A Disappointing Presidential Debate For Energy And Climate

by Bill Becker

If Mitt Romney and Barack Obama had been able to look through the television cameras at who was watching their first debate, it undoubtedly would have been more interesting than the debate itself.

Rush Limbaugh and the Fox News team would have been there, looking for red meat for the next day’s broadcasts.  With any luck, Jon Stewart’s crew watched, too. The audience probably included the fraternal oil barons from Kansas who have set out to prove that when it comes to winning elections, things go better with Koch.

More generally, Obama and Romney would have seen an audience very interested in what each of them would do as president, but probably not very enlightened by how either candidate explained it. When he wasn’t changing his positions, Romney said what his campaign commercials say. So did Obama. Obama was the professor giving his lecture for the umpteenth time, while Romney was the CEO making the business case again to close the deal with the electorate.  It was a debate that only policy wonks and political pundits could really love.

If the candidates could have seen their TV audience, they might have talked more about less esoteric topics closer to people’s lives. Each made an obligatory reference or two to the workaday people they’ve met on the campaign trail and to all the middle-class families that are jobless and homeless.

Yet even though the debate was about domestic issues, neither Obama nor Romney mentioned how he might develop a transportation program that actually saved oil. Or how the farm program might be reformed to protect the fertility of our soils for greater food security. They didn’t talk about water, a big issue in the region where the debate was held.

It’s a safe bet that the 30 million people who tuned into the debate included the farmers and small businesses in South Dakota, Texas, Nebraska, and Missouri who are watching their assets and their futures turn to dust because of the worst drought most of them have ever seen. Up and down the Mississippi River valley, some of last summer’s flood victims probably watched the debate, too. So did people along the Gulf Coast still recovering from Hurricane Isaac. The audience probably included families in California, Wyoming, New Mexico, Texas and Colorado who are still homeless because of last summer’s record wildfires, as well as elderly voters whose lives were threatened by this year’s record heat waves.

These are the people who know first hand that something strange is happening with the weather. All year long we’ve heard forecasters, news people and disaster victims describe the weather as unusual, unprecedented, record setting, weird, unlike anything they’ve ever seen before.

These middle Americans, quite possibly America’s first victims of global warming, may have been waiting for Obama or Romney to say what they would do about climate change over the next four years.  What they have suffered is consistent with the predicted impacts of global warming. Some scientists have concluded the droughts, fires, floods, hyper-hurricanes and record heat of recent years are evidence that the damaging impacts of climate change have already begun.

But neither the moderator nor the candidates said one word about climate change and not one word to its victims.  During his introduction, moderator Jim Lehrer alluded to the many requests he received from voters and viewers who wanted to hear about their topics. He didn’t mention they included 160,000 petitions he received from people who wanted him to ask the candidates what they’d do about global warming.

So as a public service, I’m one of the wonks who have read the candidates’ energy policy papers for clues on what they’d do about global warming.  Here is the water cooler version of what they say:

Although he advocates an “all of the above” energy mix that includes oil, gas and coal, President Obama wants to move the United States further down the road to a clean energy economy. He envisions a country that gets 80% of its energy from clean  resources by 2035, that transmits electricity over smart grids, that connects major cities with high-speed rail, that puts 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, and that emits 80% less greenhouse gases by 2050.

In stark contrast, Romney’s position paper calls for the United States to become an “energy superpower” by rapidly expanding its production of coal, oil and natural gas, the fossil fuels that are responsible for climate change. Romney’s 21-page position paper gives only six words to renewable energy and says nothing at all about energy efficiency – the two best hopes for a low-carbon future. His paper doesn’t mention climate change.

As governor of Massachusetts in 2004, Romney issued a climate plan that looked a lot like Obama’s does now. The paper his campaign issued in August, however, looks as though it was written by the same oil executives Dick Cheney invited to write a national energy policy in 2001.

During the debate, the obvious questions about the Romney energy plan hung in the air unasked. How would he sustain America’s prosperity with unsustainable resources? How can he be serious about deficit reduction when he won’t even eliminate tax breaks for oil companies who don’t need them? How can he say he believes in a level playing field for energy (Page 19 of his energy plan), when he favors oil subsidies and opposes subsidies for renewable energy?

Instead, there was a lot of talk about topics like marginal tax rates and who was the better friend of America’s middle class. The candidates apparently felt they had little to gain by talking about climate change, even though the people on the other side of the camera have a lot to lose.

Maybe next time.

Bill Becker is executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project.

9 Responses to A Disappointing Presidential Debate For Energy And Climate

  1. Utility guy says:

    I think it’s wise of the President to say he’s for all energy sources, but push renewable energy. If he said that he wants just wind and solar, it would be easy for the political and media class to marginalize him as a “crazy hippy”.

    With that said, I would like to see more firm opposition to the keystone pipeline, and a much better explanation of “clean coal”. I would love “clean coal”, but my definition would be a coal that is extracted without ecological consequences, and burned with no emissions. Bring me that kind of coal, and I’ll be the biggest cheerleader.

    Same with nuclear and fracking: get me a nuclear technology that is fail safe and without the waste, and a natural gas extraction technology that doesn’t put the aquifers at risk or require vast amount of water, and I’ll be thrilled.

    If the private sector is so wonderful, let’s see them do that. That would be my energy policy.

  2. Good points all, but I think you might be guilty of wishful thinking on two counts: 1) TV is clearly not going to allow much of a discussion of climate change to take place, especially in a widely-watched format like the presidential debates.

    2) Although “climate hawks” can easily see the connection between global warming and peoples’ suffering the consequences thereof, most, or at least many of those affected don’t make the connection. They think the storm that wiped out their town was an act of God, or a random weather event or part of a natural cycle. And of course since the media has no interest in educating them, they will continue to go on thinking that way unless or until we find a way to reach them.

    That won’t be easy, because it’s frowned upon to go through flood or drought country handing out leaflets explaining that people have just lost their home because of global warming. The media won’t tell them, and they are unlikely to start reading Climate Progress one afternoon.

    What to do?

  3. Henry says:

    After Obama was criticized for his “promise to slow the rise of the oceans” speech from the past did you really expect him to say anything about possibly stopping hurricanes or floods or relieving drought conditions by acting on Climate change?
    The Obama campaign will not make that mistake again this time around. They are playing the ‘Climate’ card very carefully now and only to select audiences.
    While I found this article informative, it’s time for us to stop with the “what if’s” etc, of what happened this week. We need to move on from this debate and work on getting the best candidate elected (Obama).

  4. Steve says:

    There are a lot of clear-headed thinkers like Bill Becker and Joe Romm (and Rocky Anderson and Jill Stein in the political arena) wasting their precious time in Washington.

    It’s analogous to gathering electoral votes — go after the big-fish, Progressive states in this country and get things done. Follow California’s lead. Illinois, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, maybe even Texas someday (lots of wind farms going up there, right?). Then there’s Pennsylvania, Florida, Washington State, Utah…

    California can push even harder than what they are now doing. We have in the past put up billboards with links to websites for information on water shortages, calling attention to key facts. We can do it with climate change and fossil fuel depletion — point people in the right direction, educate them, motivate them.

    Washington politics is broken, particularly on this issue, for many reasons. Remember, states regulate the electrical utilities, tax gasoline consumption, and design and develop the highways and mass transit systems.

  5. Steve says:

    … with Anderson and Stein, meant to say “aspiring for a chance to waste their time in Washington.”

  6. Philip Lippel says:

    Perhaps the Oct. 5th debate between Joe Aldy, representing the Obama campaign, and Oren Cass, representing the Romney Campaign, will be more to your liking. It’s co-sponsored by the MIT Energy Initiative and the MIT Energy Club, 7:30 PM at Kresge Auditorium on the MIT campus. It will be broadcast next week on E&E TV.

  7. Ozonator says:

    Most of America “feels” that energy comes from a soft rabbit bringing a battery and the cost of living in a nice section of town. The 47% types are downwind of the EssoKochs, resulting diseases are also a hoax, anything close to Obamacare and education is a privilege granted by voting for an old white male who has funny ideas about mothers and sisters, and science is determined by the funders of NOVA.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The ‘select’ audience for the truth about climate destabilisation is the whole of humanity, alive and yet unborn.

  9. Bill Becker says:

    Philip: I’m a bit more optimistic about the public’s ability to connect persistent extreme weather with climate change. I base that in part on the Yale/George Mason poll earlier this year, which found that even among those people disengaged from the climate issue, 73% said global warming is affecting our weather. There’s no telling whether extreme weather will occur next year or the year after that with the intensity it did this year. If it doesn’t, the climate connection will be a hard sell. If it does, I’m hopeful more Americans and policy makers will at least acknowledge that climate change COULD be a factor and it makes sense to protect ourselves against the risk.

    In regard to the limitations of the TV format, I think TV could work as one media if the president framed global warming in a much more personal way than rising oceans. Correctly communicated and put in a context like national security, or personal security, or risk management, more people might connect with climate change than with the war of numbers about the tax code or the deficit. The debate about taxes is nearly as complicated as the tax forms themselves.

    One other point about TV: Visual media are a much more impactful way than words to communicate about climate change and its impact on our lives. If I were the president, I’d be using visual media more to increase the power of the bully pulpit and to help people see what abstractions like mitigation, adaptation or sustainable energy mean and how they’d affect our lives and communities.