01/01/2012 08:53 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2012

Climate Dawn

And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light,

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly,

But westward, look, the land is bright.

          --Arthur Hugh Clough

You might be surprised to learn that I think climate protection may have posted its best quarterly results ever in the last three months of 2011. After all, the year as a whole saw the world move ever deeper into Al Gore's "Era of Consequences", with an unprecedented concentration of extreme weather events. And didn't we learn at the end of the year that in 2010 industrial civilization had unleashed record amounts of greenhouse pollutants into the atmosphere?

So what was so great about Q4 of 2011?

Quite simply, the world proved that, if we stick at it, we can do it. After 40 years of U.S. government inaction, the Obama administration completed setting a comprehensive set of carbon emission standards for cars and trucks, standards that, overall, will reduce the carbon footprint of a mile of driving by more than 50 percent by 2025. It took three rounds of reform -- one by Congress before Obama took office, one in his first year that dealt with the years leading up to 2017, and the final round just promulgated. But combined with investment incentives for vehicle electrification, ongoing innovation on the fuels side, a struggle that the Sierra Club launched back in the 1980s has finally come to fruition -- absurdly inefficient American vehicles will no longer be a big part of the climate problem. (Not everyone was thrilled of course -- The Wall Street Journal was its usual hectoring self.)

Nor, it turns out, will vampire power plants be with us forever. It took 20 years for the EPA to finally confront the truth that the utility lobby had snookered Congress back in the 1970s into allowing the indefinite operation of filthy coal-fired power plants belching not only carbon but also mercury, soot, sulfur, and other toxins into the atmosphere. The pretext? Any day now they were going to be retired and thus did not warrant cleaning up! On December 21 President Obama finally signed EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's silver stake: a firm standard requiring that mercury and other toxic pollutants finally be cleaned up -- or shut down as originally proclaimed. How much of America's carbon belching coal fleet will go down because of the mercury rule is not clear -- some estimates were 50 GW, a sixth of the total fleet. But the mercury rule doesn't stand alone -- a whole series of other federal and state and local actions are making clear to utilities that if they can't burn coal clean then they can't burn it at all -- and the result is going to be a huge step-down in CO2 and other pollution from America's power plants.

The president, confronted with a bought-and-sold big-carbon majority in the House of Representatives, finally called one his opponents' repeated bluffs. When the House insisted that the price of extending unemployment insurance and social security tax moratoria was a rapid decision on the Keystone Tar Sands Export Pipeline, the president took the challenge, and then made it clear that a rushed, rapid decision would have to be -- "No."

As a result of these three victories, the U.S. is poised not only to meet the 17 percent pollution curbs that President Obama promised in Copenhagen by 2020, but to go beyond them -- because these regulations and limits set the stage for further reforms, and show that we can really change the long-term emissions trajectory of an economy in ways that are good for both health and prosperity.

Meanwhile, in Durban, an absence of U.S. leadership, plus ambiguous signals from China combined with resistance from Canada, Japan, and India, might easily have derailed climate diplomacy altogether. Instead, while the Durban UN Climate Conference made no fundamental breakthroughs, the world stuck at it. And back in Brussels, the European Union stuck to their guns by insisting on their admittedly inadequate proposals requiring airline passengers, the world's richest, to take responsibility for their climate emissions even when they were over the ocean. Thus far the courts have supported this modest, but symbolically critical signal -- climate pollution is going to have a price.

What these five successes have in common is their connection to a quality that doesn't often get discussed when we worry about global warming -- tenacity.

The auto carbon standards and the mercury rules were the fruit of 60 combined years of tenacity -- largely led by the Sierra Club. Ongoing UN Climate diplomacy and the EU's aviation rule symbolize the tenacity of the world community --disorganized though it is. And the rejection of the Keystone Pipeline must summons our movement's future tenacity -- for as long as global demand for oil is out of control, the motivation to find some way to get Canada's tar sands to world markets at whatever ecological price will be overwhelming. The tar sands battle is not over.

Tenacity is the Rodney Dangerfield of virtues -- we underestimate it. It maintains a peculiar relationship to time. Unlike bravery or generosity, fed by crisis or sudden opportunity, tenacity must hang on during long fallow seasons and droughts, when it almost seems pointless. Tenacity is the ultimate expression of hope and faith. And just as the scientists warn us that reversing climate disruption will take a long time, and that the price for the pollution we have already unleashed will be with us for many lifetimes, so too the path for reversing our climate folly has a long arc, something we often lose track of.

In the last quarter of 2011 that arc of common sense broke through to the surface -- because important chunks of the human community have been sticking at the task of climate rescue.

So here's to tenacity -- the virtue we need more of. May the year 2012 be filled with it.

And lest you think that the opening quatrain of this blog -- which I have used before in this blog and elsewhere, ever since it sat on my college dorm wall -- is from a soppy Victorian sentimentalist, let me give you another, highly apropos quote from Arthur Hugh Clough:

"Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat, When it's so lucrative to cheat."

Occupy couldn't have said it better.