Second Debate: Another Night Sans Energy Innovation and Climate Change

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Last night, President Obama and Governor Romney met for the second of three presidential debates that included a strong focus on energy and the economy. The problem is that the two biggest issues driving both topics – spurring clean energy innovation and addressing climate change – were no-shows. Instead, the debate was focused on how the candidates can significantly lower gasoline prices (they can’t) and who supports coal, natural gas, and oil more.

Without sounding like embittered policy wonks, this is troubling. A policy debate on energy and the economy that ignores innovation and climate change just isn’t a serious or rational debate.

This is best summed up by the debate moderator, Candy Crowley, who noted on CNN that she refrained from calling on one participant who had prepared a question on climate change: “Climate change, I had that question. All you climate change people. We just – you know, again, we knew that the economy was still the main thing, so you knew you kind of wanted to go with the economy.” Except climate change and the economy are not mutually exclusive! In fact, addressing climate change through clean energy innovation will directly impact the economy. Let’s walk through this.

Innovation is essential to making clean energy cost and performance competitive with fossil fuels. By extension, innovation is thus critical to deploying clean energy everywhere, making it the central way the U.S. (and the world) is going to address climate change. Innovating cheaper and better clean energy technologies would directly impact the economy. As ITIF points out in its report Ten Principles for Creating a New U.S. Clean Energy Policy, “Clean energy innovation would give U.S. firms a first-mover advantage in new clean energy products and services, expanding exports…Innovating new technologies would lead to higher productivity, which boosts wages and lowers prices of goods and services, both of which expand domestic economic activity and create jobs.”

And it’s not like a real, rational presidential debate on climate change and innovation would be a snooze-fest. Ms. Crowley could have easily pivoted to climate change and innovation without losing any discussion on the economy.

For instance, both candidates have fundamentally different energy policy goals that inform their thoughts on climate change policy and spurring economic growth. Governor Romney’s energy policies aim to achieve energy independence, primarily through the greater extraction of fossil fuels. He stated in the debate, “I’ll get America and North America energy independent. I’ll do it by more drilling, more permits and licenses.” On the other hand, President Obama’s energy approach aims to support a clean energy economy. “We can’t just produce traditional source of energy,” he opined. “We’ve also got to look to the future. That’s why we doubled fuel efficiency standards on cars. That means that in the middle of the next decade, any car you buy, you’re going to end up going twice as far on a gallon of gas. That’s why we doubled clean energy production like wind and solar and biofuels.”

To achieve his goal, the President has advocated for major government investments in R&D, commercialization, and deployment of new energy technologies. Some of this was very briefly mentioned by the President in last nights debate and could have made for good climate change and innovation policy fodder:

We’ve got to make sure that we’ve got the best science and research in the world. And when we talk about deficits, if we’re adding to our deficit for tax cuts for folks who don’t need them, and we’re cutting investments in research and science that will create the next Apple, create the next new innovation that will sell products around the world, we will lose that race.

In comparison, Governor Romney has called for limited government investment in basic energy research and high-risk proof-of-concept projects through ARPA-E, in addition to greatly expanded oil and gas drilling. For example, his economic plan states that “As president, Mitt Romney will redirect clean energy spending towards basic research” and “Investment should be channeled through programs, such as ‘ARPA-E’ that seek to replicate DARPA’s success in energy-related fields.” Meanwhile, his energy plan – released in August 2012 – lists opening federal lands to oil and gas production and “open[ing] offshore areas for energy development” as the first two items on his energy agenda. Linking Romney’s thoughts on the role of government support for research and expanding fossil fuel supply to climate change and innovation isn’t a difficult task either.

In other words, the candidates’ energy and economic policies impact innovation and the nation’s ability to address climate change. Debating these issues is critical, and ignoring them because it theoretically muddies the debate on the U.S. economy is simply disappointing. With Election Day just a few weeks away, there is precious time remaining for a serious discussion of the nation’s energy future.

Photo credit: Schipul.

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About the author

Matthew Stepp is a Senior Analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) specializing in climate change and clean energy policy. His research interests include clean energy technology development, climate science policy development, transportation policy, and the role innovation has in economic growth.