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Questioning Authority: A Few Energy Queries for the Candidates

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How do candidates see the energy future? Is it more about the possibilities, or the clouds? Photo: Nigel Brown

It’s a sad fact of modern politics that what politicians don’t say is as significant as what they do.

That certainly seems to be true on energy and climate change in the 2012  campaign, where both sides seem to be ducking the issues as best they can. Unfortunately, that’s not much help to the voters. We’re at a point where, as a nation, we need to make some actual choices – and yet the voters are left to infer what those choices might be from silences, evasions and half-truths.

But sometimes the best answer to an evasion is a better question. We’ve been struck by the work at  The Right Question Institute, where they’ve been exploring the role question-asking plays in helping students (and others) develop critical thinking skills.  Their argument is that “a question can become a sophisticated and potent tool to expand minds, inspire new ideas, and give us surprising power at moments when we might not believe we have any.”

On energy and climate change, we’ve got some basic, fundamental questions we think the candidates need to answer. We don’t pretend they’re comprehensive, and you’ve probably got some of your own. But we do think these set up the crucial choices that the nation has to make.

  • Demand for energy worldwide is expected to jump by a third between now and 2035, mainly due to population growth and booming economies in countries like China, India and the rest of the developing world. In other words, the world needs more energy at the same time that it desperately needs cleaner energy. What should the U.S. do to prepare for this?
  • What kind of cars do you envision Americans driving? Are we sticking with oil? If so, the Energy Department predicts  oil prices  are going to stay volatile  for the next 20 years. Or do you want to encourage a shift to alternatives like natural gas or electricity? If so, should the government play a role here, or should it be left to the private sector?
  • There’s really only a short list of fuels we use to produce electricity, and all of them have serious drawbacks. Coal emits the most global warming gases. Natural gas is cleaner, but our supply depends on using controversial techniques like fracking. Nuclear power doesn’t contribute to global warming, but it requires plenty of cooling water and comes with a waste problem that will last for thousands of years. Alternatives like wind and solar don’t have these same risks, but they’re  more expensive, and right now, they only provide only a fraction of our energy. Where should we place our bets? Should government try to encourage some of these sources, and discourage others? Or, again, should we leave this completely to the private sector?

Because make no mistake about it, we will be placing bets on energy in the next four years. We can do it consciously, or we can let our current bets continue to ride (like our gradual shift to natural gas for electricity). But we’re making bets on our future. And it’ll be much better if all of us understood how candidates think we should make those bets, and how much of our money is likely to be on the table.