State of the Climate

Technology will undoubtedly play a role in resolving our climate crisis, but it can't do it alone

State of the Union Address. House Chamber, US Capitol.David Bohrer

On page 13 of the introductory pamphlet "A Brief Guide to Alcoholics Anonymous," the organization's famous 12 steps begin as such: "We admit we are powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable." Although President Bush maintains that he quit the sauce on his own, without the help of AA, he is evidently familiar with their directives, for on Tuesday night in his State of the Union address, Bush admitted that we have a problem: global warming.

The president first officially acknowledged the dangers of global climate change in the summer of 2002. Hindsight has rendered silly the breathless reporting of Bush's eureka moment nearly five years ago. But unfortunately, the solutions offered by his administration to solve this catastrophic problem have hardly evolved since that "historic" day of admission.

"Come to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity" is AA's step number two, and it's clear that our President has checked this one off his list as well. From the beginning, the administration has repeatedly assured us that it's only a matter of time before the high powers of technology swoop in to solve all the problems associated with global warming. "It's in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply. The way forward is through technology," Bush repeated on Tuesday night. "We must continue changing the way America generates electric power, by even greater use of clean coal technology, solar and wind energy, and clean, safe nuclear power. [applause]"

This rhetorical strategy is no accident. It is exactly the approach highlighted by Frank Luntz, the Republican strategist and spinmaster whose frighteningly Orwellian memo [PDF] detailing how to dance around the issue of global warming has become the basis for the GOP's talking points on the matter—even after Luntz acknowledged the errors of his ways last year. It's a good strategy—the president will be hard-pressed to find anyone on either side of the climate-change debate to disagree that technology can be part of the solution, but the truth of the matter remains: To truly make a difference, alternative energy technologies must be supported by smart federal regulations. And to say that this administration has been hesitant to impose such regulations would be a sizable understatement.

Without regulatory measures such as stronger "gas-guzzler" taxes for inefficient vehicles (the average fuel economy of American cars is less than half the average of the European Union and Japan), support for the organizations developing and improving alternative fuels and more stringent industrial emissions standards, technology will continue to fight this battle with one hand tied behind its back. Even applications of current alternative energy technologies could use some help: The greenhouse gases generated by the production and processing of the
35 billion gallons of green fuels Bush called for in his speech—a perhaps overly optimistic seven-fold increase over 10 years—would be roughly the same as those released by the burning of an equivalent
amount of regular gasoline.

As the AA mantra goes, we hope the president will "keep coming" and follow through on the promise of technology, providing ample federal support for alternative energy to thrive. For more information, see popsci.com/energy to find out what our most innovative scientists can do to help with our addiction. —John Mahoney