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The presidential campaigns haven’t had much to say about climate change, with energy policy taking a backseat to other issues for the two candidates. That changed at least for a few minutes last Friday at MIT, as the domestic policy advisor to Mitt Romney and a former special assistant for energy and the environment in Barack Obama’s administration debated energy policy and the role of government in promoting new energy sources.

In one of the most striking differences to play out during the debate, Oren Cass, Romney’s advisor, said his candidate thinks that government has no business reducing carbon emissions from coal—one of the most prevalent kinds of greenhouse gas emissions. Cass said Romney “believes climate change is occurring” and “believes human activity contributes to it.” But the candidate isn’t sure how much the climate is warming, how much humans are contributing to that, or what the impact will be. Romney says further scientific study is needed.

In sharp contrast, Obama’s advisor, Joseph Aldy, said his candidate continues to support limits on carbon dioxide emissions—and will push for them with or without the support of Congress. Obama believes that the science is clear enough to say that climate change is a serious problem, and more needs to be done about it than funding R&D.

At times, it seemed the campaign representatives  were not speaking the same language. While both candidates are on record for supporting “clean coal,” they appear to means something very different by the phrase. As an example of clean coal, Cass cited existing technology used by a new plant in Virginia that has low emissions of conventional pollutants like particulates. Aldy said Obama means technology that would also capture and store carbon dioxide, and that so far isn’t used at a large scale in coal plants because of its high cost.

The two representatives also made clear that the candidates have different strong views on how new clean-energy technology should be developed. Romney would limit government funding to research and development, and once beyond the R&D stage, any alternative technologies would need to fend for themselves in the marketplace.

Meanwhile, Obama supports a range of additional assists for clean energy, designed to support the testing and scale-up of technologies, including loan guarantees and grants. He also, Aldy said, supports policies meant to limit carbon dioxide emissions, whether a cap-and-trade program or a clean energy standard mandating that utilities use a certain percentage  of clean energy (see “Energy Innovation Under Romney and Obama”).

Aldy also made clear that if the president cannot get Congress to enact such approaches, he intends to work through the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide emissions the way other pollutants are regulated. “To be candid, if we’re going to make progress on this, we’re going to need some kind of work with Congress. And if we don’t, the President is going to continue to use the authority he has under the Clean Air Act,” he said.

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Tagged: Energy, carbon emissions, clean energy, clean coal, Clean Air Act, presidential debates

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