09/27/2012 01:11 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2012

$250K Heinz Award Goes to Builder of Irresistible Post-Fossil Fuel World

Last week, KC Golden, Policy Director at Seattle-based Climate Solutions, was awarded the $250,000 Heinz Award in Public Policy. Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times called Golden "a prizewinning global-warming fighter."

With all that Golden has accomplished in the environmental sphere, you would definitely call him an overachiever. When I met him in 2010, Golden struck me as brilliant but mellow and completely uninterested in self-promotion -- a "fighter" whose weapons are passion and collaboration more than aggression. When I asked him about our region's biggest environmental problem -- transportation -- he responded with a smile and noted we should just unlink horsepower from sex... and not mention his work with Boeing to reduce carbon in jet fuels.

A lanky outdoorsman with a relaxed stance and engaging laugh, Golden embodies the model of environmentalist as lover and builder, not antagonist. It's a model based on working long-term toward a consensus on difficult issues, and it's the only way to reach his goal -- to build a world that's fundamentally different.

Is this realistic given the speed and severity of climate change? Don't we need warriors in this fight?

Certainly, that's what our culture demands. We love stories about heroes' journeys, about struggle and victory, about good vanquishing evil. We yearn for heroes.

Especially when the real victims will be our own children.

Heroes need compelling villains, and leader Bill McKibben identifies them in his Rolling Stone manifesto, "Global Warming's New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe -- and that make clear who the real enemy is." Spoiler alert: McKibben's enemy is the fossil fuel industry.

Golden agrees that the battle against oil coal companies must be hard fought and without delay. But his mission is to create a new energy paradigm that works better and lasts longer -- a working, irresistible alternative to the rule of fossil fuel.

Golden's background is a fascinating study in leadership for a post-fossil fuel world. Golden grew up on the beaches of Southern California but credits his environmental awareness to his job as a river guide in the mountains of Northern California during his undergrad years at Berkeley. His college concentration was "revolution" as he calls it -- literally, he was a "Social Science Field Major."

After college, Golden moved to Maine and later Vermont, where he led wilderness trips and worked as a freelance writer and stonemason. There he discovered that his relationship to nature went deeper than love for the outdoors. It was there that he connected to the spiritual power and beauty of God's creations.

Armed with a graduate degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government but still undecided between social justice and environmental issues, Golden returned to the West Coast, moving to Seattle where he worked for the Northwest Energy Coalition, at last combining his passions. He convened the Bonneville Power Administration and other government agencies together with low-income customers, utilities and environmentalists. The effort would eventually reduce energy consumption in the Northwest, eliminating the need for an additional five power plants while making energy cleaner and more affordable.

At Climate Solutions, Golden worked with then Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels to launch a response to the U.S. failure to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Understanding that the U.S. boycott could undermine international resolve, Nickels and Golden started a movement to show U.S. support at a local level. The two went to the 2005 UN climate summit in Montreal with a simple message: "Global" warming is a local issue in its causes, impacts, and solutions, and American communities could stand up for climate action, even when our federal government would not. The U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement -- ratifying Kyoto at the local level -- was eventually signed by over 1,000 mayors.

Golden continues to focus on local action at Climate Solutions. Their New Energy Cities project developed a set of four interdependent objectives: Smart power grids, green intelligent buildings, plug-in electric vehicles and renewable power sources. Planning and leadership is all local. From a single test city three years ago, New Cities is now in thirty cities.

Golden's story does not follow the typical hero model. His paradigm mirrors nature, where progress is incremental and interdependence is vital. Perhaps he presages a return to native stories, where nature in all her power and glory is at the center and where awe is given to magnificence in nature rather an individual.

What is encouraging is that the white shoe Heinz Foundation picked KC Golden to be a 2012 award winner, because Golden's legacy is in not being a conventional hero at all. As he said to me in our first conversation, quoting Harry Truman, "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care about getting credit."