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Originally published Saturday, September 15, 2012 at 9:03 PM

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Prizewinning global-warming fighter unbowed by climate of cynicism

KC Golden is one of those crazy people I get the pleasure of meeting in this job. Crazy because they just don't know when to give up.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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If you dedicated your life to fighting global warming, these have got to be about the worst of times.

There's the climate itself, which is smoking. So far, 2012 has been the hottest year ever recorded in the U.S. It ranks as one of the 10 warmest years ever planet-wide (with most of the other top 10 in the past decade.)

But then there's the political climate. It's downright arctic. Global warming isn't mentioned much by political candidates these days. When it is, it's mocked as a leftist hoax.

So Seattle's KC Golden is acutely aware of the irony. That someone chose right now to give him a $250,000 national award for having an "enduring and meaningful impact" on the world.

"I'm floored by it, but if you're a climate guy, like me, you can't help but also feel a little bittersweet," says Golden, 53. "I'm being honored for work on an issue that we've utterly failed to come to grips with. That in some ways we've gone backwards on."

Golden last week was plucked out of relative obscurity to receive the Heinz Award in Public Policy. Past winners have included former surgeon general C. Everett Koop, for his crusade against smoking, and the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. The award comes with a $250,000 prize that Golden can spend however he wants.

Not bad for an energy wonk for a small Seattle nonprofit called Climate Solutions. Someone most people not in the clean energy or utility industries have probably never heard of.

Golden is one of those crazy people I get the pleasure of meeting in this job. Crazy because they just don't know when to give up.

I read him a quote I found in our newspaper archives:

"Waiting for consensus about how fast the earth is warming before acting is like being on a plane falling from the sky and bickering about the rate of descent."

That was from testimony Golden gave to the Bush Administration — the first Bush Administration. In 1991.

"I know, I should be cynical and frustrated by now, because to some extent it's true, we haven't budged since 1991," he said. "But I see cynicism as a form of capitulation."

So, instead, he spent those two decades straining to budge the Northwest. In some cases not by much. But in others, in ways that permanently changed how we do business around here.

In the late 1980s, Golden was a leader in a hugely controversial movement arguing that first Seattle, and then later the Northwest, could satisfy all energy needs for decades solely through conservation. There would be no need for any new dams or power plants, if we could just learn to cut back.

Many thought that was hopelessly idealistic. But since then, the Northwest has reduced its power usage (per capita) by the equivalent of five nuclear plants (which we then didn't have to build). And the ability to save even more is not ebbing — last week it was announced the Northwest in 2011 achieved the biggest leap in energy efficiencies in its history.

"I think that is by far the best environmental story of the last 30 years," Golden says. "And nobody talks about it!"

Golden also launched the movement in which cities pledge to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as a grass-roots rebuttal to federal inaction. Plus, he's partnered with big business, such as Boeing and Alaska Airlines, on reducing carbon in jet fuels.

Still, it's nibbling around the edges compared to the big challenge. Which is mobilizing the nation to rebuild its economy away from fossil fuels.

Golden said climate denialism, despite its current hold on the Republican Party, isn't what's holding the U.S. back.

"More interesting is the rest of us," he said. "Almost none of us, including environmentalists, are acting like there's a big problem either."

He said he doesn't know yet how to spend the $250,000. If he could somehow leverage that into more national focus on climate change, he said, thinking out loud.

Of course that's less than 1/1000th of what the Koch brothers, billionaire conservative financiers and global-warming critics, are spending in this election alone.

So Golden's not going to get his wish this year. As we've seen, that's about the last reason to count him out.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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