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Oct 09, 2012 Carol Pierson Holding

No Spark in Obama’s Energy Debate

By Carol Pierson Holding

Last week’s Presidential debate was supposed to showcase the differences betweenclimate change President Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney. But between Romney’s radical move to the center and Obama’s lackluster performance, the two seemed to agree more than they disagreed.

Both answered Jim Lehrer’s first question “How would you create new jobs?” with the same priorities: job training and creating energy independence. In fact, both agreed to boost oil and gas production. But Obama added a plug for his alternative energy policies. “We've got to look at the energy sources of the future, like wind and solar and biofuels, and make those investments,” he said, referring to his largely successful subsidies for alternatives to fossil fuels.

From that point on, Romney turned oil and gas into a symbol of patriotism and the path to prosperity, using the word “energy” three times more than Obama and positioning new energy sources as expensive failures.

Obama failed to cite the reason his policies are so desperately needed, that climate change may in fact be the greatest threat to our national security. Instead, Obama looked like a spendthrift or worse, out of touch with American middle-class concerns. Even though, according to Bloomberg, 70% of Americans now believe in climate change. Even though, according to CSRHub ratings, safeguarding the environment is increasingly a priority for business.

Romney called out gas prices that have doubled and the rise in electricity prices, citing the crushing burden on middle-class families.

Ignoring the facts, Romney criticized Obama for not opening Federal lands for exploration. He promised to double the number of permits and open coasts and Alaska to fossil fuel companies.

Obama mentioned solar, wind and geothermal only once. Without bringing up climate change, and without a rebuttal, Romney pressed on.

Romney promised to “bring that pipeline in from Canada“ and to help “people in the coal industry…crushed by (Obama’s) policies.”

As if thumbing his nose at environmental science, he smiled right into the camera and said, “I like coal.”

His rationale for these policies? “I want to get America and North America energy independent so we can create those jobs.”

So when Obama brought up cutting the $4 billion in “corporate welfare” that the US pays every year to behemoths like ExxonMobil, he sounded like a spoilsport.

Romney argued that Obama’s facts were wrong – the oil subsides are actually $2.8 billion – and that those subsidies are inviolate. “That's been in place for a hundred years,” he said, as though oil subsidies were deeply entrenched in our Democracy.

But what really stuck in my mind was Romney’s brilliant repositioning of the new energy subsidies. By comparing a $2.8 billion cut to oil and gas against the $90 billion in “breaks for the green energy world,” he made support for alternative energy sources seem hugely expensive and frivolous in comparison to far cheaper oil subsidies. He repeated twice that green energy investment is “about 50 years' worth of what oil and gas receives.”

Still not satisfied, Romney linked the $90 billion to Solyndra and the other “50%” of green investments that had failed. In fact, those investments have lost just $3 billion, or 3%, but Obama said nothing, so it stood as fact.

But the real shame is that Obama lost the opportunity to pull out numbers that make everything else pale in comparison. NOAA reports that 2011 saw a record 14 extreme climate disasters that cost over $1 billion each for total losses of $55.3 billion and 660 lives. Future projections are even grimmer: US News cites projections of 100 million deaths globally from climate change in just 18 years. In the US, 2% of America’s annual GDP, or some $300 billion, will evaporate.

Yet Romney plans to eviscerate the EPA and a number of other programs aimed at reducing the effects of climate change. He’s a believer that climate change is real, yet will do nothing to mitigate the effects. A New York Times article cites Romney’s intent to take a weed whacker to environmental regulations going back 40 years – taking down even those declared “unambiguously correct” by the Supreme Court.

Climate change may not be popular, but people do want to hear about clean tech and green jobs. These are exciting, entrepreneurial opportunities for job creation. Where were they in Obama’s debate?

At heart, climate change is a moral issue. The hardest hit will be our future generations. And yet Romney stole that argument too. Using the word “moral” three times, Romney pointed to the deficit: “(It’s) not moral for my generation to keep spending massively more than we take in, knowing those burdens are going to be passed on to the next generation.” Shouldn’t that be Obama’s argument for addressing climate change?

Photo courtesy of marcn via Flickr.

Carol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council's Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 5,000 companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on nearly 5,000 companies from 135 industries in 65 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from over 170 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.


Published by Carol Pierson Holding October 9, 2012