12/25/2009 10:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bring On The "We" Decade

Serious about energy conservation? Consider hibernation; curling up into a ball and snoozing away the winter while surviving on surplus fat might just be the way to go. You'd wake up next Spring feeling lighter and brighter, rested and ready for the new decade.

Then again, if the next ten years are going to be anything like the last ten, Rip Van Winkle might be a better model than a bear. I don't know about you, but I'm not sure I can handle another decade of terrorist attacks, financial folly, endless wars, crumbling infrastructure, hurricanes, floods, fires, drought, and reality tv-wannabes. Who wouldn't want to crawl under a rock and sleep for a decade or two after all that?

The collapse of the climate talks in Copenhagen seemed like a fitting end to our frazzled, fizzled-out era (was it "the oughts," "the naughts," "the oh-oh's," or "the zeros?) Hey, we never liked this decade enough to even give it a nickname.

Whatever you want to call it, don't feel bad if you're glad to see it go. Now what, though?

Like it or not, this new century is going to be shaped largely by the choices we make in the next few years. The triple threat of a changing climate, dwindling resources, and a growing population will create unprecedented challenges for every nation, large and small, rich and poor.

The disappointing outcome at Copenhagen--all the more disheartening given how low expectations were to begin with--launched a flurry of furious dispatches looking to lay the blame on Obama, or China, or the EU, or some combination thereof.

But amidst all the gloomy post-mortems, I found a few stray rays of hope. James Hansen, the NASA scientist who first testified to Congress about global warming in 1988, was so convinced that no meaningful accord would come from the talks in Copenhagen that he didn't bother to attend. Instead, he addressed a packed house of eco-geeks, myself included, at a Secret Science Club gathering in Brooklyn.

The good news, Hansen told us, is that we still have time to avert the most catastrophic consequences of climate change. We just have to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by, say, 60 to 80 percent in the near future. Weaning the world off coal would go a long way towards achieving this goal.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No. David Gershon, a climate change expert who specializes in strategies to encourage people to adopt a more low-impact way of life, individually and collectively, wrote about the steady progress he's witnessed through his Cool Communities program on Huffington Post the other day:

...there are now over 350 Cool Communities in thirty-six states across America. Participants are achieving on average a 25 percent carbon footprint reduction and reaching out to fellow citizens to accomplish the same. A growing number of these campaigns have committed themselves to a three-year effort to mobilize up to 85 percent of their communities' residents to reduce their footprint by at least 25 percent....

...The Cool Community movement is building Mount Everest base camps in communities across the nation for the long climb we must make to address climate change. It is also providing fire for the soul to inspire community leaders to reach for new visions of what is possible, with some committing to reduce their carbon footprint 80 percent by 2020. Nelson Mandela, an exemplar of taking on large, epic challenges, describes the journey this way, "It always seems impossible until it is done." But the journey must begin somewhere with someone. That somewhere is our homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities. And that someone is us.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, while acknowledging that the Climate Summit itself was a bust, came back from Copenhagen impressed by the great strides Denmark has made towards achieving a low-carbon economy. Friedman marveled at the ability of the Danish government to implement solutions that no American politician would dare to suggest:

How long are we Americans going to go on thinking that we can thrive in the 21st century when doing the optimal things -- whether for energy, health care, education or the deficit -- are "off the table." They've been banished by an ad hoc coalition of lobbyists loaded with money, loud-mouth talk-show hosts who will flame anyone who crosses them, political consultants who warn that asking Americans to do anything important but hard makes one unelectable and a citizenry that doesn't even ask for optimal anymore because it believes that optimal is impossible.

The solutions are out there, just waiting for us to embrace them. As we get ready to say goodbye and good riddance to a difficult decade, now's the time to chart the course of the next one. It doesn't have to be the Terrible Teens. We're all in this together, so let's christen it the "We" decade, and get to work. The big picture is that we've got an awfully small window.

Originally published on The Green Fork