01/27/2015 06:46 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Mandatory Questions for the 2016 Election

None of the candidates in the last presidential election said much about climate change or the clean energy imperative, not even Barack Obama. We cannot allow that to happen again. The media, the Commission on Presidential Debates, young people and voters at large need to nail down every candidate this time on what he or she would do about these two increasingly urgent issues.

With the air already full of trial balloons and potential candidates already presenting themselves like debutantes, the 2016 campaign has begun. So it is not too soon to begin grilling the hopefuls on what they would do about the mother of all environmental and national security issues --climate change -- and the world's necessary transition to clean energy. The quality as well as the content of their answers should help determine who is worthy to run, to be nominated and to be elected.

In addition to questions on climate change itself, every candidate should be compelled to address the array of issues that underlie it, including what to do about energy subsidies, whether the United States should ratify an international climate treaty, and the obvious fact that America's energy policy is the result of elected officials acquiescing to the fossil fuel oligarchy - the oiligarchy, if you will. It may seem cynical to say so, but it is apparent that the dominant federal energy policies today are not about national security, energy independence, public health, economic competitiveness or the preservation of a hospitable planet. At root, they are about profit and power and the determination of the oiligarchs to keep and acquire more of both.

The undue power of vested energy interests brings to mind President Eisenhower's parting caution in 1960 about the military-industrial complex. "In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence," he said. "The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

The next two years of Congress also will be instructive, particularly about the Republican majority's willingness and abilities to be leaders rather than slaves of the Far Right, or special interests, or the insatiable appetite for show votes and show trials, or the preoccupation with winning over governing. Most climate activists undoubtedly regard Republican control of Congress as a major setback, and from the standpoint of more delays we can ill afford, it is. But we should also see it as an undiluted test of whether reasonable Republicans are able to take back control of their party and whether their approaches to governance work when nothing short of a rapid clean energy revolution can prevent a future that no one in his or her right mind, let alone an ostensible national leader, would wish on the American people. Or any people, for that matter.

Over the next few months, I will blog about the issues I believe all of the 2016 prospective and declared candidates must address. For starters, here are some of the questions we should be asking them:

1. If you are an advocate of free energy markets, how do you reconcile that position with the fact that free energy markets do not exist and never have? More specifically, will you support the elimination of the fossil energy subsidies that have long distorted energy markets? If not, why not?

2. The government's fiscal policies, including many beyond the tax code, contain myriad incentives that have the perverse effect of encouraging greenhouse gas emissions. One example is the low rate the government charges oil and gas companies for production in federal lands. What will you do to de-carbonize federal fiscal policy?

3. Will you support a price on carbon to allow energy markets to work more efficiently? If so, what kind of carbon price will you support?

4. As you know, the U.S. Senate must give its "advice and consent" to an international treaty before a president can ratify it. In 1997, the Senate passed a resolution declaring that it would not endorse a climate treaty unless developing nations as well as developed nations committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. The international community hopes to agree on just such a treaty this December. Will you encourage the Senate to consent to it?

5. The same Senate resolution stated that any international climate agreement should include a detailed analysis of the economic impacts of compliance. If Congress considers the cost of mitigating climate change, shouldn't it also consider the costs of doing nothing?

6. Public opinion research shows consistently that a large bipartisan majority of the American people wants more renewable energy, less fossil energy and federal leadership to confront climate change. Nevertheless, Congress has given only temporary support to renewable energy while subsidizing fossil energy for generations and failing to enact a climate policy. What will you do to close this gap between what the majority of the American people wants and what Congress is willing to do?

It would be a perversion of the democratic process to allow the next candidates for the presidency and Congress to avoid these questions. It would be irresponsible for us to nominate or elect anyone for those high offices without knowing his or her answers. Don't take it from me; take it from Thomas Jefferson's writings on the importance of an informed and educated electorate.

"The most effectual means of preventing (the perversion of power into tyranny are) to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large," he wrote. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government (but) if a nation expects to be ignorant and free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be..."

As though speaking to today's climate deniers, he wrote, "Freedom is the first-born daughter of science...Science is important to the preservation of republican government...No nation is permitted to live in ignorance with impunity."

This could be an informative and exciting election cycle, if we all choose to make it so.

Blogger's Note: The quotes from Thomas Jefferson come from several different writings combined here for the sake of brevity. The public opinion research cited above includes "the most comprehensive and prolonged assessment of American public opinion about energy" to date, conducted last fall by the MIT Energy Initiative and the Harvard University Center on the Environment. If you have energy and climate related questions that you think the candidates should be compelled to answer, submit them as comments on this post.