12/17/2012 01:51 pm ET Updated Feb 16, 2013

Shock Treatment


What does it take to instill world leaders with a sense of urgency regarding climate change?

Just in the last three months, a half dozen peer reviewed studies from various respected scientific bodies issued grim warnings. Their admonitions ranged from human-induced global warming accelerating at an alarming rate to time running out on modifying the phenomenon's severest societal impacts. This on top of an already substantial body of incriminating evidence.

Yet even with this unsettling backdrop, another of those innumerable international climate change conferences -- this one in Doha, Qatar -- transpired in which the can was essentially kicked down the road. Then there is the United States with a major political party boasting a majority in its ranks who maintain global warming is either a hoax or nothing more than natural weather variability. The fringe element shaping the Republican party's current environmental policy of denial contends that the receding Arctic ice cap is due to severe storms, not melting. While global data show an overall increase in ocean elevation, GOP hardliners blithely insist that sea level remains stable or is declining, and they have a gullible audience embracing their nonsensical claims.

Although not as deeply entrenched as the GOP in a cocoon from reality, the Democratic Party and President Obama (as well as other world leaders for that matter) continue to tout a future based primarily on explosive growth of fossil fuel dependency. Mounting evidence that such a course will lead to climatic disaster is alluded to in oratory but ignored in practice.

Through the Clean Air Act, President Obama could use his executive powers to cut back on the nation's greenhouse gas emissions, but to meet the necessary total reductions to avert climatic calamity, he cannot do it alone. All branches of government must reinforce each other, meaning the judiciary as well as Congress. Yes, dare we say that activist judges are needed to uphold laws that strengthen environmental protection, and to strike down regulations that do the opposite.

It is also clear that the United States cannot wage a successful campaign against global warming without the collaboration of the international community. Yet there is a shortage of strong leadership in many foreign capitals as well as here. Developed countries devote five times as much to fossil fuel subsidies as they spend on assistance to developing countries for adaption and mitigation strategies to counter global warming.

Humanity desperately needs leaders with the moxie to aggressively tackle climate change, overcome the well-financed obstructionism of the fossil fuel industry, and persuade an apprehensive public weaned on oil that there is a better way.

Sounds formidable, doesn't it? Maybe not as much as one might think. While world leaders procrastinate at international conferences, the grassroots is an exciting laboratory for the art of the possible. Take Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example. It is increasing its energy-saving tree cover by 37 percent as part of a master plan to receive 100 percent of its energy from clean, renewable sources by 2020.

That's fine for individual communities, you might say, but mobilizing an entire country to institute an effective anti-global warming strategy is another matter. Or is it?

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a widely respected public interest group, certainly doesn't think so, and its prescription is hardly exotic science fiction. It lays out a doable blueprint for the United States to cut oil use in half in 20 years through expansion of mass transit, use of electric cars and bio fuels, and energy efficiency improvements in every sector of society. And the UCS scenario is just one of a number of plausible proposals to bridge the transition to a sustainable, clean energy civilization.

A solution is long overdue and tantalizingly in reach of the international community (including our own government). With a display of bold leadership, today Grand Rapids, tomorrow, the world.