01/01/2013 08:51 am ET Updated Mar 03, 2013

Rainbow Giddy

The last half dozen potholed miles on the back road to the Monteverde Cloud Forest are the rainbow factory of the world. Rainbows ahead of me, rainbows behind me, right and left, rainbows spanning the horizon. Finally a spectacular double rainbow soars up from a valley, its peak below the edge of the road. I am literally "over the rainbow." Then in a breathtaking moment one frisky light arch shoots down in front of me, touching down no more than twenty feet ahead of me where the verge of the road curves away. Finally, I think, I am going to find my pot of gold!

This dazzling fracturing of sunlight is only one of the breathtaking fruits of the fierce winds which tear clouds into tiny shards of mist and light -- hard enough that fine and warm as these droplets are, they sting my face. All around me lie the thousands of species and complex ecological dramas -- the other legacy of the horizontal rains of this mountainous complex -- containing in a few square miles seven of Costa Rica's life-zones, and hundred of distinct micro-climates.

It's complex and dizzying for a stranger, but it tells a disturbing story to the people who grew up in this forest. It's a story worth pondering. Many of these micro-climates have changed, dramatically -- not just in the past few years, but well before the climate scientists were proclaiming that global warming had arrived. On some ridges, a ratio of eight wet to four dry months has yielded to a new normal of only four wet months a year.

And the weather is not the only change. At one ridge top we are shown the wetland where, for millions of years, golden toads lived their lives -- here and only here, in this one spot. But our guide, whose father told him of seeing thousands of the toads, was born in 1985 -- and was only two when the last golden toad was sighted.

The people who watched this shocking collapse of the patterns of their home were not scientists, but nonetheless ecologically highly literate and observant -- because they lived in and off the forest. Their livelihoods depended on knowing where each species could be found, and when -- originally for subsistence, today as guides for visitors -- who when they come to a quetzal forest want to see quetzals, which requires the guide to know which one of the many species of avocado trees is in fruit that week and where it can be seen from the trail.

I find myself wondering if one of the key errors of the entire climate change movement has been reliance on the future forecasting ability of global macro-climate models, rather than harvesting the present micro-observations of farmers and hunters, and school children and gardeners, to spread the story. I am particularly struck by this because of some recent polling findings showing that Americans are now more convinced of and concerned by climate change than they were only a few years ago, but that the big shift has taken place among those Americans who do not trust climate scientists as messengers.

Polling has consistently shown that more Americans believe that the weather is warming than believe that scientists are in agreement about that fact -- an observation which suggests that while the climate denial machinery funded by the oil industry and its allies has succeeded in creating enough media clutter that significant parts of the public think there IS scientific dispute, this clutter has not prevented people from noticing that -- well, the snow just isn't as deep in New Hampshire as it used to be and they might as well sell that snowmobile.

The story here in Monteverde and the story in New Hampshire is a common story -- most of the bright orioles and tanagers I see here summer in the U.S. and Canada; indeed growing up in Maryland I never saw the state bird, the Baltimore oriole -- my first siting was here in Costa Rica.

So perhaps the secret to climate recovery is less in presenting the global projections of a future climate -- with all their unavoidable and scary uncertainties -- and more in encouraging and empowering people to watch their own backyards closely, and share the disturbing pattern that emerged in tiny micro-climes long before the scientists could convince each other there was a global signal they could measure.

Because climate chaos is a reality. And observing things as established patterns fall apart on the ground is a very grounded, reality based habit. The leaves either did or did not turn by October 15 last year in southern Maine, the monsoon either will or will not arrive by June in Mumbai next year. What the climate problem has lacked so far is an approach with the force of Dr. Samuel Johnson, who, asked how he refuted Bishop Berkeley's theory that the physical world was simply a figment of our imagination, sharply kicked a rock and said, "I refute it thus." Perhaps close, local, personal observation can play that role, for people all over the world and of all political and cultural persuasions.

Because, however things may have appeared to my hopeful eye on the road to Monteverde, however close the end of that rainbow appeared to be, when I reached the bend it had vanished -- and the pot of gold with it. Just so, the myth that we can prudently continue our massive experiment in modifying the climate system with massive emissions of carbon and other pollutants, because someday soon new data will show up rescuing us and saying everything is going to be just fine, is no more reality based than that pot of gold.

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."