A broad coalition of civic leaders, elected officials and labor, environmental and social activists launched a new campaign Wednesday aimed at persuading U.S. politicians that they should curb greenhouse gas emissions for moral and ethical reasons.

The Climate Ethics Campaign--which kicked off with a Capitol Hill press conference headlining Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.)--comes as negotiators are struggling to make progress at United Nations climate talks in Durban, South Africa.

Part of the South African Petroleum Refinery is seen during the COP17 climate talks in Durban. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

“We believe it’s time to talk about our moral obligation to prevent the human suffering created by climate change, to safeguard the poor and most vulnerable communities from harm they did not create, and to protect the natural environment that is the source of all life,” said Bob Doppelt, executive director of The Resource Innovation Group, a non-profit group affiliated with Willamette University, and coordinator of the Climate Ethics Campaign.

But the call also comes at a moment when Congress has shown little appetite for tackling the issue of global warming. There is no serious drive to pass either a cap on greenhouse gas emissions or a more modest federal renewable energy standard. Meanwhile, House leaders are questioning federal support for renewable energy in the wake of the failure of solar manufacturer Solyndra, which left taxpayers obligated to repay $527 million extended to the company in a federal loan guarantee.

This year’s climate talks are the first in years where not a single member of Congress is attending.

Only a handful of congressional aides — including one to Boxer, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.), Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) — are making the trip.

The 2009 U.N. negotiations in Copenhagen represented the high-water mark in terms of congressional attendance, with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leading a delegation of more than 20 members, including Waxman, to the talks. Kerry and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, also attended separately. Roughly 50 House and Senate aides made the trip as well.

Michael Levi, senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that in 2009 the House had passed a bill that would have imposed nationwide limits on greenhouse gases, and there was an expectation at the time the Senate might pass a similar bill in 2010.

“U.S. lawmakers aren’t attending this year because there isn’t much for them to contribute absent U.S. domestic action,” Levi said. “It’s also an awfully long haul to Durban and back.”

In a statement, Inhofe noted that two years ago in Copenhagen he announced legislation to cap greenhouse gas emissions and trade carbon pollution allowances was dead even as Democrats assured U.N. delegates it would become law.

“They didn’t like it one bit, but I was right and they were wrong,” Inhofe said. “My friends on the other side of the aisle clearly don’t want to face world leaders now that they’ve failed to deliver and as the Kyoto process is all but dead.

Kerry has attended six U.N. climate conferences, including the 1997 session where the world’s only legally-binding climate treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, was forged. According to his spokeswoman Jodi Seth, “Senator Kerry did not plan to attend the conference because of his work on the Deficit Reduction Committee, which was expected to continue through December.”

In a statement, Waxman--who endorsed the new ethics campaign on Wednesday -- said the Durban meeting “is an important climate summit” but “committee activities require me to stay in Washington. 

“The scientific evidence is clear: all countries need to work together and to act now to avoid irreversible climate change,” he added.

Aides to several other members also cited scheduling conflicts.

“In life, timing is everything, and that applies to congressional attendance at the climate talks in Durban, too,” said Eben Burnham-Snyder, a spokesman for Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). “There is just too much left to be done in Congress before the holidays for members or staff to travel across an ocean and the equator with enough time to get back for important votes to keep the country running. If the schedule allows, perhaps some staffers or members could end up going at the last minute, but at this point it looks unlikely.”

But negotiators have also made it clear the meeting will not forge a major agreement, lowering the incentive for lawmakers to make the long journey to Durban.

At the press conference, Boxer said it would take increased public pressure to ensure congressional action on climate change.

“Right now, we do not have the votes to do what we need to do,” she said. “To take it to the next step, we need a grassroots movement that is huge.”

One of the coalition’s members, Lilian Molina, environmental justice director for the advocacy group Energy Action Coalition, said she believed the new drive would work because it would take politicians “out of the shadows of the corporate lobbyist, and it makes them look in the mirror at their humanity and realize that they’re not immortal, or immune from this ecological crisis.”

This story originally inaccurately reported the number of congressional aides who would travel to Durban. It has been corrected.