11/21/2013 11:00 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Straws in the Typhoon

Cross-posted with

When a crossroads doesn't lie in the woods or the fields but in our minds, we seldom know it's there or that we've made the choice to take one path and not the other until it's long past. Sometimes, the best you can do is look for the tiniest clues as to where we're really heading. When it comes to climate change, you can pile up the nightmares -- Super-Typhoon Haiyan, possibly the strongest such storm ever to hit land (with the usual prominent caveats about how we can never quite know whether an individual event of this sort was global-warming-induced or not); Australia, which only recently elected a climate-change denialist as prime minister and is experiencing its hottest year on record; the rest of the planet, which is living through the seventh warmest year on record; and so on.

And yet, every now and then, set against the overwhelming, you can sense change in the tiniest of things. Here, for instance, may be a little sign when it comes to global warming: on November 1st, the New York Times featured a piece prominently placed on its front page about how climate change might affect global food production (badly). The story was based on a leaked draft of an upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The piece wasn't itself particularly striking, but given that paper's treatment of climate change over the years, its placement was. Just over two weeks later, after the devastation of parts of the Philippines and with a U.N. climate meeting underway in Poland that normally might hardly have been noticed, it front-paged a far more striking report whose title caught the mood of the moment: "Growing Clamor About Inequities of Climate Change." Recorded was the growing anger and frustration particularly of island nations that had, in greenhouse gas terms, contributed little to climate change and were feeling the brunt of it anyway. Like many other mainstream publications, the Times hasn't exactly been stellar in the placement and attention it's given to what almost certainly is the single most important issue of our era. So consider this a (rising) sea change, an indication that, for the paper of record, global warming has just jumped somewhere nearer the front of the line.

And here's another little surprise and possible sign of changing times. In case no one noticed, Red State America (RSA), the land of climate deniers, has in recent years been hit hard by record droughts, heat, wildfires, floods, and storms, by what our news likes to call "extreme weather" (with little or no reference to climate change). So how has that everyday reality been absorbed, if at all? The British Guardian recently reported new polling research by a Stanford social psychologist, who has long been taking the American pulse on the subject, indicating that the inhabitants of RSA -- we're talking about Texas and Oklahoma, among other states -- now overwhelmingly believe climate change is a reality, and that a significant majority of them want the government to work on reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Two stories placed strikingly in a major paper and one passing poll. Not exactly a typhoon of evidence, but sometimes you take your straws in the wind where you find them. In the meantime, young activists (and older ones, too) are trying to take the typhoon by the horns and, with a growing campaign to pressure universities and colleges to divest from the giant energy companies, to change the mood and calculations of our moment as Todd Gitlin reports today in "How to Reverse a Slow-Motion Apocalypse." And stay tuned because, whatever may be happening now, there will be crossroads ahead, choices to be made on a planet that's guaranteed to be in increasing turmoil for the rest of our lives.