08/20/2012 05:08 pm ET Updated Oct 20, 2012

Have We Exhausted Our Other Options?

Asked about how to break the current political gridlock about action on a sensible energy and climate policy, my most optimistic ploy was to recall Churchill: "You can count on Americans to do the right thing after exhausting all other options."

But the summer of 2012 may be the moment when we begin to recognize that, indeed, we have exhausted our other options. Certainly it should; we've had, in two months alone:

The hottest July, indeed the hottest month in American history; drought afflicting 38% of the nation; an anticipated bumper food crop withering from the heat, with projected corn yields down 30% and prices up 60%. Matched with a similar climate drought in Europe, the world is one year away from a food crisis. In India, a poor monsoon combined with high heat led to the world's biggest power outage, with a region of 600 million people going dark. Here in Aspen, most of Friday's flights were cancelled because of smoke from fires.

New scientific findings, one showing that droughts like this summer's are now 30 times as likely to occur than they were only twenty years ago, and the announcement by Koch-funded climate skeptic Richard Muller that he has changed his mind: "Global warming is real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I'm now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

But it's easy to be cynical after years of wasted opportunities, oil-funded denialism and leadership abdication -- and I don't expect that the wake-up call will reach as far as the presidential election. But the currents I sensed last weekend in Aspen are the most hopeful in some time.

The American military, for example, is here at American Renewable Energy Day in force. Jonathan Gensler, a West Virginia native, solar developer and former officer in Iraq, presented a seven-minute trailer for a new movie project -- The Burden -- which frames America's addiction to oil in the searingly personal burden borne by young men and women in the armed forces, but also lays out the leadership being taken by the Defense Department to reduce its own contribution to that addiction by shifting for traditional fossil fuels to innovative solar, wind and biofuels. (sneering, "You're the Secretary of the Navy, not Energy" when Mabus explains by getting of oil is a national security imperative for his troops.)

In the clip, Gensler responds by saying, "We don't elect members of Congress to listen to the oil companies, we elect them to listen to the American people," and at the panel in Aspen he was joined by former generals and admirals like Dennis McGinn and Wes Clark. But the retired brass are less important to me than the images of an entire generation of American service men and women learning that resilience and reliability, as well as climate protection, come with the switch from outmoded oil and coal to solar and wind.

This coming generation of clean energy advocates coming out of military service is not the only sign that the US may be turning a corner. Concern about climate among the general public has spiked in the wake of the heat, drought and fires of this summer.

More significant, however, are responsible leaders on the right taking on the Koch/oil-imposed Tea Party orthodoxy of clinging to oil and coal as a way of denying climate chaos. In Michigan, a renewable energy standard will be on the fall ballot. This week, one of the Republican party's key leaders in the state, Saul Anuzis, came out strongly in favor of the ballot measure arguing,

The energy market, particularly here in Michigan is NOT a market-based system. We have a government-created monopoly that actually limits competition by law. Republicans and conservatives have an obligation to promote public policy reflecting that economic reality...

and, quoting Ronald Reagan to make his case:

What is a conservative after all but one who conserves one who is committed to protecting and holding close the things by which we live... And we want to protect and conserve the land on which we live -- our countryside, our rivers and mountains, our plains and meadows and forests. This is our patrimony. This is what we leave to our children. And our great moral responsibility is to leave it to them either as we found it or better than we found it.

Add to Anuzis the increasingly networked voice of Bob Inglis, the former Republican Representative from South Carolina, who has launched the Energy and Enterprise Initiative at George Mason University, and is assembling a collective set of Republican voices saying that there are authentic strategies for reducing carbon pollution which conservatives not only can, but should embrace -- including a carbon tax.

Inglis and Anuzis are important because, unlike earlier Republican energy and climate innovators like (the former version of) Senators John McCain and Olympia Snowe, the new generation of conservative climate leaders are not mavericks, but mainstream conservatives, party builders, and in Anuzis's case partisan warriors, who simply think their party's obeisance to oil is no longer defending conservatism and America.

They are still a minority -- my successor at the Sierra Club, Mike Brune, reported this month on his experience at the White House Correspondents' dinner. In an encounter, a senior Republican said, "On climate change, there's not really that much separating us." Then he added, "But there's no way I can say that publicly."

But it's actually hard to imagine where the new recruits for the Koch/oil project of keeping America weak by locking it into the 20th century energy economy will come from -- certainly not the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. So while, as I said, I don't expect to see this reflected in this year's presidential race, this summer may be remembered as the year when America woke up to realize it had exhausted all of the options -- except leadership.

As a sign of what happens when America does wake up, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide reached a 20-year low -- largely because citizens didn't let power companies build 180 new coal fired power plants after 2005, and now renewable and cheap natural gas are showing coal up for what it is -- dirty and expensive, not clean and cheap.

When we wake up, we are powerful -- which Winston Churchill never forgot. We shouldn't either.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."