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An Optimist on Climate Change

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I'm an optimist. In these days of pessimistic news about climate change, I like to surround myself with forward-thinking people. One of these is David Johnston, president of What's Working. Johnston recently received the SAM Sustainability Pioneer Award, which is considered the Nobel prize in the sustainability world.

On the same day that Vice President Joe Biden announced that the Obama administration is backing a plan to let homeowners finance the cost of energy-efficiency improvements through their property tax assessments, Johnston announced the launch of the national Home Energy Leadership Training Certification program. The goal of the certification is to create a standardized training program for people working in the field of energy-efficiency.

Like Bill McKibben (Harvard '82), author and founder of the 350.org global movement*, a worldwide energy action group that will promote demonstrations on every continent this weekend, Johnston affirms that we're at a tipping point. In this case, it's a tipping point in consciousness. "We're at a point," says Johnston, "where everything we know is out of date. What happens next is unknowable, unspeakable, and undetermined."

Can we self-organize in a state of chaos? he asks, then provides the answer. "We have to make carbon use personal, then give everyone a way to take part. We have to take the home energy audit and convert it into work."

Right now, says Johnston, fewer than 2 percent of homes in the U.S. have had energy audits. Of this group, only 10 percent have taken any action. His national certification program would take some of the $7.6 billion in stimulus money that Biden says is needed to weatherproof homes and create nearly 100 percent employment in every community.

Direct actions to reduce energy consumption will also be the focus of the U.S. delegation this December, as they head to Copenhagen and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Although I was the U.N.'s first accredited blogger at the UNFCCC conference in Bali in 2007, I don't plan to head to Copenhagen this year. Here's why:

I'm keeping my attention focused instead on the U.S. Congress. Whatever ambitious, comprehensive agreement comes out of Copenhagen, it will still require the agreement of members of the U.S. Congress for the U.S. to sign on to this international accord.

Given the partisan politics in Washington DC these days, could recalcitrant Republicans in Congress be the ones to "close the books" on the human race? If the U.S. Congress refuses to ratify the agreement that emerges from Copenhagen, will China and India also refuse to ratify it?

In spite of this pessimistic thought, I remain an optimist ... after all, the Republicans in Congress have children and grandchildren too. We're all traveling together across the cosmos on tiny spaceship Earth. The fate of the Earth is our fate too. Do you agree?

* 350.org advocates getting the world back to 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, the principal gas associated with global warming. The 350 ppm level is what scientists last year said is the maximum at which civilization can prosper. We're now at 390 ppm and levels are rising at the rate of 2 ppm each year.