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The People We Have Been Waiting For

By Thomas L. Friedman (The New York Times) - December 5, 2007

It was 60 degrees on Thursday in Washington, well above normal, and as I slipped away for some pre-Christmas golf, I found myself thinking about a wickedly funny story that The Onion, the satirical newspaper, ran the other day: “Fall Canceled after 3 Billion Seasons”:

“Fall, the long-running series of shorter days and cooler nights, was canceled earlier this week after nearly 3 billion seasons on Earth, sources reported Tuesday.

“The classic period of the year, which once occupied a coveted slot between summer and winter, will be replaced by new, stifling humidity levels, near-constant sunshine and almost no precipitation for months.

“‘As much as we’d like to see it stay, fall will not be returning for another season,’ National Weather Service president John Hayes announced during a muggy press conference Nov. 6. ‘Fall had a great run, but sadly, times have changed.’ … The cancellation was not without its share of warning signs. In recent years, fall had been reduced from three months to a meager two-week stint, and its scheduled start time had been pushed back later and later each year.”

You should never extrapolate about global warming from your own weather, but it is becoming hard not to — even for professionals. Consider the final report of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), which was just issued and got far too little attention. It concluded that since the I.P.C.C. began its study five years ago, scientists had discovered much stronger climate change trends than previously realized, such as far more extensive melting of Arctic ice, and therefore global efforts to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions have to begin immediately.

“What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future,” said the I.P.C.C. chairman, Rajendra Pachauri.

And sweet-sounding “global warming” doesn’t really capture what’s likely to happen. I prefer the term “global weirding,” coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, because the rise in average global temperature is going to lead to all sorts of crazy things — from hotter heat spells and droughts in some places, to colder cold spells and more violent storms, more intense flooding, forest fires and species loss in other places.

While the Bush team came into office brain dead on the climate issue and will leave office with a perfect record of having done nothing significant to mitigate climate change, I’m heartened that our country is increasingly alive on this challenge.

First, Google said last week that it was going to invest millions in developing its own energy business. Google described its goal as “RE >< C” — renewable energy that is cheaper than coal — adding: “We’re busy assembling our own internal research and development group and hiring a team of engineers … tasked with building one gigawatt of renewable energy capacity that is cheaper than coal.” That could power all of San Francisco.

Its primary focus, said Google.org’s energy expert, Dan Reicher, will be to advance new solar thermal, geothermal and wind solutions “across the valley of death.” That is, so many good ideas work in the lab but never get a chance to scale up because they get swallowed by a lack of financing or difficulties in implementation. Do not underestimate these people.

Last week, I also met with two groups of M.I.T. students who blew me away. One was the M.I.T. Energy Club, which was founded in 2004 by a few grad students discussing energy over beers at a campus bar. Today it has 600-plus members who have put on scores of events focused on building energy expertise among M.I.T. students and faculty, and “fact-based analysis,” including a trip to Saudi Arabia.

Then I got together with three engineering undergrads who helped launch the Vehicle Design Summit — a global, open-source, collaborative effort, managed by M.I.T. students, that has 25 college teams around the world, including in India and China, working together to build a plug-in electric hybrid within three years. Each team contributes a different set of parts or designs. I thought writing for my college newspaper was cool. These kids are building a hyper-efficient car, which, they hope, “will demonstrate a 95 percent reduction in embodied energy, materials and toxicity from cradle to cradle to grave” and provide “200 m.p.g. energy equivalency or better.” The Linux of cars!

They’re not waiting for G.M. Their goal, they explain on their Web site — vds.mit.edu — is “to identify the key characteristics of events like the race to the moon and then transpose this energy, passion, focus and urgency” on catalyzing a global team to build a clean car. I just love their tag line. It’s what gives me hope:

“We are the people we have been waiting for.”