09/15/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Nov 15, 2014

The Opportunity in the Difficulty

"A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity; an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty."

-- Winston Churchill

Climate change can bring out the best in us and help reinvigorate our economy. That's usually not the headline of a story about climate change, but it's a headline we can write if we want to. Or we can keep reading stories about devastating storms, receding glaciers, rising seas, and suffocating droughts. Take your pick.

We have the opportunity to choose our future; this wolf at the door is a great inspiration to build a stronger house. What do I mean by that? Consider this:

Our recovery from the great recession has been the weakest in postwar history, in part because of anemic productivity increases; between 1987 and 2013, the average growth in multifactor productivity was 1 percent per year, but since 2007, it was only 0.7 percent per year. Throughout history, the wellspring of productivity growth has been innovation, the magic that allows us to get more with less. And the evidence that we will have less to work with is all around us, according to Jeremy Grantham: "The rise in population, the ten-fold increase in wealth in developed countries, and the current explosive growth in developing countries have eaten rapidly into our finite resources of hydrocarbons and metals, fertilizer, available land, and water." The things that powered growth and development around the world are finite, and those that are renewable still take time to renew. That is time we don't have much of. Right now, the world is on track to increase the mean global temperature by 3.7˚C to 4.8˚C, and the impact of that will be, according to the best estimates of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, catastrophic.

OK, enough bad news. There is reason to worry, but not yet reason to despair. The good news is that solving the climate problem can also be a source of economic strength. There is still time -- not much, but enough -- to keep warming below the 2˚C threshold that divides the world we can cope with from catastrophe. To accomplish that, we must invest in things that make our economies less dependent on technologies and systems that emit greenhouse gases (GHG), a process called Deep Decarbonization.

According to the preliminary report of the international scientists working on deep decarbonization, three things are necessary to achieve the kind of GHG mitigation we need: major improvements in energy efficiency, low-carbon electricity, and switching to less carbon-intensive fuels. All three of those things bring some of their nice friends to the economic party. The technologies we need in order to decarbonize include things like energy storage, high performance building materials and controls, zero-emission vehicles, renewable energies, and post-combustion carbon capture and storage.

Investing in these technologies and others needed to liberate the earth's economy from carbon emissions is likely to reward us with improved productivity, as well as eliminating the drag on productivity that is created by extreme weather.

Investing in innovation and technology also creates jobs. Green jobs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, accounted for over 3.4 million jobs in 2011. Mining -- including, but not limited to oil and gas extraction -- accounted for only 860,000 jobs as of last month, and oil and gas extraction accounted for just over 212,000 of those. Green jobs already contribute more to our economy and employment than producing fossil fuels; even if we include the jobs in refineries, the total is still less than 300,000. Solving climate change is not a job killer or an economy squasher. We will still have to help those who lose jobs to find new ones; the new economy of any era always takes different skill sets than the old one. This, too, is a solvable problem.

There was a time when America was about rising to challenges, exceeding expectations, solving problems and setting good examples. This is the nation that invented the national park, the idea that everyone deserved to experience the best places. It's the nation that first put human feet on another world. It's time to use that aspect of our national identity to confront one of the most profound challenges our species has ever faced: climate change.