It's also complicated by the growing energy needs of developing countries.
Sure, everybody reducing their vehicle usage would make a difference, Friedman said, but the key solution is to generate enormous amounts of green power at the "China price" -- the price developing companies will pay.
"This is all about how do we get clean, emission-free power down to the China price. If you're not doing that, you're just engaged in a hobby, in some feel-good hobby," Friedman said.
"The game is won when we can get China to do for solar power what it did for tennis shoes."
Affluent, pro-environment Americans may be willing to pay a premium for wind-generated power, but someone who makes $1 a day isn't going to care how their light-bulb gets turned on, Friedman said.
In order to develop that technology, and slash the United State's own emissions, the government and the public are going to need to rally behind the cause, he said.
"What I've been trying to do is to rename green patriotic," Friedman said. He calls it "geogreen," a more robust term than "green," which he feels has connotations of "liberal, tree-hugging, girly man, sissy, unpatriotic and vaguely French."
Geogreen, by comparison, is more "muscular" and acknowledges the linkages between global warming, the economy and terrorism, Friedman said.
"The solutions to these problems are so large in scale they cannot possibly be addressed by an America divided by red and blue states," he said.
According to current estimates, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could double from pre-Industrial Revolution conditions by 2056, unleashing rising sea levels, intense storms, temperature changes and ecological chaos, he said. Of course, the exact timing and effects of higher carbon-dioxide levels aren't known, but it is clear the world is on its way to trouble without radical energy changes, Friedman said.
He called for the government to enact efficiency limits for all sorts of energy use, a carbon tax, gasoline tax, and incentives for green power and research.
These regulations will provide a framework to encourage and reassure big businesses that green energy is the way of the future, he said.
"God bless California," Friedman said, noting that its strict standards have prevented energy use from rising as it has in the rest of the United States. "What California is doing should be federal legislation that exists in all 50 states."
Friedman advocated against scaring Americans into action, however.
"I am not here today to propose radically altering our lifestyles," he said.
Elaborating on his recommendation, Friedman said that after watching Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," he "wanted to go buy a handgun, put it in my mouth and blow my brains out."
Telling people what they need to give up isn't helping either, he said.
"To me, the point that excites people is a project of creating abundance," he said, of bringing other nations up to our standards of living without wrecking the environment.
Going green is the next industrial revolution, he said.
"I really believe if we do this right, it's actually about creating more, about more opportunity," Friedman said. "Think how exciting this is."
Friedman said he agreed to come to Stanford only after organizer Lyuba Wolf, a Stanford student, bombarded him with e-mails.
He joked that his wife attended Stanford, but he "wasn't smart enough to get in."
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