Let's Win One for Steve

07/23/2010 07:50 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

This week the movement to stop climate change suffered two deaths. One was the end of the year-long effort to find 60 senators willing to support a variant on the Clean Energy and Climate bill that was passed a year ago by the House of Representatives. Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he would not try to bring such a bill to the floor before the August recess and that instead he would bring up a very narrow bill that deals with the response to the oil spill in the Gulf and a few clean-energy provisions ... nothing at all ambitious in terms of protecting the climate, creating clean energy jobs, or ending our dependence on oil.  Oil and coal, in partnership with the Republican leadership in the Senate, were determined to prevent the Senate from voting on real energy and climate solutions -- and they won this round.

The second loss was the death of climatologist Stephen Schneider, a long-time friend and ally of the Sierra Club, from an unexpected heart attack on a plane flight.  Schneider had been educating the public about climate issues longer, and with more intensity, than anyone else in the field. His first book for the Sierra Club, The Coevolution of Climate and Life, was published in 1984, five years before fellow climatologist James Hansen made the call that global warming caused by greenhouse pollution could already be measured as a current problem -- not just a future threat. Looking back through my copy of Coevolution, I'm struck by how effectively Schneider posed the issues -- in ways that, had the media followed his example, could have avoided altogether the terrible polarization that has created such faux confusion in the public dialogue.

Here's how he summed up the issue, in the very last sentences of his book:

"Scientists' ignorance of the precise consequences of CO2 or other pollutant buildups is no excuse for politicians' complete inaction, a policy that guarantees no hedging against plausible adverse effects. If more people demanded it of their leaders, policies could be implemented that might once again return the weather to its old status as a topic for small talk.... Individual efforts can help to create a sustainable future, if only enough of us would articulate the goal and then work to achieve it."

But throughout the book -- and indeed throughout his work and his life -- Schneider kept making climate tangible, intimate, and personal. He described how the issue is not the survival of the earth, or even life -- which has coevolved with a vast array of climate regimes. What is at stake is civilization, which emerged in association with a very particular climate (the Holocene equilibrium), and which has suffered serious setbacks whenever the Holocene varied too widely from its norms, as when Central Asia dried out and unleashed wave after wave of nomadic incursions into China and Europe. (Both Attila and Genghis Khan were climate warriors.)

Steve could tell these stories with good humor, and he could make you thirst to dig in and learn more. But more than a quarter century after he wrote his first book for the Sierra Club, politicians are still using scientific uncertainty about details as an excuse for taking no action and buying no insurance policy on a catastrophic threat. It's as if we didn't have a fire department because we didn't know in which room of our house a fire might start. And the failure of Senate action shows that, however much work we have done, however much improvement there is in the climate models, however many people saw An Inconvenient Truth, there are still not enough of us articulating the goal of recovering the climate nor enough of us who are working to achieve it.

The Senate will be going home in a few days. Let's make sure, regardless of whom our senators are or what party they belong to, that we send them a simple message for Steve: America needs a new energy future. It wants one. It demands one. And every senator needs to stand up and vote in favor of his or her pathway to get us there. We can't let the Senate Republican leadership chalk this up as one more victory against progress.

Let's win this one for Steve.