"We've got to figure out how to change people's attitudes more rapidly, or, to use a technical term, we're screwed." Then there is the vast middle, in which global and national leadership meets corporate, local and consumer choice. Looking at the United States in particular, much is afoot, but with little coherence.
A few examples:
• Buildings consume 40 percent of our energy, yet building codes for energy efficiency, established locally, are all over the map.
• Two regional efforts hope to trim emissions, with the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 10 northeastern states launching last September and the Western Climate Initiative of seven western states and four Canadian provinces expected in 2012.
• Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia have their own renewable portfolio standards requiring varying portion of their electricity to be derived by renewable sources by different dates.
• A hodge-podge of state efforts seek to decouple electricity consumption from utility profits, encouraging utilities to promote energy-saving efforts rather than sell more power.
• A coordinated federal effort on energy policy, as outlined by President Barack Obama, is a good place to start, said Stanford climatologist Steve Schneider. Aggressive federal financial incentives and loan guarantees could prop up emerging renewable-energy industries.
"That doesn't require new institutions; it requires political will," Schneider said. "The institution called Congress can do it with the institution called the West Wing."
But the states must stay involved, says Marilyn Brown, a Georgia Institute of Technology professor of energy policy. "They're the only ones who really understand the unique aspects of their situations," she said.
At the same time, Brown said, a federal body – perhaps a better-empowered version of the U.S. Climate Change Technology Program – could serve as a sort of clearing house to disseminate the best models and approaches.
Finally, there's the need to think big.
Federal enticements and state networks are good, but history hints at more far-reaching efforts. During the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War America made the decision to out-compete the Soviet Union along many fronts, said Sarewitz, the director of Arizona State's science and policy consortium.
"It wasn't a matter of having the biggest weapons – it was a matter of having the most vibrant and diverse innovation system."
The United States made huge strides in computer and material science, developing both the modern telecommunication and semiconductor industries through formal and informal alliances among government, academia and the private sector, Sarewitz said. But whether history can repeat itself – or what regimes will take shape in efforts to solve the problems global warming presents – is anybody's guess.
"I guess I'd be suspicious of anybody who knows the answer," Sarewitz said. "There are going to be many answers, and also many dead ends."