09/18/2014 10:19 am ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

'Prius Repellents' Versus Indigenous People: A Showdown on Climate Change

Turning your truck into a "Prius Repellent" isn't hard. In a process known as "rolling coal," you can modify the engine so that it belches out a huge cloud of black smoke, which you can direct at passing hybrid cars, presumably to make some kind of point.

Some Americans have decided that such a stunt is the appropriate response to climate change. The souped-up vehicles are an expression of their owners' dissatisfaction with President Obama, environmentalists, climate scientists, and a meddling government. Videos and memes of this conservative subculture of people have flooded social media.

Contrast this behavior with that of the Paiter-Surui people of the Brazilian Amazon. They made first contact with the outside world in the late 1960s, and for a while they were lured into the promise of easy money to be made by logging their land, but now they have chosen a path that is better for them - and for the rest of us - in the long term, even if it means giving up a bit in the short term. Instead of logging the forest, they have worked with the nonprofit Forest Trends and other partners to develop financial mechanisms that allow them to preserve their way of life and their home - the forest.

So here we have it: a counter-culture that seems dizzyingly oblivious to the pain that comes when one shoots one's own foot and a group of people who want to continue their lives managing the "lungs of the planet" - and in the process have helped Brazil immensely slow its rate of deforestation.

It's easy to dismiss the antics of people who roll coal (also known as "pollution porn"; see "Rolling coal on hot babe"), but rolling coal is more than just antics. It's a clear expression of the political and economic ideology promulgated by people like the Koch brothers and elected officials who are engaged in a full-frontal denial of reality.

In the real world, California is in a state of drought emergency, with regulators approving fines for water waste - yet Gov. Jerry Brown's Office of Planning & Research found that "a small but vocal group has aggressively spread misinformation about the science, aiming to cast doubt on well-established findings and conclusions. Their goal is to create confusion and uncertainty, thereby preventing meaningful action to remedy the problem."

Some legislators - charged with protecting our lands, our water, our future - continue to insist that climate change is not a threat. In Florida, particularly vulnerable to the rising sea levels caused by climate change, South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard pulled no punches in describing his state's Sen. Marco Rubio as "an idiot," in response to the senator's saying on ABC's This Week, "I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it."

In the United States - far from the Surui, who in 2013 brokered a forest carbon-credit deal with Brazilian manufacturer Natura, which has helped to change the way we can value forest land - we have become a nation divided. Our country includes cynics out for a buck or billions, who impact low-information voters with propaganda, who literally blow smoke at the rest of us. And the rest of us are looking at the data and realizing that we are on a precipice.

It is from this precarious but potentially motivating precipice that we near the 20th Conference of the Parties, the international meeting on climate change. This year, COP 20 will be in Peru, and it was in Lima that a group of environmentalists, including members of the Surui, supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), met recently to discuss their work and how they plan to approach the upcoming negotiations.

The coalition, called AIME (Accelerating Inclusion and Mitigating Emissions), is comprised of nine environmental and indigenous organizations. Over five years, the group will "empower forest-dependent communities to more fully contribute to and directly benefit from climate change mitigation efforts."

AIME may not be as meme- or YouTube-friendly as rolling coal, yet the issues with which it is concerned are far-reaching nonetheless. Participants at the meeting described their work in dealing with narco-trafficking and deforestation in Central America, the potentially high impact that artisan women can have on sustainability, and the challenge of "spreading out experiences throughout Brazil," as Diana Pellegrini of the Metareila Association, which "works to defend and preserve the autonomy and the cultural and territorial heritage of the Surui people," said. In attendance was Gustavo Suarez de Freitas, of the Ministry of Environment of Peru, to discuss how COP's host can strengthen and institutionalize its national fund for forest conservation.

As President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times in speaking about climate change, "The most important thing is to guard against cynicism ... I want to make sure that everybody who's been watching this program or listening to this interview doesn't start concluding that, well, we're all doomed, there's nothing we can do about it. There's a lot we can do about it. It's not going to happen as fast or as smoothly or as elegantly as we like, but, if we are persistent, we will make progress."

Perhaps the people driving those Prius Repellents have given up and given in to cynicism. They either believe that climate change isn't real - or worse, that there isn't anything we can do about it, so we might as well make asses of ourselves and have a good old time blowing big clouds of smoke on unsuspecting mailboxes, pedestrians, and hybrid cars.

As COP 20 approaches and our politicians and leaders gather in Peru for these crucial negotiations, it is up to us to let them know - at the ballot box and through our activism - that our values lie not with those who would roll coal, or worse, profit from the proliferation of shoddy information and fear, but with people like the Paiter-Surui and the AIME coalition, who are already engaging in the hard work of creative solutions and solid consensus on the difficult problem of climate change.

This report was filed by Ann Clark Espuelas. Follow her on Twitter.