Climate change is threatening our planet — and rocking our political world. For years, environmental protection and business development have been posed as contesting goals — too much of one means too little of another.

But as the evidence of global warming has become overwhelming, major corporate leaders are now pressuring the Bush administration to take action; Silicon Valley venture capitalists are investing in "green innovation," and environmentalists are proudly touting the job creation potential in saving the planet.

But while we may have started to make progress in facing one of the nation's most inconvenient truths, others have been shunted to one side.

For years, the income gap between rich and poor has been rising, particularly in California, a place which has led the nation in the upswing in working poverty. The growing divide — by class, race, and often by geography — threatens its own day of reckoning, a sort of tipping point that will lead future generations to look back and marvel at our current inaction.

Can we find the vision to address this social crisis? Can we combine our newfound enthusiasm for marrying economic and environmental imperatives with an equal commitment to equity? Can we learn to grow greener — and grow together?

These questions are important for the state and essential for our own Santa Cruz County. Our region has been blessed with clear skies, verdant forests, and a magnificent bay. We have an irrevocable commitment to protecting these natural assets, and have fought hard battles around coastal development, freeway expansion and big-box retail. At last year's Community-wide Economic Prosperity Summit, launched to take on the contradictions posed by limited job prospects and skyrocketing housing costs, the most enthusiastic reception was for Fred Keeley's call to position Santa Cruz as a mecca for green industries.

It's a great vision — and one that suits us well. But in the absence of specific actions to incorporate those who are usually excluded, including more affordable housing, improved job training, geographically targeted development, and enhanced transit, this newest iteration of the "new economy" may be scarred by the social inequality that persisted through the last technological boom.

This concern is particularly pressing in Santa Cruz: During the 1990s, we ranked fourth among California's 26 metropolitan areas in terms of the increasing disparity between those at the top and those at the bottom of the income distribution. And our climate is not the only thing changing: the state projects that in 40 years, a millisecond in the lifespan of the globe, the population of Santa Cruz County will shift from being around two-thirds white to around two-thirds "minority"

Making sure that this new demographic is part of our economic drift to green — particularly given the current North-South divisions in the county — is critical to preventing future social fragmentation.

We are not alone in these challenges — and we need not stand alone in devising solutions. Across the country, top political, business, environmental and social leaders have been coming together under the banner of the Apollo Alliance, a coalition advocating for more efficient factories, appliances and automobiles, expansion of alternative energy and smart growth development, and the creation of new manufacturing jobs in the clean energy sector.

Just north of us, in the city of Oakland, Mayor Ron Dellums has convened a Green Economic Initiatives Task Force, helping to champion the idea of aggressively attracting eco-friendly employment and businesses to inner-city Oakland.

It's a strategy to ensure that those who were once left behind can now get ahead, primarily by being the first to arrive just as the combination of new technology and environmental consciousness is making green production possible. At the forefront in Oakland and nationally has been Van Jones, the 37-year old founder and national executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Originally devoted to dealing with prisoner rights, the center has turned its attention to the conditions that have generated mass incarceration. And foremost among these is an economy that fails to deliver for either the planet or its people.

To address this issue, Jones, who will speak in Santa Cruz on Wednesday, has sought to both provide concrete strategies and build bridges between unlikely allies. He may criticize business — but he is the only person I know who was arrested in 1999 for protesting the World Trade Organization in Seattle and then feted three years later at the business-led World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, as a "Global Leader of Tomorrow"

He may warn that the coming battle to save the planet will result in eco-apartheid unless low-income areas and communities of color are slated for "green-collar jobs" — but he has embraced the environmental agenda, serving on the boards of Bioneers and the Rain Forest Network and stressing a wholistic approach to economic development.

We in Santa Cruz would do well to listen to Jones and others in his generation about both strategy and coalitions. We need a new approach, including a renewed commitment to inclusion, an understanding of the central role of economic opportunity, and an ongoing appreciation for environmental integrity. But we need a new conversation as well, one in which other opinions are respected and we search not for the lowest common denominator but the highest common ground.

Jones has written: "Two problems confront us: social inequality and environmental destruction. Both problems are reaching crisis points. We act as if they are separate. But they are linked — economically, politically and morally. The solutions and strategies for each must, therefore, be one"

The coming era in American history will be defined by dependence on foreign oil, environmental degradation, and the escalating gap between rich and poor — or by the recognition of inconvenient truths and a sincere effort to merge prosperity, progress, and protection. We in Santa Cruz will either be wracked by our old debates or we will find a way to lead in both conversation and policy-making. Let's choose to lead.

Manuel Pastor is outgoing director of the Center for Justice, Tolerance and Community at UC Santa Cruz. For more on the center and the lecture by Van Jones, go to http://cjtc.ucsc.edu.