The energy issue has become central in the presidential campaign and we see little to suggest that either candidate will engage in a real discussion about the real choices we have. The fact is that the era of fossil fuels is coming to an end. There are too many people and too much need for energy for this to continue for very long. How long? More than a decade and less than a century. Why should we care? Because we probably can think of better things to do with petrochemicals than burning them for fuels. Because we shouldn’t be handing this problem to our children to solve. Will this be discussed in a meaningful way by the presidential candidates? Probably not.
I suppose I should be grateful that at least Senator Obama was able to use this campaign to give a superb speech in Philadelphia on race. That will be a speech that will be quoted for many years to come. It demonstrated that the public can understand a complicated message. Maybe modern presidential campaigns can only absorb one meaningful statement per campaign. The spectacle of Senator McCain shouting to drill here and drill now for oil was simply too much to take. Given his history and past record on the environment and climate change it is really shocking to hear McCain sink to this level.
Both candidates are reading polls and certainly the rapid rise in gasoline prices has had a deep impact on the electorate. But why do these campaigns keep assuming the public is incapable of learning and absorbing the truth? Yes, people are angry about high gasoline prices and the oil industry’s tax breaks and extraordinary profits. But policies like Obama’s "emergency energy rebate" (from “windfall” profits) and McCain’s gas tax suspension are bad public policy. They encourage people to use more gasoline. I know that the political problem in this campaign is the high cost of gasoline, but the real problem is that we use too much in the first place. This is the moment to educate the public on the need to develop alternative sources of energy. Instead, we get this descending spiral of nonsense piled on top of nonsense.
The modern media does not seem capable of communicating nuanced facts. Everything must make it into sound bites that can be repeated in the endless loop of 24/7 TV news. Like a pop song with a hook, the news now has its own top 40 of snappy phrases that raise our emotional temper without really telling us anything. While local and state political campaigns have shown some ability to break away from these limits, national campaigns seem to turn on images like John Kerry windsurfing and Mike Dukakis sticking his head out of a tank. Obama should be happy he’s able to sink an outside shot—that image rather than one of him engaging in the issues may very well give him the election.
It is of course the academic in me which insists on seeing national political campaigns as great opportunities to teach. I know that presidential campaigns do not allow the candidates the luxury of educating the public. They need to be presidents before they can do that. Of course, once they get elected the first time, they start their campaigns to get re-elected.
The energy issue is the most profound issue that we have faced in a very long time. Our economy, environmental quality and national security depend on our ability to solve this problem. We have made little progress in addressing these issues since the late 1970’s when everyone laughed at Jimmy Carter in his cardigan declaring the energy crisis to be the moral equivalent of war. Unfortunately, the current administration decided to fight a shooting war over energy supplies rather than its “moral equivalent”, but Iraq is an indication of the futility and foolishness of wars for resources.
Carter was right, we need a national mobilization to address our energy crisis. People need to understand the facts about energy, climate change and the absolute centrality of the need for renewable energy. It may be a difficult and complicated case to articulate in a presidential campaign, but we really need both McCain and Obama to try to help the American people learn this issue. Both of these candidates emerged from the primaries because they offered the American public the promise of a different sort of politics. Obama offered change and McCain offered straight talk. Now, it seems as if the only change is the end of straight talk.