Barack Obama and John McCain. Photo: Mark Humphrey / AP

The second 2008 presidential debate included a single, pointed question on global climate change from an audience member, but that didn’t stop both candidates from working the issue of energy independence into their responses to all sorts of questions throughout the 90-minute faceoff.

By and large, John McCain and Barack Obama stuck to their scripts on energy, arguing that the nation must invest more in alternative and renewable energy sources … and rely on traditional oil and coal sources. McCain repeatedly mentioned nuclear power, while Obama made the now-obligatory nod to “clean coal.”

But for a few minutes in the middle of it all, the debate touched specifically on climate change with a question from an audience member that produced very different answers from the candidates.

The question came from Ingrid Jackson: “Sen. McCain, I want to know, we saw that Congress moved pretty fast in the face of an economic crisis. I want to know what you would do within the first two years to make sure that Congress moves fast as far as environmental issues, like climate change and green jobs.”

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

McCain’s response nods at the importance of addressing climate change, but then goes on to stress that the United States needs to invest in a broad range of energy sources, particularly nuclear power. Here’s his response in full:

Well, thank you. Look, we are in tough economic times; we all know that. And let’s keep — never forget the struggle that Americans are in today. But when we can — when we have an issue that we may hand our children and our grandchildren a damaged planet, I have disagreed strongly with the Bush administration on this issue. I traveled all over the world looking at the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, Joe Lieberman and I.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.

And I introduced the first legislation, and we forced votes on it. That’s the good news, my friends. The bad news is we lost. But we kept the debate going, and we kept this issue to — to posing to Americans the danger that climate change opposes. Now, how — what’s — what’s the best way of fixing it? Nuclear power. Sen. Obama says that it has to be safe or disposable or something like that.

Look, I was on Navy ships that had nuclear power plants. Nuclear power is safe, and it’s clean, and it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs. And I know that we can reprocess the spent nuclear fuel. The Japanese, the British, the French do it. And we can do it, too. Sen. Obama has opposed that. We can move forward, and clean up our climate, and develop green technologies, and alternate — alternative energies for — for hybrid, for hydrogen, for battery-powered cars, so that we can clean up our environment and at the same time get our economy going by creating millions of jobs.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Obama, in his response to the same question, called for public investment in finding solutions to climate change, including support for wind, solar, and geothermal energy. He challenged McCain on his votes against renewables during his time in the Senate and directly countered the notion that drilling offshore is a solution to the nation’s energy concerns:

This is one of the biggest challenges of our times. And it is absolutely critical that we understand this is not just a challenge, it’s an opportunity, because if we create a new energy economy, we can create 5 million new jobs, easily, here in the United States. It can be an engine that drives us into the future the same way the computer was the engine for economic growth over the last couple of decades.

And we can do it, but we’re going to have to make an investment. The same way the computer was originally invented by a bunch of government scientists who were trying to figure out, for defense purposes, how to communicate, we’ve got to understand that this is a national security issue, as well. And that’s why we’ve got to make some investments and I’ve called for investments in solar, wind, geothermal. Contrary to what Sen. McCain keeps on saying, I favor nuclear power as one component of our overall energy mix.

But this is another example where I think it is important to look at the record. Sen. McCain and I actually agree on something. He said a while back that the big problem with energy is that for 30 years, politicians in Washington haven’t done anything. What Sen. McCain doesn’t mention is he’s been there 26 of them. And during that time, he voted 23 times against alternative fuels, 23 times. So it’s easy to talk about this stuff during a campaign, but it’s important for us to understand that it requires a sustained effort from the next president.

So far, the responses amount to the typical thrust and parry of the campaign, with the candidates jousting over political points and generalities about investing in alternative energy sources. But Obama, in directly taking on the Republicans’ pro-drilling talking points, talked quite frankly about the scope of the climate challenge:

One last point I want to make on energy. Sen. McCain talks a lot about drilling, and that’s important, but we have 3 percent of the world’s oil reserves and we use 25 percent of the world’s oil. So what that means is that we can’t simply drill our way out of the problem. And we’re not going to be able to deal with the climate crisis if our only solution is to use more fossil fuels that create global warming. We’re going to have to come up with alternatives, and that means that the United States government is working with the private sector to fund the kind of innovation that we can then export to countries like China that also need energy and are setting up one coal power plant a week. We’ve got to make sure that we’re giving them the energy that they need or helping them to create the energy that they need.

Later in the debate, Obama again stressed the scale of the climate and energy crisis, making clear that there are no easy fixes. His response was prompted by a questioner who asked the candidates what sacrifices they would ask every American to make “to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we’re now in.” Obama said:

Let’s take the example of energy, which we already spoke about. There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy. I believe in the need for increased oil production. We’re going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they’re not using, that either you use them or you lose them. We’re going to have to develop clean coal technology and safe ways to store nuclear energy.

But each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes, in our buildings. And one of the things I want to do is make sure that we’re providing incentives so that you can buy a fuel-efficient car that’s made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan or South Korea, making sure that you are able to weatherize your home or make your business more fuel efficient. And that’s going to require effort from each and every one of us.

Energy 101

Overall, Tuesday night’s debate seemed like one long discussion of the complex reality of energy markets, economic health, and national security. Pretty much the first sentence out of McCain’s mouth, responding to a question about how to address the economic crisis, was to mention energy independence. “I have a plan to fix this problem and it has got to do with energy independence,” said McCain. “We’ve got to stop sending $700 billion a year to countries that don’t like us very much.”

Later in the debate, McCain again referred to energy independence as key to addressing the economic crisis, pointing specifically to offshore drilling and nuclear power. “You’re going to be examining our proposals tonight and in the future, and energy independence is a way to do that, is one of them,” said McCain. “Drilling offshore and nuclear power are two vital elements of that. And I’ve been supporting those and I know how to fix this economy, and eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, and stop sending $700 billion a year overseas.”

Obama, too, mentioned energy as a key factor in fixing the economy: “We are going to have to deal with energy because we can’t keep on borrowing from the Chinese and sending money to Saudi Arabia. We are mortgaging our children’s future,” said Obama. “We’ve got to have a different energy plan.”

Moderator Tom Brokaw also asked the candidates about what their priorities will be in office: “Health policies, energy policies, and entitlement reform — what are going to be your priorities in what order? Which of those will be your highest priority your first year in office and which will follow in sequence?”

McCain responded first, arguing, “I think you can work on all three at once, Tom.” On the energy portion, he again touted nuclear energy, as well as renewables:

We can work on nuclear power plants. Build a whole bunch of them, create millions of new jobs. We have to have all of the above, alternative fuels, wind, tide, solar, natural gas, clean coal technology. All of these things we can do as Americans and we can take on this mission and we can overcome it. My friends, some of this $700 billion ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.

On that same question, Obama listed energy as his top priority:

We’re going to have to prioritize, just like a family has to prioritize … Energy we have to deal with today, because you’re paying $3.80 here in Nashville for gasoline, and it could go up. And it’s a strain on your family budget, but it’s also bad for our national security, because countries like Russia and Venezuela and, you know, in some cases, countries like Iran, are benefiting from higher oil prices.

So we’ve got to deal with that right away. That’s why I’ve called for an investment of $15 billion a year over 10 years. Our goal should be, in 10 years’ time, we are free of dependence on Middle Eastern oil. And we can do it. Now, when JFK said we’re going to the Moon in 10 years, nobody was sure how to do it, but we understood that if the American people make a decision to do something, it gets done. So that would be priority No. 1.

McCain at one point went after Obama on the now well-trod issue of the 2005 energy bill. “It was an energy bill on the floor of the Senate loaded down with goodies, billions for the oil companies, and it was sponsored by Bush and Cheney. You know who voted for it? You might never know. That one,” he said, gesturing toward Obama. “You know who voted against it? Me. I have fought time after time against these pork barrel — these bills that come to the floor and they have all kinds of goodies and all kinds of things in them for everybody and they buy off the votes.”

McCain continued with another call for increasing offshore drilling:

Also, on oil drilling, oil drilling offshore now is vital so that we can bridge the gap. We can bridge the gap between imported oil, which is a national security issue, as well as any other, and it will reduce the price of a barrel of oil, because when people know there’s a greater supply, then the cost of that will go down. That’s fundamental economics. We’ve got to drill offshore, my friends, and we’ve got to do it now, and we can do it.

The final debate, scheduled for Oct. 15, is intended to focus on domestic policy issues. If, as expected, the economy remains the dominant issue in the campaign, we may very well see McCain and Obama return again and again to energy issues. The question will be whether the moderator (CBS’s Bob Schieffer) can get them to drop their talking points in favor of a deeper discussion about the scope of the climate problem and the significant changes Americans need to make in how they consume energy.