All spin aside, you have to say this was a bad last few days for the planet. The week started off well in Oslo, but then we get the terrifying news that the Arctic might be sea ice free by 2013.

Next, the US Congress backs down from taking away oil industry subsidies and requiring utilities to use renewable sources. And finally, the US intransigence in Bali produces only the weakest of agreements – agreeing only to keep talking and figure something out by 2009.

So ends the week in which Al Gore and the IPCC got the Nobel Peace Prize, and the year in which climate change really arrived as a political issue. Anyone who thought that things might be getting easier, well, its time to wake up and smell the carbon.

OK, I know that there is a good deal of progress to point to. The first increase in mileage standards in the US since I was in college (a long time ago). A huge and undeniable increase in public concern over climate and energy, and a corresponding increase in rhetoric on the campaign trail. The fact that much of the rest of the world outside of the US is concerned enough about climate change that they’re willing to discuss some pretty ambitious targets (25-40% reduction from 1990 levels by 2020).

But I can’t help looking at all that as footnotes to the bottom line that the oil industry and their friends in Washington, Ottawa and elsewhere still have the upper hand. Sure, we’ve got some some political wind – finally – at our backs. But these guys have battened down the hatches and are ready for a serious season of political hurricanes. Even with Category Five level public concern (and we’re not there yet), they’re clearly planning to ride it out.

The gulf between what is necessary to fight global warming and what is politically possible is still frighteningly large. Sure, we’re making progress on the possible – but the science keeps telling us we have to move faster as well – and the net effect seems at best to me to be no real gain.

Bali was indeed a wake up call, not for the plight of the planet, but rather for the willingness of the opposition to fight until the bitter end, and for the many eco-somnambulists walking around in a sweaty daze. It was the conference of the damned on the island of the gods.

One of the more surreal experiences of the week for me was a brief encounter with Canada’s Minister of the Environment, John Baird. While I’ll admit to being somewhat secretly pleased that a government other than the US could be this deluded, it was truly frightening to realize that a man who seems to have learned the fine art of smear from Bill O’Reilly actually is Canada’s Environment Minister.

The guy stood red faced in front of Tzeporah Berman from Forest Ethics and I, arguing that the real problem was that Canada’s environmental community had failed, and that they should import some “real environmentalists” from Europe and Japan. Seriously. After I’d had a few more drinks (Baird had, amazingly, crashed the NGO party) I decided that the best option was to throw him in the pool. Lucklily (or not), he had slipped away in the meantime.

More sedate, but no less concerning, was the series of discussions I sat in on with Third World Network and other progressive activists from the South. Their fundamental point, which I agree with, is that justice demands that the North generally, and the US specifically, finance both adaptation and emission reductions for many nations of the south. Many of their arguments are supported by the Greenhouse Development Rights framework, developed by EcoEquity. The gist is simple, but quite concerning:

Ninety percent reductions in the US and Europe are not going to be enough – because if you do the math, you find that once you factor in the fact that there are a lot more people in the South, and that their populations are growing much faster than those in the North, in order to get to an equivalent level of per capita emission reductions, the US is looking at something like 170% reductions. Or, put another way, a zero-carbon society, and a serious commitment to help the rest of the world.

So those 90% reductions that we’re nowhere near being able to achieve in the US? They turn out to be nowhere near adequate, unless we’re ok with asking the developing world to shoulder a larger burden per person than we are – which I’m not. Talk about a widening gulf between whats necessary and possible.

Meanwhile, as we revealed in Bali, the US and Europe are continuing to use taxpayer money to subsidize the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure around the world.

So its still Christmas for Big Oil, while the rest of us get a lump of coal in our stockings. Ho ho ho.