The three candidates for a U.S. Senate seat from Indiana were asked during their Monday debate what, if anything, the federal government should do about climate change and global warming.
Their answers did not satisfy the Bloomington resident who had submitted the question to the Indiana Debate Commission.
“I was very disappointed,” Lee Ehman, education professor emeritus at Indiana University, said Wednesday. “They basically deflected the question and started to talk about ethanol production, which is at best a zero-sum solution to climate change. It contributes as much as it does save, and they should know that.”
Ehman had company.
Jesse Kharbanda, executive director of the Hoosier Environmental Council, said, “Being silent on the major, Indiana-specific economic risks predicted from climate change – as these candidates did during the debate – is an abdication of leadership, showing weakness, not strength.”
Bruce Kingsbury, director of the Environmental Resources Center at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said the candidates “didn't actually address climate change very extensively. What they were focusing on instead, to me, were issues of energy independence and short-term economic benefit.”
Ehman's question was read by moderator Anne Ryder, who said the Indiana Debate Commission had received from the public more suggested queries about climate change than on any other subject.
Ryder noted that the day before the debate at Purdue University Northwest in LaPorte County, U.N. climate scientists had forecast “dire circumstances” if the world fails in the next 10 years to curb global warming caused by heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide.
Here, in part, is what the Senate candidates said the federal government should do about climate change, in the order they replied to the question at their televised debate:
“You can't do what the Democrats did and start picking winners and losers by trying to prop up industries that may be part of the long-term solution, but that's the way government works,” Republican challenger Mike Braun said, an apparent reference to a clean-energy loan program administered by President Barack Obama's White House.
“And we now have got energy independence, and that has got to be always taken into consideration while you're keeping the environment in healthy condition. I've lived it, that's why I'll know what to do,” said Braun, who owns an auto parts distribution company and timber lands and said he started an ecology club in high school.
Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly said: “Look, I am all in for American energy – for ethanol, for our farmers. They're having huge struggles with tariffs right now, and their prices have gone down. We need to make that ethanol market even more available and be used more. For wind, for solar, for clean coal – if it's made in America, we want to use it, and we want to make it so that we have a cleaner environment.”
Libertarian Lucy Brenton said: “We need a global cleanup effort to get the plastics and dirt out of our ocean. We need heme iron to seed our phytoplankton so that they're able to actually clean up the oceans for us.”
Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that consume carbon and are fertilized by iron.
Brenton also called for the widespread use of energy from hemp – a type of cannabis plant, as is marijuana – that advocates insist is a far more environmentally friendly biofuel than corn-containing ethanol.
“We need hemp, we need hemp, we need hemp,” Brenton said. “Why do we need hemp? Because it fixes carbon. Why do we need hemp? Because we don't need ethanol; that's just another government boondoggle that pays off its cronies.”
Donnelly said: “Look, we're Indiana; we fight for our farmers. Ethanol is a clean fuel. It's an extraordinarily good fuel. It is something that makes money go into pockets of our farmers instead of the sheikhs in Saudi Arabia or in the Middle East.”
PFW's Kingsbury said he was pleased that Donnelly mentioned renewable energy sources. But he said that although most energy sources have downsides – wind turbines kill birds and bats, for instance – the fossil fuel coal is not a “clean” source as Donnelly implied.
“There are cleaner ways of burning coal. There are dirtier versus cleaner coal sources, depending on the quality of the coal that gets used. But ultimately it's a polluter,” Kingsbury said in a telephone interview.
As for Braun's remark on the government “picking winners and losers,” Kingsbury said, “I look at these things as not picking and choosing but trying to establish a level playing field for anybody who wants to compete.”
He added: “I'm curious about why we subsidize nonrenewable energy. We still provide (public) funding to the oil industry. I don't know what the rationale for that is.”
Brenton's hemp “appears to have a lot of benefits” as a biofuel, Kingsbury said – as long as it's not grown in areas that would displace wetlands and wildlife.
Kingsbury said Brenton failed to explain how the government should remove plastic materials from oceans, and he questioned possible negative side effects of producing more carbon-eating phytoplankton, as Brenton recommended.
“The algal blooms that we see, like the red tides around Florida, are very problematic, and we really don't know what we do when we start messing with the ocean ecosystem,” he said.
Ehman suggested a proposal for cutting carbon dioxide levels that nobody at the debate brought up.
“If we had a carbon tax, the marketplace would force a lot of new technology and reduction in emissions,” he said in a phone interview.
Ehman, 79, said he is a member of the Citizens Climate Lobby and will be traveling to Capitol Hill on Nov. 12 – less than a week after the general election – to urge Indiana's federal lawmakers to support “carbon pricing” on industrial emissions.
The Hoosier Environmental Council's Kharbanda said in an email that Braun, Brenton and Donnelly “avoided putting forth any concrete public policies that would accelerate the urgent need to decarbonize our economy” during their hourlong debate.
“Solar energy jobs in Indiana have surpassed those in coal mining. With Indiana's innate strength in manufacturing, Indiana's promise of being a climate problem-solver is incredible,” he said.
“The candidates could have hit a home run on this critical question, answering it directly, precisely, and candidly, but instead gave responses that overwhelmingly side-stepped this absolutely central economic and environmental question. That is not leadership. That is not courage.”