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A Tale of Two Cities


It is the best of times; it is the worst of times. The climate isn't changing; we must move to a sustainable way of life.

Earlier in August, a meeting called "Debunking Climate Change Myths" was held in Springfield, Missouri, bringing together about 150 figures and sympathizers of the climate skeptic community. The meeting was organized by Ron Boyer, a member of the Missouri Air Conservation Commission who also founded a group called Scientists for Truth. I didn't attend their meeting, so I don't know firsthand what this event was aiming to accomplish, but here is a breathless report on how the meeting transpired.

Apparently, Mr. Boyer convened the meeting because he wanted to increase the public platform for climate skeptics to tell their story, which essentially boils down to this:

"We can't be sure that human-induced climate change is really happening, so therefore we shouldn't bend over backwards to do anything different until we're absolutely sure that human-induced climate change is really happening. And, in fact, we're absolutely sure that human-induced climate change is NOT really happening."

Put another way, the story being told in these self-referential (and self-reverential) circles is effectively:

"We like the way things are, thank you very much, and we don't want to change the way we produce or use energy. We're very pleased to be spewing lots of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and we're seduced by the allure of consuming lots of resources in doing so, and we simply can't be bothered to entertain any other different way of life, liberty or pursuit of happiness."

It seems as if the skeptics' story is gaining currency among a fearful, confused and angry public: a Gallup poll from earlier in 2009 reports an increase in the number of respondents doubtful about climate change, so the tactics of the climate skeptic storytellers seem to be effective in the current environment. As a result, I would guess that you'll be hearing their story told more frequently and loudly as the debates about the Waxman-Markey climate legislation to be considered in the Senate intensify: expect the disciples of the Springfield skeptic crowd to participate in Tea Party protests against any action, coming to a local auditorium near you.

While the climate skeptics congregated in Springfield, several hundred miles northeast in Cleveland, I joined about 700 other people in attending a city-wide sustainability summit entitled Sustainable Cleveland 2019. Convened by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson, the summit was designed to have a broad cross-section of interests begin charting a course for the region's future, premised on a concerted move to a green economy as an engine for overall revitalization.

After a rousing introductory keynote speech by Van Jones, the Special Adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality in the Obama Administration, the attendees spent three days assessing the region's strengths and opportunities to surface priorities for action in the coming decade, to provide something worth celebrating in 2019 - commemorating 50 years since the infamous Cuyahoga River fire, which awakened the U.S. environmental movement.

As profiled extensively in reporting by John Funk of The Plain-Dealer, Sustainable Cleveland 2019 was an exuberant gathering. In contrast to the "just say no" story being told among the climate skeptics in Springfield, the story being written in Cleveland is one of optimism and constructive engagement. The story goes something like this:

"We the people of Cleveland want to reinvent our city and region. Because of forces far larger than us, we know we must fundamentally change the way we live and work. We understand the situation we face, and we will not resist or complain. In fact, making the necessary changes provides us the opportunity to create something much better than we have now - and even better than we ever had."

A number of voices in the blogosphere pooh-poohed the Sustainable Cleveland 2019. To be sure, the summit was far from perfect: it was too long, and at times entailed too much hyperbole and rah-rah for my tastes, sometimes lapsing into unrealistic naivete. However, these faults are worth tolerating, if it means greater traction among a broader constituency so as to improve our chances for achieving wide-scale beneficial change. If I were to criticize anyone, it would be the cynical bloggers for sitting on the sidelines and throwing rocks at passers-by with their unhelpful comments.

Cleveland, Springfield: there's no doubt in my mind which city was hosting the more interesting and significant gathering - the one offering any path forward worth pursuing.

In his provocative remarks to the Cleveland audience, Peter Senge, Senior Lecturer at MIT's Sloan School of Management, observed that most segments of the world population were increasingly coming to the recognition that "the future has no future".

For those minds that convened in Springfield, this fear of the future has the skeptics running like lemmings back to the unrecapturable past. Here in Cleveland, a big chunk of our population sees that the present (much less the past) is truly unsustainable and is taking responsibility to invent a new and improved world for themselves: a future that indeed has a future.