Obama is probably not going to do that either. In his post-election press conference, he insisted that he would find "bipartisan" solutions to climate change, and congressional Republicans are only slightly more likely to accept a sweeping change in carbon pricing than they are to ratify a climate-change treaty. The president also said that any reform would have to create jobs and growth, which sounds very much like a signal that he will avoid new taxes or penalties (even though advocates of such plans insist that they would spur economic growth).
All these prudent political calculations are fine when you can afford to fail. But we can't afford to fail. Global temperatures have already increased 0.7 degrees Celsius (or about 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit). Disaster really strikes at a 2 degree Celsius increase, which leads to large-scale drought, wildfires, decreased food production, and coastal flooding. But the current global trajectory of coal, oil, and gas consumption means that, according to Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency's chief economist, "the door to a 2 degree Celsius trajectory is about to close." That's how dire things are.
What, then, can Obama do that is equal to the problem? He can invest. Once the fiscal cliff negotiations are behind him, and after he has held his planned conversation with "scientists, engineers and elected officials," he can tell the American people that they have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform the future, for themselves and for people everywhere. He can propose -- as he hoped to do as part of the stimulus package of 2009 -- that the U.S. build a "smart grid" to radically improve the efficiency of electricity distribution. He can argue for large-scale investments in research and development of new sources of energy and energy-efficient construction technologies and lots of other whiz-bang things. This, too, was part of the stimulus spending; it must become bigger, and permanent.
The reason Obama should do this is, first, because the American people will (or could) rally behind a visionary program in a way that they never will get behind the dour mechanics of carbon pricing. Second, because the way to get to a carbon tax is to use it as a financing mechanism for such a plan. Third, because oil and gas are in our bloodstream; as Steven Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute, puts it, "The only thing that's going to drive fossil fuels off the market is cheaper renewable energy." Fourth, the United States cannot afford to miss out on the gigantic market for green technology.
Finally, there's leverage. China and India may not do something sensible but painful, like adopting carbon pricing, because the United States does so, but they will adopt new technologies if the U.S. can prove that they work without harming economic growth. Developing countries have already made major investments in reducing air pollution, halting deforestation, and practicing sustainable agriculture; they're just too modest. It is here, above all, that the United States can serve as a demonstration model -- the world's most egregious carbon consumer showing the way to a low-carbon future.
Global warming-denial is finally on the way out. Three-quarters of Americans now say they believe in global warming, and more than half believe that humans are causing it and want to see a U.S. president take action. President Obama doesn't have to do the impossible. He must, however, do the possible.