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Up and Down the Learning Curve

October 12, 2008, New York Times, Up and Down the Learning Curve, editorial.

The cramped rules of the presidential debates and the McCain campaign’s descent into content-free name-calling mean that voters are unlikely to hear the serious debate about energy issues they need and deserve.

Still, we have heard enough to know that there are big differences between John McCain and Barack Obama. We have also heard enough to know that Mr. Obama promises a much more robust and adventurous approach to the two big energy-related problems of the age: oil dependency and climate change.

Mr. Obama also keeps moving up the learning curve on energy issues, whereas Mr. McCain seems to regress. This is important because energy problems are varied and complex, and solving them will require leaders with restless curiosity and an open mind.

Not too long ago, Mr. Obama seemed infatuated with the environmentally risky idea of converting coal to gasoline. He dropped it when scientists pointed out that unless ways could be found to capture the carbon emissions, the conversion process would add to global warming. As recently as two months ago, Mr. Obama was pandering to voters with short-term fixes for gas prices like tapping the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

His present strategy is coherent and farsighted. Mr. Obama says he would limit carbon emissions with a strong cap and trade program, invest heavily in alternative energy sources, raise federal fuel-economy standards and require that 10 percent of America’s energy be generated by renewable sources by 2012. He would help Detroit develop more fuel-efficient cars with loans and tax credits, and — to the annoyance of some environmentalists — he rightly includes nuclear energy as part of the mix.

In last week’s debate, Mr. McCain said airily that he would do “all of the above.” But within minutes he had reaffirmed that the centerpiece of his strategy is to drill for more oil, mainly in previously off-limits areas of the outer continental shelf.

This politically seductive idea is flawed on three counts. It will not provide short-term relief to gas prices. It will make a minimal long-term contribution to America’s energy needs. And it ignores a fundamental truth that Mr. Obama confronted squarely in the debate: a nation using one-fourth of the world’s oil production while owning only 3 percent of the world’s reserves cannot drill its way to energy independence.

Mr. McCain’s other big idea — nuclear power — also promises too much. Both candidates agree that because nuclear power is carbon-neutral it has to be part of any serious effort to reduce global warming. But in the debate Mr. McCain glossed over formidable problems of cost, safety and waste disposal, meanwhile suggesting that the public was clamoring for nuclear power and that dozens of plants could pop up practically overnight.

The old John McCain — the McCain who pressed to sharply increase fuel efficiency, the early and brave advocate of putting a price on carbon emissions — has all but disappeared from view.

The saddest evidence of that was his choice of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska as his running mate. Astonishingly, he claims that Ms. Palin “knows more about energy than probably anyone in the United States,” and if Ms. Palin is to be believed, he has more or less anointed her as his energy czar.

Ms. Palin’s strategy is frighteningly simplistic: drill for more oil. Any doubt on that score was erased in the vice presidential debate, when she delightedly corrected Senator Joseph Biden about the party’s new slogan. He had complained that the Republicans stood for “drill, drill, drill.” No, she said, it’s “drill, baby, drill.”

It is true that nearly every Alaska politician likes to drill for oil; it is the source of much of the state’s income. But no other Alaska politician is this close to the presidency. Meanwhile, Ms. Palin continues to express doubts about the human causes of climate change. Her insistence, in the debate, that she didn’t “want to argue about the causes” was also alarming.

Unless we recognize the human causes of climate change, the essential changes in the way this country and others produce and consume energy are unlikely to happen. The old, pre-Sarah-Palin, John McCain knew that.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

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