The time has come for our nation to grow up. For 40 years, we have bickered and stalled on energy policy, even as oil fuels hostile regimes overseas and as scientists find more evidence that our current path poses dire threats to our climate and our world.

Energy is unavoidably about climate. But the other side of the argument is urgent and more immediate. A new path for energy is the key to the economic competition of the 21st century, the race for clean energy.

Maine, with huge potential on land and offshore, stands to gain from wind and possibly wave energy. That means jobs and economic growth.

But not if we do nothing and cling to the status quo, which is the fallback position of too many in Congress.

Now, Europe, China, even India are moving ahead in the global competition for a clean-energy economy. That market is estimated to be more than $400 billion a year by 2030, and many liken it to the information technology and Internet revolutions.

Once our country sets a clear policy on energy, venture capitalists and energy companies say, the market will respond with billions for America’s innovators.

The critical piece of that policy is putting a price on carbon. It means we no longer ignore the cost of pollution — the carbon dioxide we release from burning coal, oil and natural gas, which is the largest share of the greenhouse gases that trap heat from the sun and slowly warm our planet.

We can pay that cost now, phased-in and fairly. Or we can pay it a hundredfold in the disasters that climate change will bring in the coming years and decades.

The science is no longer in question, and those who claim it is are simply seeking delay. The consensus is clear and sobering: Human-caused carbon emissions are building. Carbon is responsible for much of the 1.4-degree rise in global temperature over the past century. Changes are happening faster, with the latest estimates projecting as much as an 11-degree rise by century’s end if nothing is done. Last month was the hottest May on record — likewise, January through April.

This problem is global, national and local. Sea-level rise is projected to hit the Northeast hard, with Portland in the crosshair. A 6-foot rise, the latest estimate for the North Atlantic, would cause unbearable destruction.

We must craft a solution — especially when we see the devastation in the Gulf of Mexico and the disdain the oil industry had for the possibility of a spill or a cleanup. How foolish can we be to dismiss the link between that disaster, long warned of, and the disasters yet to come from our current energy policy?

We applaud Sen. Susan Collins for the “cap-and-dividend” measure she introduced with Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, which caps carbon emissions and keeps consumers from bearing too much cost. It is a viable path, and so is the cap-and-trade measure that passed the House last year.

Sadly, President Obama opened the door to an energy-only approach that, while it might provide political cover for the oil spill, would fail to act on climate change or truly engage the nation in the clean-energy economy.

The practical middle — and we place Sens. Collins and Olympia Snowe in that camp — must help find the larger solution. This is not a party issue. Republicans, after all, passed our key environmental laws under presidents Nixon, Ford and Bush.

Ultimately, specifics will be hashed out. But the must-haves are these:

Set limits on carbon emissions to eventually stop climate change.

Put a price on carbon pollution to make the real costs of energy clear.

Let the market sort out the best technologies with the cleanest energy. Government can help with research and development, energy efficiency and tax breaks to boost innovative ideas (whether it is to find a way to burn coal cleanly, handle nuclear waste or build on wave-energy technologies).

We all share responsibility for the energy path we’re on. We’re all unsure about how best to change. But we need to find a better way.

It is time for our leaders to lead. We cannot put this off for another 40 years.