“If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we will do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”
Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

If these words don’t get you off your butt, you better check and make sure you have a pulse. Yet what can we (everyday Americans, readers of Grist) do now, today, that will be strong enough to change the course of our future? Strong enough to overcome the powerlessness and denial gripping our country?

Focus the Nation

It is clear that we are standing at a critical moment in human history. Unless we begin to cut global-warming pollution within a few short years, a window for our children and the creatures of this earth will close. Forever.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Instead of stabilizing at 3 to 4 degrees F more warming, the best our kids will be looking at will be more than 5 degrees F. And every 10th of a degree matters, because it raises the possibility that we might trigger some catastrophic outcome — massive sea-level rise, loss of forests globally driven by intensified fire, or large-scale methane releases from the tundra, pushing temperatures even higher.

Today, cutting emissions on the scale required in the United States seems barely possible. Our nation is, truly, paralyzed. Yet this is a peculiarly American kind of paralysis, one we all understand from high school civics. Our system of government, with its checks and balances, was designed for gridlock, allowing an organized minority to block movement toward change. And yet we all also learned how we overcome this gridlock. When our government fails, Americans set aside their everyday business and drive the country in a new direction. From abolition to women’s suffrage, labor rights to civil rights to anti-war causes, again and again, social movements reclaim the moral vision at the heart of America and set a new course for the country.

Over the next year, a powerful, nonpartisan movement demanding global-warming solutions will sweep across this country and change the future, change our future.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

Or it won’t.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Each of us now has to decide: Will I be a leader in that movement? The science is clear. Our future will be determined, literally, by the readers of this post, who have heard the truth and have said yes — or will say yes — to this challenge. And unlike our forbearers, we are not threatened by dogs, fire hoses, blacklisting, firing, beating, torture, imprisonment, or lynchings. We are free (if we choose) to create the future.

Here is how today, this week, you can lead:

On Jan. 31, over 1,300 colleges, universities, high schools and middle schools, faith organizations, civic groups, and businesses will join together in the biggest national teach-in in U.S. history, Focus the Nation: Global-Warming Solutions for America. Across the country, over 10,000 volunteers are building Focus events that will engage over a million Americans, and help move this country beyond an uncharacteristic fatalism to a determination to face up to this civilizational challenge.

The teach-in kicks off with a free, national webcast, The 2% Solution, live on the night of Jan. 30. Featuring Stanford climate scientist Stephen Schneider, sustainability expert Hunter Lovins, and green-jobs pioneer Van Jones, this interactive webcast will set the goal for America. To hold global warming to the low end, we have to jump-start 80 percent cuts by 2050 — averaging 2 percent cuts per year, starting now, from current levels.

Focus the Nation is not only about education. More critically, it demands direct engagement with political leaders. At Focus events, hundreds of members of Congress, senators, mayors, and city councilors will sit down for nonpartisan, round-table discussions with young people about global-warming solutions — initiating the dialogue that can change the direction of America.

Also as part of Focus the Nation, students and citizens will be casting ballots for a clean energy revolution, participating in an ongoing, online vote on priorities for action. Go to Choose Your Future, where soon you’ll be able to vote for climate solutions that include a coal moratorium, a program to weatherize and solarize millions of houses, and a crash investment program in renewables. And Focus will be awarding three $10,000 scholarships for winning proposals that take global-warming action to the next level.

It is not too late to build a teach-in at your school, at your kid’s school, or in your community. The easy way to get involved is to host a showing of The 2% Solution webcast — at a campus; at your church, mosque, or synagogue; or even at a house party in your home. All you need is a computer, an internet connection, and a projector. Use the show to spark discussion, and then vote online for your top five solutions.

Then, most critically, deliver these results. At the screening, make a plan to visit your member of Congress — every member of Congress — with the Choose Your Future solutions. Set the date for Monday, Feb. 18, when he or she will be home for the President’s Day recess.

Tell them what you learned, what your Focus the Nation group voted to support. Tell them that this is our future, this is our children’s future. Tell them this is not a partisan issue — Republicans and Democrats must come together and hammer out a real solution, a set of policies that can spark a clean energy revolution, so that our young people will have the tools they need to make the world a safe and habitable place for their kids.

Most of us have never gone to visit the home office of a congressperson or senator. But the time has come for each of us to make this journey. Contact Focus the Nation if you have any questions about how to set up a meeting in your community with your congressperson’s staff.

So, please lead: host a screening of the webcast, get educated, vote online, and then visit your senator or congressperson on Monday, Feb. 18. And please don’t leave off reading this and say, “Focus the Nation sounds cool. Good thing somebody is doing it.”

We are all busy — dealing with school, working hard in our jobs, and spending time with our families. But this is one of those times in human history when people are putting aside their own business as usual, understanding that we don’t have much time left. This is the defining moment.

Twenty years from now, we must look back and say that we did hear the words of our scientists, and that 2008 became the year that America rose up, launching the clean energy revolution that changed the world.

Twenty years is a short time. Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1988, it was sweltering hot all across the country. For the first time, NASA’s Jim Hansen told Congress that this was global warming. Also that year, my first daughter, Emma, was born.

Over her two decades, Emma has witnessed year after year after year of record-breaking heat, the disappearance of mountain glaciers, and the loss of close to half of the summer Arctic ice pack. And here’s what Hansen has to say now about her future: “I think that a business-as-usual scenario will guarantee future disintegration of West Antarctica and parts of Greenland.” Read: guarantee a sea-level rise of more than 20 feet.

Many people refer to my parents’ generation — who were raised in the Great Depression and fought and won World War II — as the Greatest Generation. But in fact, today’s young people must fast become the Greatest Generation.

To hold global warming to the manageable low end, by the time Emma’s cohort reaches my age of 47, they must bring an end to the fossil-fuel era. Within the next decade, they must begin to rewire the entire planet with clean energy technologies, redesign every city on earth, reimagine the global food system, and reinvent transportation. In so doing, they will create tens of millions of jobs, stabilize the global climate, and lay the foundation for a truly just and prosperous future.

The alternative is a planet that will heat up 5 to 10 degrees F. During the last Ice Age, the world was only 9 degrees F colder than it is today. So today’s students must prevent a swing in global temperatures of Ice Age magnitude within their lifetime, only in the opposite direction.

My daughter’s generation, then, has a simple mission: save the planet. This means hold global warming to 3 to 4 degrees F. That much heating will still cause tremendous ecological damage, suffering for hundreds of millions of people, and the extinction of perhaps 10 to 20 percent of life on earth. The world will be a different and, in many new ways, difficult place. But it will not be unrecognizable. It will still be a planet that can support a vital and sustainable human civilization, and the immense power and beauty of still millions of species.

And perhaps, in that somewhat hotter world, after it has been rewired with clean energy technologies, after globalization of low-cost health and water and shelter and education services has raised the mass of humanity toward a decent standard of living, and after a newfound and profound respect has developed for the remains of creation — perhaps these changes will carry humanity into a new era of progress.

I am not optimistic about the future. I am not pessimistic either. While it will clearly be hotter, none of us can know beyond that what the world will really be like in 50 or 80 years.

What I do know today is that many of us are very alive to the vision of a rich and sustainable future for our children. And I also know that we stand at a critical moment. Through our leadership today, now — or through our failure to lead — we will either enable that future, or lock in a path to an impoverished planet.

I have been talking about global warming for over a decade now, and at the end of my talks I used to never really know what to say: change your light bulb? It just wasn’t enough. But now I do know what to say: get your church, mosque, synagogue, Rotary Club, bicycle club, book club, or kid’s middle or high school engaged with Focus the Nation. And over the next year, working from that base, continue to build a collective voice — of students and educators, of citizens and faith communities and businesses — into a force powerful enough to change the future.

So, finish this article, then spend 15 minutes on the website for Focus the Nation, then a commitment to talk to five friends or colleagues about the project. Say, “I read this cool piece on Grist, check it out. I am getting my kid’s middle school signed up to be part of this national teach-in, and you should, too.” Don’t take no for an answer. There is simply no time.

We are all of us now in a race against the physics of heat-trapping gases. It is a race that we can win. The obstacles to saving the planet are not economic, they are not technical — they reflect only a lack of political will. And America is changing. Focus the Nation started out 14 months ago with two people in an attic; now there are over 10,000 volunteers leading efforts in their communities. Join us.

Decisions that are ours to make very soon will have a defining impact on the future direction of life on this planet. None of us asked for this. Twenty years ago, global heating was to me, and most of us, only a science-fiction fable. And yet suddenly, we have been called upon to prove of what vision humanity is capable.

What can you do in the next few weeks? Focus the Nation. Enable our children to become the Greatest Generation.