moore, the Federal Environmental Executive, Amelia Salzman, Associate Director for Policy Outreach at the Council on Environmental Quality, and Greg Nelson, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Jean Altomare, a senior wildlife major, expressed her disappointment in the Administration’s refusal to accept the panel:

“No tears fell in the room, but things were definitely tense. The meeting was a disappointment, but I’m proud that a few students from rural Maine could make these Administration officials feel so uncomfortable. They need to know we’re not going to let them off the hook when our future is on the line.”

By the way, there already are solar panels at the White House, they’re just not visible. In 2002, the Bush Administration installed them, but swore the contractors to secrecy and made sure they were put in a maintenance shed.

This small ball on the part of the environmental movement may be more realistic after years of disappointment, but it doesn’t make it any less depressing. I guess sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards, but the planet doesn’t have a lot of time.