OK, class, it's time for another news quiz. I'll give you the question and you tell me who asked it and why it was significant. Ready? Here goes:
"Mr. President, how would you rate yourself as an environmentalist? What specifically has your administration done to improve the condition of our nation's air and water supply?"
You'll never get it. The questioner was James Hubb, a member of the audience at the second presidential debate between George W. Bush and John Kerry at Washington University in St. Louis on Oct. 8, 2004.
What's the significance? It was the only direct question about energy or environmental policy that was posed in any of the three presidential debates in 2004. Hard to believe when you consider the salience of these issues today. Is it any wonder we still don't have a serious energy policy?
We can't afford to make this mistake again. In this election cycle, we need to hold a "Green Debate," devoted only to energy and environmental questions. I would suggest Tulane University in New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2007 - the second anniversary of Katrina. That would give the candidates, Republicans and Democrats, all summer to develop positions, and it would give the voters all fall to examine them before the big primaries in February 2008.
I would like to see each party's candidates questioned separately, so Republican voters and Democrats can each focus on their primary candidates. The questioning should be done by a three-person panel consisting of one climate scientist, one energy investor and one college student, because young people will be the ones most affected by global warming.
We can't let ethanol-promoting farmers in Iowa determine our energy policy anymore by virtue of the early Iowa primary. For too long, all we've had in this country is energy politics, not energy policy, and that is why we have this incoherent mess of energy systems, standards and fuels.
"A new conversation has started in the country - a new energy economy is what the people want," said Carl Pope, director of the Sierra Club. To get there, though, we need to force politicians to start thinking about going "green" as part of our national security strategy, as a Plan B for disengaging from Iraq and still driving reform in the Middle East, as an economic opportunity, as a way to restore U.S. leadership, and as an answer for climate change.
Since addressing all these issues will require a carbon tax, or a really serious cap-and-trade system, or tighter mileage and efficiency standards - i.e., sacrifice - we need our candidates to be talking about such things in the campaign so they have a mandate to act if elected.
A group of environmental entrepreneurs, including Andrew Shapiro of GreenOrder and Jesse Fink of Marshall Street Management, just created a Web site, GreenPrimary.org, to host online forums where, after the Green Debate, voters can study the different candidates' policy positions and even vote for the one they think is most serious. "The 2008 presidential campaign will present the first opportunity for a national candidate to make sustainability a breakthrough electoral issue," Shapiro argues.
The biggest energy deficit we have right now in the U.S. is the energy to lead on this issue - to overcome all of the entrenched interests that have tied us in knots and left our country with what energy expert Gal Luft calls "the sum of all lobbies" instead of the sum of the best energy practices.
The best way to overcome that is to elevate the issue during the campaign to a level that forces everyone to put a serious energy/environment platform on the table and builds a real mandate for the next president.
Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for the New York Times, can be reached at New York Times, editorial department, 229 W. 43rd St., New York, NY 10036.