During the second presidential debate, Ken Bone and his huggable red sweater became an overnight sensation. But as the hype hurricane that produced Ken Bone GIFs and Halloween costumes gained strength, Americans largely lost sight of how the man became an instant folk hero: he asked a question about energy. This obsession with the questioner and scant attention paid to the question is an apt representation of energy issues during this election cycle and of a nationwide tendency to avoid delving into energy and climate issues.
Bone’s 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?”) packaged up the chief concerns that Americans have around energy: reliable supply, environmental protection, and economic impact. Weeks later, it remains the only point in this wacky election season at which crucial issues surrounding energy received the attention they deserved.
Climate change, which Bone acknowledged as scientific fact during his post-debate star turn, is the most important energy-related issue of them all. It is driven in large part by human activities that generate (power plants) and use (cars) energy. In September, the concentration of carbon dioxide in earth’s atmosphere was at the highest sustained level ever recorded. This means the effects of climate change—more frequent and intense extreme weather events and rising sea levels, for example—are only going to get worse in the short term.
Despite this urgent state of affairs we’re just not talking about it. Researchers from Yale and George Mason Universities dubbed this phenomenon the “Spiral of Silence.” According to their study, 67 percent of Americans are moderately or very interested in climate change, but 70 percent rarely or never discuss the topic with family and friends. With so much at stake, why does the American public keep ignoring climate and energy?
There’s a certain lack of “wow” factor when it comes to energy and climate issues. But even a shallow dive into the latest news on clean energy technology and innovations to combat climate change shows that there is a lot of “wow”-worthy stuff going on in the world of energy. From beautiful clean-energy-generating wind trees to making energy from garbage to a solar-powered plane flying around the world, the future of energy is as exciting as it is complex and diverse.
Although no one technological or scientific innovation will solve America’s energy problems or put climate change in check, many of them will contribute to solutions that make our shared future safer and brighter. Perhaps if a presidential candidate captured the nation’s imagination with descriptions of skyscrapers that produce food with a fraction of the energy used on factory farms, or underwater turbines that harness the power of ocean tides, voters’ wonder and optimism would open up new conversations about how to put those amazing technologies to their best use. Maybe focusing on the most promising (or most impressive) solutions to energy and climate problems is the best way to break our bad habit of avoiding these important topics and force our political leaders to do the same.