In case you missed it, Ken Bone's question raised legit concerns about energy

This story appears in the Election 2016 feature series. View the full series.

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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The question at Sunday night’s presidential debate, and the responses it drew from the candidates, were mostly lost in the birth of the internet’s newest out-of-nowhere, election-year sensation, Kenneth Bone. And of course, his red sweater.

Before he became an inspiration of Halloween costumes, a guest on Jimmy Kimmel and a Twitter force with 240,000 followers, Bone, a coal plant operator from Illinois, offered the second-to-last audience interrogation at the debate held at Washington University in St. Louis. It was also the first of any of this election cycle’s presidential or vice-presidential face-offs dealing directly with energy or the environment. [The first presidential debate briefly touched on energy issues during a question about job creation.]

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the environment, and along with it, climate change, has drawn scant attention in the primary forums for the American people to hear from their candidates. For one, discussion on numerous issues, including immigration, have fallen to the wayside while the candidates and moderators have focused on addressing each’s failings and controversies. Second, the environment routinely ranks low among priority issues for U.S. voters: a June Pew survey found 52 percent of registered voters saying it was “very important” to their presidential vote, 12th among a list of 14 issues (similarly, Catholics also placed it 12th, with 53 percent rating it “very important”). This all while the global community just five days before the debate turned its attention to the ratification of the Paris Agreement, the international climate pact that officially enters into force four days before polls open on Nov. 8.

But by asking his question -- we’ll get to that in a moment -- Bone bumped the energy issue higher than it reached during the 2012 round of debates, when for the first time since 1984 climate change went unaddressed in the candidate forums.

“I thought that was a really good question, and something that we need to wrestle with,” Dan Misleh, director of the Catholic Climate Covenant, told NCR.

So what did social media’s newest star Ken Bone actually ask? Here’s an excerpt from Politifact’s debate transcript, in case you missed it:

[CNN MODERATOR ANDERSON] COOPER: We have one more question from Ken Bone about energy policy. Ken?

QUESTION: What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?

The question was nuanced in its construction, melding three aspects into a single asking: America’s energy future, environmental protection and the workers who have built their lives, communities and cultures around the mining of coal, oil and natural gas. Those workers are at greatest risk from a mass-transition away from the fossil fuel industry -- one fueled primarily by market forces but also environmental regulations, including the in-limbo Clean Power Plan.

More: “What’s happening after coal? Encyclical arrives amid tough times for industry” (Nov. 10, 2015)

Republican nominee Donald Trump had first dibs:

COOPER: Mr. Trump, two minutes?

TRUMP: Absolutely. I think it’s such a great question, because energy is under siege by the Obama administration. Under absolutely siege. The EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, is killing these energy companies. And foreign companies are now coming in buying our — buying so many of our different plants and then re-jiggering the plant so that they can take care of their oil.

We are killing — absolutely killing our energy business in this country. Now, I’m all for alternative forms of energy, including wind, including solar, et cetera. But we need much more than wind and solar.

And you look at our miners. Hillary Clinton wants to put all the miners out of business. There is a thing called clean coal. Coal will last for 1,000 years in this country. Now we have natural gas and so many other things because of technology. We have unbelievable —  we have found over the last seven years, we have found tremendous wealth right under our feet. So good. Especially when you have $20 trillion in debt.

I will bring our energy companies back. They’ll be able to compete. They’ll make money. They’ll pay off our national debt. They’ll pay off our tremendous budget deficits, which are tremendous. But we are putting our energy companies out of business. We have to bring back our workers.

You take a look at what’s happening to steel and the cost of steel and China dumping vast amounts of steel all over the United States, which essentially is killing our steelworkers and our steel companies. We have to guard our energy companies. We have to make it possible.

The EPA is so restrictive that they are putting our energy companies out of business. And all you have to do is go to a great place like West Virginia or places like Ohio, which is phenomenal, or places like Pennsylvania and you see what they’re doing to the people, miners and others in the energy business. It’s a disgrace.

COOPER: Your time is up. Thank you.

TRUMP: It’s an absolute disgrace.

Next was Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton:

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, two minutes.

CLINTON: And actually — well, that was very interesting. First of all, China is illegally dumping steel in the United States and Donald Trump is buying it to build his buildings, putting steelworkers and American steel plants out of business. That’s something that I fought against as a senator and that I would have a trade prosecutor to make sure that we don’t get taken advantage of by China on steel or anything else.

You know, because it sounds like you’re in the business or you’re aware of people in the business — you know that we are now for the first time ever energy-independent. We are not dependent upon the Middle East. But the Middle East still controls a lot of the prices. So the price of oil has been way down. And that has had a damaging effect on a lot of the oil companies, right? We are, however, producing a lot of natural gas, which serves as a bridge to more renewable fuels. And I think that’s an important transition.

We’ve got to remain energy-independent. It gives us much more power and freedom than to be worried about what goes on in the Middle East. We have enough worries over there without having to worry about that.

So I have a comprehensive energy policy, but it really does include fighting climate change, because I think that is a serious problem. And I support moving toward more clean, renewable energy as quickly as we can, because I think we can be the 21st century clean energy superpower and create millions of new jobs and businesses.

But I also want to be sure that we don’t leave people behind. That’s why I’m the only candidate from the very beginning of this campaign who had a plan to help us revitalize coal country, because those coal miners and their fathers and their grandfathers, they dug that coal out. A lot of them lost their lives. They were injured, but they turned the lights on and they powered their factories. I don’t want to walk away from them. So we’ve got to do something for them.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton…

CLINTON: But the price of coal is down worldwide. So we have to look at this comprehensively.

COOPER: Your time is up.

CLINTON: And that’s exactly what I have proposed. I hope you will go to and look at my entire policy.

The discussion lasted roughly five minutes of the 90-minute debate, and at least in the case of Bone, didn’t provide enough insight to fully sway his undecided vote one way or another.

On climate change, Clinton connected it to her energy policy, and further discussed the issue Tuesday in Florida; Trump left the issue untouched.

In the past, he has stated climate change is a hoax concocted by the Chinese. He denied he said that during the first presidential debate, despite numerous past tweets from him stating just that:

The vast majority of climate scientists -- 97 percent -- say that climate change is occurring and is primarily the result of human activity.

Trump has also stated he would cancel the Paris Agreement if elected president. As for his 1,000-years-of-coal claim, a June report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration said that U.S. coal reserves recoverable with current technology would last just under 256 years. A 2007 National Academy of Sciences report was less optimistic, saying known deposits could meet energy needs for 100 more years.

“In some ways, I think Donald Trump is right, we do need a kind of all-of-the-above approach,” Misleh said, “but we certainly can’t burn all of the coal that’s in the ground and still maintain a habitable planet. I think the scientists are pretty clear about that.”

To meet the 2 degrees Celsius temperature rise goal outlined in the Paris Agreement, 80 percent of the world’s coal reserves would need to remain in the ground, according to the study published last year in the journal Nature. Burning coal emits more carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas contributing to climate change, than any other fuel source.  

As Clinton alluded, her website includes a plan for revitalizing coal communities, with a $30 billion investment to diversify its economy through infrastructure improvements, repurposing of abandoned mines, and expanding energy production from other resources, such as wind and hydroelectric dams. It also calls for investments in internet access, education, training, housing and health -- including securing miners' promised retirement benefits and reforming the federal black lung benefit program.

Much of that plan, though, has been buried under a soundbite readymade for political ads where she said “We're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.”

The remarks, from a CNN Town Hall back in March, cut off Clinton’s longer response to a question about why white poor people should vote for her. She answered in part:

“So for example, I'm the only candidate which has a policy about how to bring economic opportunity using clean renewable energy as the key into coal country. Because we're going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business, right?

“And we're going to make it clear that we don't want to forget those people. Those people labored in those mines for generations, losing their health, often losing their lives to turn on our lights and power our factories.

“Now we've got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don't want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce the energy that we relied on.”

Like the out-of-context Clinton coal quote, much of the discussion among the candidates around energy and climate change has yet to dig deep into the core of the issues, Misleh said.

“I find it very distressing that there’s not a lot of talk about the issue of climate change and our responsibility to creation and to the poor in either camp. So that’s just disappointing,” he said.

That’s part of the reason the Catholic Climate Covenant designed its annual Feast of St. Francis (Oct. 4) program around not only lowering carbon footprints but facilitating less polarized and confrontational conversations about climate change. A challenge at any point in the U.S., but even more so during an election year.

“It just seems like it’s gotten a little bit out of control,” Misleh said. “So we’re trying to have some civil discussions about what’s good for everybody, not just for your candidate or my community, but what’s really good for the nation, and frankly, the world.”

The program, titled “Dial Down the Heat: Cultivate the Common Good for our Common Home” is available through the Covenant’s website, and while promoted around the St. Francis feast, relevant to hold at any point.

The program provides materials to help conduct civil dialogue on climate change, including a frequently asked questions document and another focused on how to guide conversations when questions arise about the legitimacy of the science or why the church involves itself with climate concerns at all. It also lays out ground rules for dialogue, chief among them start with prayer, listen and “be in conversation, not confrontation.”

The Catholic Climate Covenant answers the "Why does the church care?" question this way: “The Church has a role to play in bridging the polarized divide by helping us create common ground, energize Congress into action, and remind us all to listen to everyone as ‘children of God.’ ”

An accompanying video initiates the conversation through the images and words of communities dealing with climate change right now: a Bolivian community near Lake Poopo, the country’s second largest lake that has gone dry; people in Dulac and Slidell along Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, where marshland is disappearing underneath rising sea levels; and indigenous people on the Pacific island of Tuvalu, where hide tide rises 5 meters each year, leading to migration and land purchasing in places such as New Zealand.

Through programs like “Dial Down the Heat,” Misleh and others hope that climate change can move away from its current politicized state and into a context reflecting the challenges facing real people today as well as those coming in future years, and the real solutions to address them. Misleh is set to speak at a “Dial Down the Heat” event Oct. 30 hosted by the Washington, D.C. archdiocese’s creation care team.

Twelve days before that, the final debate will take place, Oct. 19. The return to the traditional format means that any further discussion on climate, civil or not, before the American viewing public will have to come at the prompting of the moderators, and not the next Ken Bone.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

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