02/05/2013 11:10 am ET Updated Apr 07, 2013

Climate Change? Don't Hold Your Breath

When I served in the White House, I convinced a speech writer to insert a paragraph in favor of a policy I championed into President Carter's forthcoming speech. I was going (as many had before me) to use this paragraph to urge the relevant agencies to proceed, on the ground that, "the president stated... " I was stopped by a new staff director who, during the fourth year of the Carter administration, introduced a "revolutionary" idea: that speeches should be checked against policy. That is, that no major themes were to be run up the flag pole unless there was some policy in the offings to follow such unfurling.

I was reminded of this experience when President Obama made climate change the major theme of his 2013 inaugural address. (He dedicated it more text than to any other topic). And it is expected to be featured during the forthcoming State of the Union. It seems that, once again, the speech writers (who "live" in a different part of the West Wing from the policy analysts) came up with a theme but there is rather little that can be done. There is very little reason to believe that Congress will agree to major moves in this direction. As I've pointed out before, the conservative opposition -- which includes both most Republicans and a fair number of Democrats, in particular those representatives from coal states -- will block any major moves to protect the climate.

True, there are some things that the president can do via executive order. He can impose green standards on the household appliances and order the military to become even greener. However, the list of these moves is much more limited than they at first may seem. Congress can defund any activity it opposes, enact outright ban specific activities (as it did, for instance, by banning the transfer of Gitmo prisoners to trial in American civil courts), and put restrictions on agencies that make moves the conservative majority abhors (as it did to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, among others). Debilitating an agency by not confirming a director is one trick among several others.
One further notes that most climate change prevention measures require dialing down economic activities, and hence they are particularly difficult to introduce into an economy whose take off is far from assured and growth is rather anemic.

This is not an argument against a carbon tax or tax on gasoline or other ways of improving the climate by dialing down economic activities. To the extent that the taxes can be sold and factories made to produce less and hence fume less -- such acts will do good. Indeed, this is the reason most environmentalists favor leading simpler, less materialistic lifestyles, despite understanding that most people experience such scaling back of economic activity as a pain. Daniel Kammen, an energy expert at the University of California, Berkeley, told NPR that a new California law that require businesses to be more energy-efficient, a law he helped write, reflects that "we've squeezed the lemon a little bit." The problem is that while lemons seem not to mind when they are squeezed, people do. Hence the merits of finding ways to proceed which entail as little pain as possible, especially in this age of austerity.

This lesson was driven home to me on my first assignment in the Carter White House. In 1979 President Carter responded to the record-high gasoline prices (brought about by OPEC production cuts and price hikes and a U.S. embargo on Iranian oil) by appointing a task force that was to compose a brochure to be sent to every American household. The goal being to convince Americans to drive less, to heat their homes less in the winter, and less to cool them in the summer -- all to save energy. Carter also wanted to raise the gas tax by a dime, an idea which encountered a storm of resistance. The measure was rescinded by both chambers of Congress, overruling a Carter veto. I shared in the pain with my fellow Americans because Carter practiced what he preached: working in the White House in the Washington summer with little air conditioning was God awful and very unproductive.

Last but not least, without major international agreement, which the record shows is not forthcoming, whatever the U.S. will do will be more than neutralized by others. For instance, Indians, Indonesians and Chinese, among others, are buying more cars, air-conditioners and household machines that tax the environment, and contribute to climate change.

What we need is a new Manhattan Project, a billion dollar project to find technological devices to help the climate. My favorite has been to create bacteria capable of eating carbon and excreting gasoline.

Ever since then I paid mind to technological developments that in many cases -- though far from all! -- helped us cope with new challenges. Take, for instance, oil security. For decades policy makers argued that we must have a major tax hike on oil in order to reduce our dependency on imports and reduce the massive wealth transfer to nations such as Russia, Venezuela and Iran. However, politicians dared not sell such a tax to the public. When several other nations tried, even in authoritarian regimes such as Iran and Jordan, the resulting price hikes led to violent riots. Instead, Americans came up with a new way of drilling, developed 'fracking' and discovered ways to draw on American natural gas reserves. Bingo, we are well on our way to energy independence! True, these technological developments raise issues of their own -- all such developments do -- but it seems that we are better off with them, especially as painful solutions are frequently rejected by the public.

Next, thanks to my dentist's waiting room, I came across an old issue of The New Yorker. It contained a report on the development of an 'artificial leaf' that is capable of using solar power to isolate hydrogen gas from water. This hydrogen gas can be used to generate carbon-neutral power to drive a turbine or provide hydrogen fuel cells. While commercial development of this 'leaf' is still about a decade away, it is reported to provides a realistic, new carbon-free source of energy.

Another report, in the same New Yorker, aptly called "The Climate Fixers," answers the question, "is there a technical solution to global warming?" with a big "yes." One way to proceed involves releasing a sulfur compound into the atmosphere to reflect a portion of the sun's rays. The idea behind this move is that the temperature increase caused by the accumulation of greenhouse gases can be offset by reducing the total amount of solar energy we are exposed to, and thus reduce the heat that reaches the earth. In fact, "Most estimates suggest that it could cost a few billion dollars a year to scatter enough sulfur particles in the atmosphere to change the weather patterns of the planet. At that price, any country, most groups, and even some individuals could afford to do it. The technology is open and available."

I am still in love with my imaginary bioengineering master project, to make carbon-eating, gas-pissing bacteria. Meanwhile, artificial leafs or sulfur sprays or some other technological breakthrough would much more likely to save us from future Sandys and all the other looming threats posed by the changing climate than anything this Congress will let Obama accomplish.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University and author of Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human Rights World, published by Transaction. For more on Hot Spots, see: