Clean energy, climate, Manhattan projects, green jobs, and even sacrifice star in Nashville debate

I do not recall any other debate in presidential history with as extensive and substantive a discussion of energy and climate issues. McCain reiterated his support for climate action, and Obama said his clean energy program was “priority number one.” The moderator, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, however, was arbitrary with the rules and did his best to squelch real debate.

Let’s start with the question of the election (of the century?) that took a regular person, Ingrid Jackson, to raise (transcript here):

Jackson: Sen. McCain, I want to know, we saw that Congress moved pretty fast in the face of an economic crisis. I want to know what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs?McCain: Well, thank you. Look, we are in tough economic times; we all know that. And let’s keep — never forget the struggle that Americans are in today.

But when we can — when we have an issue that we may hand our children and our grandchildren a damaged planet, I have disagreed strongly with the Bush administration on this issue. I traveled all over the world looking at the effects of greenhouse gas emissions, Joe Lieberman and I.

And I introduced the first legislation, and we forced votes on it. That’s the good news, my friends. The bad news is we lost. But we kept the debate going, and we kept this issue to — to posing to Americans the danger that climate change opposes.

Now, how — what’s — what’s the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power. Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that.

Look, I — I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it’s clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs.

And — and I know that we can reprocess the spent nuclear fuel. The Japanese, the British, the French do it. And we can do it, too. Sen. Obama has opposed that.

As noted, McCain thinks this is a winning issue, but it is not (see “Note to John McCain: Uncommitted Ohio voters just aren’t into nuclear power”).

We can move forward, and clean up our climate, and develop green technologies, and alternate — alternative energies for — for hybrid, for hydrogen, for battery-powered cars, so that we can clean up our environment and at the same time get our economy going by creating millions of jobs.

We can do that, we as Americans, because we’re the best innovators, we’re the best producers, and 95 percent of the people who are our market live outside of the United States of America.

Brokaw: Sen. Obama?

Obama: This is one of the biggest challenges of our times.

And it is absolutely critical that we understand this is not just a challenge, it’s an opportunity, because if we create a new energy economy, we can create five million new jobs, easily, here in the United States.

It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades.

And we can do it, but we’re going to have to make an investment. The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out, for defense purposes, how to communicate, we’ve got to understand that this is a national security issue, as well.

And that’s why we’ve got to make some investments and I’ve called for investments in solar, wind, geothermal. Contrary to what Sen. McCain keeps on saying, I favor nuclear power as one component of our overall energy mix.

But this is another example where I think it is important to look at the record. Sen. McCain and I actually agree on something. He said a while back that the big problem with energy is that for 30 years, politicians in Washington haven’t done anything.

What Sen. McCain doesn’t mention is he’s been there 26 of them. And during that time, he voted 23 times against alternative fuels, 23 times.

So it’s easy to talk about this stuff during a campaign, but it’s important for us to understand that it requires a sustained effort from the next president.

One last point I want to make on energy. Sen. McCain talks a lot about drilling, and that’s important, but we have three percent of the world’s oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil.

So what that means is that we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem. And we’re not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming.

We’re going to have to come up with alternatives, and that means that the United States government is working with the private sector to fund the kind of innovation that we can then export to countries like China that also need energy and are setting up one coal power plant a week.

We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving them the energy that they need or helping them to create the energy that they need.

Brokaw: Gentlemen, you may not have noticed, but we have lights around here. They have red and green and yellow and they are to signal…

Obama: I’m just trying to keep up with John.

McCain: Tom, wave like that and I’ll look at you.

Brokaw: All right, Senator.

Here’s a follow-up to that, one-minute discussion. It’s a simple question.

McCain: Sure.

Brokaw: Should we fund a Manhattan-like project that develops a nuclear bomb to deal with global energy and alternative energy or should we fund 100,000 garages across America, the kind of industry and innovation that developed Silicon Valley?

McCain: I think pure research and development investment on the part of the United States government is certainly appropriate. I think once it gets into productive stages, that we ought to, obviously, turn it over to the private sector.

Note to all you supporters of a Manhattan-like project for clean energy: McCain, like most conservatives, simply isn’t on your side. Remember, this is a man who keeps saying he wants a budget freeze. That would include our clean energy budget. R&D is great, but what we most need is a massive investment in deployment and clean tech infrastructure, like a new smarter, renewable-friendly transmission grid.

By the way, my friends, I know you grow a little weary with this back-and-forth.

Isn’t the whole point of a debate “this back and forth”? Note to McCain: I’m guessing that people who don’t like “this back-and-forth stuff aren’t watching.

It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney.

You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one. You know who voted against it? Me. I have fought time after time against these pork barrel — these bills that come to the floor and they have all kinds of goodies and all kinds of things in them for everybody and they buy off the votes.

I vote against them, my friends. I vote against them.

I’m not really certain how you run on the claim you will enact a major “all-of-the-above” energy agenda by saying that you voted against one the biggest “all-of-the-above” energy bills. Yes, that bill had flaws, but it also had a huge amounts of money for clean energy, and, if you love, irony ( or hypocrisy), it also had the biggest set of incentives for nuclear power in a decade. Yet McCain just said he is the nuclear power advocate and Obama isn’t.

But the point is, also, on oil drilling, oil drilling offshore now is vital so that we can bridge the gap. We can bridge the gap between imported oil, which is a national security issue, as well as any other, and it will reduce the price of a barrel of oil, because when people know there’s a greater supply, then the cost of that will go down.

That’s fundamental economics. We’ve got to drill offshore, my friends, and we’ve got to do it now, and we can do it.

And as far as nuclear power is concerned, again, look at the record. Sen. Obama has approved (sic?) storage and reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel.

And I’ll stop, Tom, and you didn’t even wave. Thanks.

Brokaw: Thank you very much, Senator. Next question for you, Sen. Obama….

Say it ain’t so, Tom! Where is Obama’s follow up? This was really absurd. He allowed McCain to filibuster the entire one minute of follow up.

Since Brokaw didn’t allow time for a follow up, let’s throw this in:

Brokaw: Sen. Obama, if you would give us your list of priorities, there are some real questions about whether everything can be done at once.

Obama: We’re going to have to prioritize, just like a family has to prioritize. Now, I’ve listed the things that I think have to be at the top of the list. Energy we have to deal with today, because you’re paying $3.80 here in Nashville for gasoline, and it could go up. And it’s a strain on your family budget, but it’s also bad for our national security, because countries like Russia and Venezuela and, you know, in some cases, countries like Iran, are benefiting from higher oil prices.

So we’ve got to deal with that right away. That’s why I’ve called for an investment of $15 billion a year over 10 years. Our goal should be, in 10 year’s time, we are free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And we can do it. Now, when JFK said we’re going to the Moon in 10 years, nobody was sure how to do it, but we understood that, if the American people make a decision to do something, it gets done. So that would be priority number one.

Finally, we got the sacrifice question:

Brokaw: Sen. McCain, for you, we have our first question from the Internet tonight. A child of the Depression, 78-year-old Fiorra from Chicago.

Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices — sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in?

McCain: … And I recommend a spending freeze that — except for defense, Veterans Affairs, and some other vital programs, we’ll just have to have across-the-board freeze….

And, by the way, I want to go back a second.

Look, we can attack health care and energy at the same time. We’re not — we’re not — we’re not rifle shots here. We are Americans. We can, with the participation of all Americans, work together and solve these problems together.

Again, McCain offers no explanation of how you can have an across-the-board freeze that presumably includes energy spending while saying we can attack the energy problem. Obama then came as close as he has ever done to making clear he understands scale of the effort required to solve our energy and climate problems:

Obama: You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day and, you know, how all of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country.

And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American people, he said, “Go out and shop.” That wasn’t the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.

And so it’s important to understand that the — I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government.

And let’s take the example of energy, which we already spoke about. There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy. I believe in the need for increased oil production. We’re going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they’re not using, that either you use them or you lose them.

We’re going to have to develop clean coal technology and safe ways to store nuclear energy.

But each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes, in our buildings. And one of the things I want to do is make sure that we’re providing incentives so that you can buy a fuel efficient car that’s made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan or South Korea, making sure that you are able to weatherize your home or make your business more fuel efficient. And that’s going to require effort from each and every one of us.

Finally, both of the candidates interjected energy into many of the other answers, making this the most energy/climate-focused debate I’ve seen.

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