(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
The cringe-inducing catfight about oil drilling in the second US presidential debate reminded us how carefully both candidates have avoided the topic of climate change.
Those two words weren't mentioned once, unlike “gas” (30 times). The candidates touched on oil and gas policy in the third debate, but without voicing any concerns about the fact that fossil fuels produce greenhouse-gas emissions.
That's because well-financed voices with a big stake in America's wasteful status quo have successfully stigmatised global warming.
President Barack Obama pushes an “all of the above” strategy that includes increasing domestic extraction of oil, gas and coal, along with generous incentives for nuclear (tainted, thanks to the Fukushima disaster) and for renewables like wind and solar.
That allows Republican nominee Mitt Romney to bring up the half-billion-dollar federal investment in the failed Solyndra LLC solar producer. He correctly points out that these renewables are very expensive and won't replace much conventional energy in the short term.
Romney promotes “clean coal,” a product that doesn't exist. The president, meanwhile, failed to defend his own Environmental Protection Agency, which has taken the belated step of trying to rein-in the dirtiest coal plants.
While Romney touts his business expertise, he plans to repeal the laws of supply and demand. For example, he wants “energy independence.” But America exports oil as well as imports it, and the global market is setting the price, not the president. (That's why gas is near records even as US production has grown.)
When America continues to use about one fourth of the world's oil output, it is vulnerable to supply and price gyrations, whether from Iran's saber rattling or the galloping appetite for energy of China and India.
Romney says he could be “Mr. Oil, Mr. Gas, Mr. Coal.” He would accelerate US greenhouse-gas emissions (which have declined a bit). The evidence grows more solid every day that we must cut them substantially.
How many fish and shellfish populations must die due to carbon-induced ocean acidity? How many forests must succumb to pests unleashed by warmer winters? How many agricultural regions must fail? How many low-lying cities must flood?
Yet solutions are staring us in the face: energy efficiency and conservation.
Buildings create 40 percent of US greenhouse gasses. Even in a political environment hostile to conservation, the greenest buildings typically deploy two dozen energy-saving tactics to affordably cut energy use by 50 percent or more. (Buildings can achieve “net zero” energy use by adding wind or solar, but typically at much higher cost.)
Conservation isn't as sexy as solar because it's not a magic bullet. You squeeze out wasteful energy use in all kinds of ways.
Architects shape the building to avoid drawing in too much heat from the sun (essentially free). Builders seal gaps around doors (almost free). Exterior wall specialists install automated systems to open windows and switch off lights as weather permits (trading upfront dollars for a hefty payback).
Green buildings mainstream innovation in windows, glass, mechanical systems, lighting, sensors, insulation, control systems and more, all of which can provide jobs.
Government policies can inspire conservation-focused building-industry transformation without having to place all the incentives in one Solyndra-style basket.
Auto efficiency is another bright spot. Transportation accounts for 33 percent of US emissions. Already you can buy a 40 mpg conventionally powered auto that's no austere econobox. People are flocking to high-mileage vehicles, taking charge of their energy expenditures rather than expecting the federal government to do it.
Which brings me to transit and the ongoing lust for highway building.
Dense city and suburban downtowns lower energy use and nurture the deep collaborations demanded by today's business complexity. These links can't develop when workplaces must isolate themselves in acres of parking.
We could dramatically cut carbon emissions by shifting more freight from overburdened highways to a rationalised, updated national freight network. That's not even on the political radar screen.
Conservation continues to be treated condescendingly by the entire political class because too few people know how far it has come -- and what vast potential can be unleashed with incentives and applied research.
America does little to make conservation appealing. Government policy long ago chose “winners,” and they are coal, gas, and oil.
Along with well-documented direct subsidies, these industries get to pass on to everyone the cost of pollution, land despoliation, greenhouse-gas emissions, price volatility and the political and military complications of sourcing oil from countries that are not our friends.
If the drilling boom keeps moving from place to place, taxpayers will foot the bill for 21st-century ghost towns.