There seems to be a palpable pause in the great American climate struggle this month. The major climate legislation collapsed at the same time that the world has erupted in an apparent climate spasm from the heat waves of Russia, to the floods of Pakistan, to the glacier calving off Greenland. It’s a strange and eery political calm in the U.S. during which the only thing clear is that the climate forces, at least temporarily, have been rebuffed.

It seems to be a period of at least some retrenchment and contemplation. I was just invited to an event this fall involving a bunch of climate leaders planning to spend a day trying to figure a pathway for the future of the climate issue. Which is a good goal, but it does beg the question of, “What’s it gonna be — lemmings or leadership?”

Here’s the two options:

LEMMINGS – many prominent environmentalists have fretted that the ONLY thing that will ever bring about major legislation to address climate problems will be the eventual “stimulus-response” situation where, like a pack of lemmings, a massively painful stimulus (such as heat waves causing thousands of deaths) is applied to the population, producing the response of changed behavior to address the problem. The announcement in Russia by Medvedev last week that their heat waves causing thousands of deaths must be related to human alterations of the planet appears to be exactly this. Presumably such a situation will eventually happen in the U.S. (though not right now in California where the summer has been about ten degrees colder than normal).

LEADERSHIP – this is what ought to be expected of a species of primates whose birth canals have had to widen over the ages to make space for enlarged crania. One would hope that before there are mass die offs, the smarter folks would be able to persuade the less informed masses to do something about the impending doom. This is what Mr. Gore valiantly attempted, but then was forced to grind out his frustrations with a book aptly titled, “The Assault on Reason”.

A friend sent me an article today titled, “Thou Shalt Study Science,” which seems like a reasonable essay at first glance. The author is saying that science is our best hope for the future, and thus we need to find ways to connect it with people’s hearts since that’s the level at which most mass movements are driven. But I think he reveals he’s as much a part of the problem as the solution in his second of three “messages,” when he says you should only, “Accept arguments on the basis of evidence alone (not on the basis of who presents them).”

That sounds great and admirable, at least in principle. But it’s not realistic in the complicated world of science-based issues. At some point there has to be trusted leadership. When the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta says there’s an outbreak of a flesh eating bacteria and everyone should evacuate the town in which it has occurred, you don’t want every person saying, “I’m not doing anything until you show me the evidence so I can make up my own mind.”

This is why we have leaders. It’s called civilization. At some point we put our trust in those with that stuff called “knowledge.” Like the IPCC. It’s not perfect, but it’s our best shot at avoiding the lemmings scenario.

In this period of rethinking for the climate crowd, it’s my hope they will reaffirm that leadership is the only viable solution. And that effective leadership takes courage. And courage involves taking risks. And that’s what it all comes down to. Al Gore’s crowd took a lot of risk. They didn’t solve the leadership challenge. They made plenty of mistakes, but they also accomplished a lot. The only thing needed is more of the same. It’s called “trial and error.”

There simply have to be more trials.