The Graying Of The Green Thing

04/01/2008 04:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

In the midst of one of the panels here at the Aspen Environment Forum, a wizened professor from the University of Alaska took the microphone proffered for questions from the environmental cognoscenti and said that a bear had just been shot and killed at Fort Yukon, Alaska, 250 miles from the shore. He said to his knowledge no bear had ever before been killed that far inland in that part of Alaska.

If I were making this up, I would say there was an audible murmur or perhaps even an angry hum as the choir in Aspen, brought together by the Aspen Institute and National Geographic magazine, ingested the significance of this single environmental tragedy. Not so: there were no murmurs, no guttural evidence of existential angst anywhere to be seen or heard in the audience at the Aspen Environment Forum.

The choir absorbed the news--one more damning fact about climate change--and continued on with the session. Were they oblivious to the news? Not at all...but they did know there was not a damn thing they could do about it. The bear was out of the barn.

And there, in a microcosm, is the graying of the macro world of environmental activism. In the panel "How Much Time to Act on Climate Change?" the conclusion was (a) there is no time; (b) no one has really figured out what to do about it; and (c) about 40 percent of people in the United States--the tipping point of the populace--is dazed and confused about the issue at best.

"We have no more time," said United Nations Foundation president Tim Wirth. "We have to act immediately..... It is absolutely essential to have the appropriate policy framework around this."

"We need to act by about 1980," said Lara Hansen, chief scientist of the World Wildlife Fund's International Climate Change Program. "We're substantially behind the clock."

Even with Al Gore's green Oscar conveniently on the mantle, the environmental movement proper has arrived at a moment in time when so much needs to be done so soon that nobody quite knows what to do next, despite Wirth's sweeping seven pillars of action that include a price on carbon, an international framework, better regulation, research and development, adaptation, and population control.

"The windows of opportunity...are rapidly closing," Hansen said. "We need everybody out there doing everything."

Cathy Zoio, the chief executive officer and executive director of the Alliance for Climate Protection, is the one who came up with the 40 percent number of those polled in the United States who don't quite know what to think about climate change. Like Hansen, who suggested "doing everything," Zoio posited a world where green SWAT teams go door to door, "neighborhood by neighborhood," to retrofit a recalcitrant infrastructure.

To do everything is, of course, to do nothing, door to door or not. In such a fashion has the environmental movement shifted from trying to convince the world that climate change is real, to actually trying to do something about it. The best the panel could serve up was putting a price on carbon, according to the Goldman Sachs Inc. senior investment strategist Abby Joseph Cohen, and more better regulation. Beyond those two big-issue kahunas, there's literal another tsunami out there waiting to hit.

So why has the green issue faded from the Presidential primaries as the field has narrowed to three? As a political issue, climate change is stuck in the limbo of acolytes feeling hybrid cars and newfangled lightbulbs are the key, even as the reality sets in that we are doing way too little way too late.

If a bear falls in the forest, can anybody hear?