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Climate Change, The Debate’s Great Unmentionable

By Elizabeth Kolbert (The New Yorker) - October 17, 2012

Early on in Tuesday night’s debate, the candidates faced off about gasoline prices. In the subsequent coverage, that discussion was very nearly ignored in favor of Mitt Romney’s claim to have hired “binders full of women” as the governor of Massachusetts and the question of what, exactly, the President said about Benghazi in the Rose Garden. But the exchange deserves attention because it demonstrates why America has never had—and, at the rate things are going, never will have—an even remotely sane energy policy.

The gasoline question was posed by a Long Islander named Philip Tricolla, who wanted to know whether the President saw it as the job of the Department of Energy to lower prices at the pump. This is a question that, in one form or another, seems to be asked every four years, and every four years the candidates all know, or should know, what the answer is. Oil is a globally traded commodity whose price is set on a global market; no matter what the Energy Secretary does or doesn’t do, it’s not going to make much difference. The candidates also know that this is not what voters want to hear, and so they say something else.

President Barack Obama began by touting recent increases in domestic-energy production. He said that oil production is up in the U.S., which is true. The implication was that this was somehow going to translate into lower consumer costs, which is false. A recent analysis by the Associated Press showed that there is “no statistical correlation between how much oil comes out of U.S. wells and the price at the pump.” Mitt Romney countered by arguing that oil production is down on federal lands, which is hokum, and went on to claim that if he were President, so much oil would come gushing from those lands that energy prices would plummet and manufacturing jobs would return to America and people would all soon be travelling by jetpack. (O.K., the jetpack part I made up.)

Obama deserves credit for at least mentioning the need to control energy demand—rather than just supply—something that Romney never even alluded to. The President should also be commended for stressing the need to develop alternative—which is to say carbon-free—energy sources, which he called key to “the jobs of the future.” But aside from the potential for job creation, the President could never quite bring himself to discuss why it might not be a good idea to burn every gallon—or cubic foot—of fossil fuels we could conceivably bring to the earth’s surface. In the midst of what will almost certainly be the warmest year on record, climate change has become to the Obama Administration the Great Unmentionable, or, as the blogger Joe Romm has put it, The-Threat-That-Must-Not-Be Named.

The problem with the sort of energy debate we saw on Tuesday is not just that it’s fatuous, though it certainly is that. The problem is that you can’t solve a problem if you don’t even acknowledge it exists. The true challenge facing the next President is not how to bring down gas prices, which may or may not come down as a result of global trends. It’s how to move beyond the tired arguments of the past and act as if the future matters.