A Race to the Truth, Part 1

We have come to a point in the election season where the courage of the candidates and the intelligence of the voters are being severely tested. So far, the candidates are flunking.The public’s grade is pending.

The test is about oil and national security. Over the past several months, consumers showed their smarts by recognizing that a gas-tax holiday was pandering and by responding to high gasoline prices with conservation. Conservation is one of the factors that have resulted in the drop in gasoline prices.

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Now, it appears that public opinion has shifted in favor of drilling for more oil, even though the experts say it will have no short-term impact on prices or long-term impact energy security. (I say “appears to have shifted” because at least one expert — David Moore, the former head of Gallup — thinks public opinion is not so clear-cut. When asked a question that gives them a choice, Moore says, half or more of the respondents favor conservation over drilling.)

It’s disappointing, but no surprise, that the candidates’ positions have swung with the pro-drilling polls. John McCain has reversed his opposition on off-shore oil drilling, so passionately that he wants to drill whenever and wherever he’s standing at the moment.

Barack Obama has reversed his opposition, too, so long as offshore drilling is done with environmental protections and as part of a broader energy package.

Nancy Pelosi promises that Democrats will have a drilling bill waiting when Congress returns to work. And in the nation’s hottest U.S. Senate race, Colorado’s democratic candidate, Mark Udall, has changed his position on drilling as the voters in that important swing state have warmed to more oil production.

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For his part, McCain is promising that more drilling will mean “energy independence” for the United States. Someone might ask him how prolonging our participation in a world oil market brings independence — or whether energy independence is possible under any scenario in a global economy. The fact is, the United States could stop importing oil tomorrow and our economy still would be vulnerable to vicissitudes of the world market. For example, last time I looked, six of our top 10 trading partners were net oil importers. When they suffer from spiking oil prices or declining supplies, we feel their pain.

Of more interest to me, however, is this question: How do McCain, Obama and the other candidates who profess to understand the climate problem reconcile the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions with their support for more fossil energy production?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has concluded that the world must stabilize carbon dioxide emissions by 2015 in order to keep atmospheric concentrations at levels that give us any chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

In other words, CO2 emissions in the U.S. must level off and start to decline only six years after the next president and the next Congress take office — six years to accomplish the type of radical energy transition that in the past has taken 50 years or more.

After nations met in Bali last December, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, said that even 2015 is soon enough. “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,” he said. “What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.”

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So, how does their support for more oil production (and by extension more oil consumption) define the political candidates? Is there a leader among them who will step forward to shape public opinion rather than catering to it, and to tell voters that we must face some difficult truths? For example:

  • This is the moment that the world must shift to a new energy economy. We’ve known for more than 30 years that this was coming. We have little or no control over oil supplies or oil prices, and therefore no control over our own economic security. That must be fixed.
  • This is the moment we must make dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. There is no more wiggle room or time for procrastination. Every year we delay makes solutions more expensive and more difficult. Soon, there will be no solutions left because climate change will beyond our influence.
  • This is the moment we must get control of our own security. Our foreign policy, and the foreign polices of other nations, have been corrupted for generations by our addiction to oil. One doesn’t have to go back to the Shah of Iran or even to the wars in Iraq to find oil’s perverse influence on world affairs and American foreign policy. Look at what Russia is doing now that its energy supplies give it visions of returning to superpower status; look at the restrained response from Europe, which wants Russia’s natural gas.

We don’t need candidates who dumb-down our predicament, or who treat each problem as though energy, climate and national security are not interconnected. We need a rapid shift to an energy economy that quickly cuts carbon emissions, gives us economic stability with infinite energy supplies, reduces the massive flow of American wealth to oil-producing nations, stops subsidizing terrorism, and doesn’t require that we send our children to war once or twice a generation to secure foreign oil fields. Like all of those families trying to get along in our broken carbon economy, our solutions must work more than one job at a time.

So with all appropriate humility, I issue a challenge to this year’s candidates for public office: If you want to drill for more oil or burn more coal, tell us how that squares with the need to address climate change. If you want to build more nuclear power plants, how does that square with the need to stop rogue nations and terrorists from acquiring nuclear weapons and dirty bombs? Or with the need to have fewer targets for terrorism here at home? If you want the United States to continue relying on global oil and gas markets, how does that square with economic stability?

If you want to prevent terrorism, how does that square with keeping a deeply offensive military presence in Islamic lands to protect oil fields and oil routes? If you’re the candidate to protect national security, how does that square with failing to prevent runaway climate crises in some of the most volatile regions in the world?

We’re not getting those answers today. Instead, as the candidates shift toward more drilling, they’re tacitly endorsing the situation described by John Deutsch, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency:

The United States has been unwilling to adopt and to sustain policy measures that would slow the trend and begin the long process of a transition to a post-petroleum economy. Our citizens and their elected representatives do not wish to sacrifice, in the short-run, the convenience and economic benefits of low-cost energy.

Even if that were acceptable policy — and it’s not — it’s based on a fallacy: Oil is no longer low-cost energy. It hasn’t been for a very long time and it never will be again. We’re paying with our defense budget; with the lives of our young men and women in the military and with the welfare of their families; with the extraordinary monetary costs of the Iraq war; and with the emerging costs of coping with extreme weather and the other consequences of climate change.

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We need more than a presidential race; we need a race to the truth. As former U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Gary Hart puts it: “The first presidential candidate to introduce into the public dialogue a new understanding of security and the means to achieve it will have demonstrated the kind of leadership worthy of election and of governance.”

— Bill B.