from Energy, Security, and Climate and Energy Security and Climate Change Program

Five Reasons to Talk Energy and Climate at the Foreign Policy Debate

October 22, 2012

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Climate Change

Saudi Arabia

The moderator of tonight’s foreign policy debate has released a list of the topics he will focus on, and neither energy nor climate are there. This has, not surprisingly, not gone unnoticed. Indeed one need look no further than Hilary Clinton’s sweeping speech last Thursday on “Energy Diplomacy in the 21st Century” to confirm that energy and foreign policy are deeply intertwined. Here are five reasons that energy and climate should be part of tonight’s debate:

  1. Energy has been central to the biggest foreign policy issue of the campaign: Iran. A big part of the “crippling sanctions” that both candidates talk about have focused on Iranian oil exports. These have been made possible through a mix of concerted diplomacy and surprising gains in oil output in the United States and elsewhere. Are these sorts sanctions a model for the future? Can they be tightened further without risking the U.S. economy? Since Iran is certain to be a focus of debate, this may be the one energy subject that actually comes up tonight.
  2. Climate change is a really big global problem. You don’t need to be convinced of impending doom to believe this – you just need to accept that we’re running some pretty large risks. When the moderator of the last debate half-apologized to “the climate people” for not touching on the subject,  she revealed something important: too many people think about climate change as a special interest issue. It isn’t, and the candidates’ approaches deserve to be debated. This one is simple to tee off: just ask each candidate what he’d do.
  3. It’s easy to forget, but when the Arab Spring swept the Middle East a year and a half ago, alarm bells were ringing over the possibility that the spreading turmoil would wreak havoc on oil markets and send the economy back into recession. In the end, the U.S. and others released emergency oil, but the disruptions remained limited. How would the two candidates respond to a major Middle East disruption – perhaps originating in Saudi Arabia – down the road? What would they do today to prevent such an eventuality, and to prepare to weather one that nonetheless occured?
  4. Those who aren’t seized with the importance of dealing with climate change on its merits should still be concerned: U.S. allies around the world care about what the United States does. Europe remains fixated on the issue, and might reconsider carbon tariffs on the United States down the road. Scores of countries in Asia and Africa care deeply about what climate change will do to their safety and prosperity – and the United States is battling with China for their allegiance. Do the candidates think that these concerns matter? How would they deal with them?
  5.  Both candidates talk regularly about energy independence. The first two debates gave them ample opportunity to contrast their approaches to domestic energy and to reducing oil imports. But “energy independence” is inherently a foreign policy issue – that’s what “independence” is all about. What dividends do the two candidates believe their domestic energy policies would deliver internationally? Do they think that the United States could reduce its presence in the Middle East? Stop defending sea lanes around the world? Scale back its diplomacy with oil and gas producing powers? Would the candidates’ policies give the United States a strategic advantage over China? Or is “energy independence” just a simple way of describing higher U.S. oil and gas production? Inquiring minds want to know.