Climate-change warriors of all stripes were focused on the White House on Tuesday, where President Obama vetoed a bill that would have authorized construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Like all the other attention slathered on this overblown issue, the focus was misplaced. It would have been better placed on the Capitol, where Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., without much fanfare, reintroduced a bill that would address the nation’s greenhouse-gas emissions in a serious way.

The Keystone XL controversy has occupied a far larger share of the national debate than it deserves. Environmental activists turned what should have been a routine infrastructure question into a test of Obama’s commitment to fighting climate change. Conservatives responded with misleading claims about the number of jobs the project would create, and Republicans bizarrely chose to make the pipeline their top order of business after taking control of the Senate. With his veto, Obama refused once again to settle an issue that has been delayed for a ridiculous length of time.

Environmentalists should have kept their sights higher, on creating a national carbon policy that would reduce demand for dirty fuels, cutting emissions by attacking the root problem. There have been many advocates for this sort of policy over the years — including Republicans, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John McCain of Arizona. Van Hollen’s market-based version is elegant and effective. It would put a slowly declining cap on the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, requiring an 80 percent cut by 2050, and rely on basic economics, not Environmental Protection Agency commands.

Firms putting coal, oil or natural gas into the U.S. market would have to buy permits that account for the carbon dioxide those fuels release when burned. That is, energy companies would finally have to pay the full cost of the products they sell.

The buying and selling of limited numbers of permits would raise the cost of carbon-heavy goods and make alternatives relatively more attractive.

The government would raise a lot of money in permit auctions, but Van Hollen’s bill would give all of it back, sending rebate checks to every American with a Social Security number.

This is a market-based plan that environmentalists should march for and Republicans should embrace. The impact would dispatch Keystone to the footnote it deserved in the first place.