10/14/2005 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Riding the Waves

Yale University's School of Forestry has assembled a huge cast of characters here in Aspen, CO, to talk about what should be done about global warming. The last two Democratic Presidential nominees -- Senator John Kerry and former Vice-President Al Gore -- are both here, along with leading climate-change scientists, representatives of the Southern Baptists, Catholic Bishops, National Council of Churches and Evangelicals, some of the major media voices on the topic, business executives, and environmental-movement leaders.

There's a sense that, with gasoline at $3 a gallon, Katrina, the shrinking Arctic ice sheet, and the overall thirst for new leadership and a new direction in the country, a breakthrough ought to be possible on global warming. The big debate is about where the breakthrough lies. Some advocate for a broad public-education campaign, perhaps linked with a hundred million dollar ad budget, either to deepen public understanding of the science, or to provoke elite policy makers into action. But the public-opinion researchers who appear at the first plenary throw a lot of cold water on that dream. The public, it turns out, already gets the science, accepts the problem, and favors action. In fact, most of the policy responses that would make the most difference are supported even by those members of the public who don't believe global warming will be a major problem -- they just think that more fuel-efficient vehicles and renewable energy, and less dependence on oil and coal, are good ideas regardless.

And this public support is not new -- it goes back to the summer of 1997 and the lead-in to Kyoto. So Congressional and Bush administration resistance to action has never been based on public sentiment or public ignorance -- it's a policy driven by ideology and by the economic interests of the carbon lobby -- in defiance of public sentiment.

And defiance of public sentiment, of course, only works as long as that public sentiment is not aroused. It's the lack of urgency in public support for climate change, and the relatively small number of Americans engaged in global warming as an issue, that allows the carbon lobby to paralyze action.

So, during the sessions, I advocate a strategy I call "Surfing the Waves." Instead of trying to build a mass movement around global warming, which seems very difficult and slow, I'm urging us to identify the intersections between global warming and existing public urgencies -- gas prices, extreme weather threats, the need for new industries in rural America, the collapse of our manufacturing job base. By riding these waves, I argue, we can get a breakthrough on climate-change solutions faster. And once people start having daily experiences of a decarbonized economy -- their electricity coming from wind turbines, their neighbor's pickup truck getting 40 mpg, their business's utility bill dropping 30 percent -- these solutions will become even more attractive and compelling.

The "carbon-only" approach to energy policy may be on its last legs, but we don't have time to wait for it to fall. We need an approach that relies on people actually experiencing a better future if we want them to demand that Congress, the White House, and industry let go of the past.