To listen to many environmentalists, the US agreement in Kyoto to sharply cut greenhouse-gas emissions by 2010 could prove as simple and painless for the average American as screwing in a compact fluorescent light bulb.
"Most [changes] will be invisible to the individual consumer," predicts David Nemtzow, president of the Washington-based Alliance to Save Energy.
Yet critics, led by big industry groups, warn that the US pledge to lower heat-trapping gas emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels could force Americans to pinch fuel pennies on a Dickensian scale.
"Individual citizens will have to look at cutting their energy consumption by one-third," claims Global Climate Coalition president Gail McDonald, whose group represents major energy producers and auto firms. "If you lowered your thermostat that much in winter, you would freeze," she adds.
The reality, of course, will fall somewhere in between these optimistic and alarmist extremes - and will depend greatly on how average citizens react to the call to reduce global warming.
If American consumers respond enthusiastically to new, energy-efficient products, they will save money, reduce emissions, and create opportunities for environmentally friendly firms, experts say. In contrast, if they fail to respond to these incentives, it is more likely that stiff energy price hikes will be required in order to meet the US goal.
Polls show that most Americans are willing to invest in efficient appliances, insulation, and other energy-conserving goods in order to help reduce greenhouse gasses as well as save money on gas and electric bills. They also strongly support government moves to impose energy-efficiency standards on the makers of cars, appliances, and other items, according to a recent New York Times survey.
Already this week, two domestic automakers pledged to build cars that emit significantly fewer pollutants than those vehicles currently on the road. Ford and General Motors say they will start building cars next year that will eliminate as much as 99 percent of smog-producing emissions, but only if states in the northeast drop their plans to require zero-emission electric vehicles.
The states involved have 45 days to decide whether or not to take the deal, while the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is standing behind the proposal, and hopes it spreads to other parts of the country.
Meanwhile, President Clinton is expected to announce details next month of how his proposed $5 billion in tax cuts would encourage businesses and consumers to develop and use more renewable energy and energy-stingy products.
Mr. Clinton is also likely to reinvigorate existing conservation efforts, such as the largely unfulfilled 1993 climate change action plan to cut emissions to 1990s levels. For example, the Department of Energy (DOE) could step up its issuance of long-overdue energy-efficient standards for 12 major consumer goods such as water heaters and air conditioners.
"[The DOE] standards are just languishing," says George Abar, vice president of the National Environmental Trust in Washington. "Obviously if they were in place we would be burning a lot less electricity." With all 12 standards enforced, each year the United States would save the equivalent of the gas used by its entire auto fleet in four months, Mr. Abar says.
Experts say there are several important steps citizens can take today to help prevent global warming.
Nevertheless, some energy experts worry that such voluntary initiatives, as well as the incentives to boost renewable energy technology proposed by the president, could end up being "too little too late" to curtail significantly the accelerating US consumption of fossil fuels. Substantial cutbacks, they contend, will require raising the price of emissions through a carbon tax or permit system.
"You need a wide economic incentive that engages everybody right from the start," says Duncin Austin, a research analyst at the World Resources Institute in Washington and co-author of the recent study "The Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed."
Clinton has proposed a tradable permit system that would effectively raise oil, coal, and gas prices by taxing carbon emissions. Under this plan, the government would limit emissions of carbon dioxide by issuing permits that companies could buy and sell. How much fuel prices would rise would depend on the availability of nonpolluting alternative energy sources.
Nevertheless, Clinton's proposal would not take effect for at least a decade, and polls show that few Americans today support the permit plan or any tax on fossil fuels.
One way to overcome opposition would be to start modestly, with a relatively relaxed permitting program under which the allowed emissions would be gradually reduced, Mr. Austin says.
"If you were told to train for a marathon six months away, the best thing to do would be to go for a gentle run today, rather than put it off and try to develop a better shoe," says Austin.
How to Reduce Global Warming
1. Buy a fuel-efficient car (rated 32 m.p.g. or more) to replace your most-used car.
CO2 reduction: 5,600 lbs/yr.
2. Insulate your home, tune your furnace, and install efficient shower heads.
CO2 reduction: 2,480 lbs/yr.
3. Leave your car at home two days a week.
CO2 reduction: 1,590 lbs/yr.
4. Recycle all of your home's waste newsprint, cardboard, glass, and metal.
CO2 reduction: 850 lbs/yr.
5. Install a solar system to help provide hot water.
CO2 reduction: 720 lbs/yr.
6. Replace your washing machine with a low-energy, low-water-use machine.
CO2 reduction: 440 lbs/yr.
7. Buy food and other products with reusable or recyclable packaging.
CO2 reduction: 230 lbs/yr.
8. Replace your refrigerator with a high-efficiency model.
CO2 reduction: 220 lbs/yr.
9. Use a push mower instead of a power mower.
CO2 reduction: 80 lbs/yr.
10. Plant two trees.
CO2 reduction: 20 lbs/yr.
Source: Oregon Energy Office