MTV's Sway Just Asked Obama a Climate Change Question. Here's What He Said.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Oct. 26 2012 7:15 PM

MTV's Sway Just Asked Obama the Climate Question Everyone's Been Waiting For

MTV's Sway
Sway.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for BET

Jim Lehrer didn't do it. Martha Raddatz didn't do it. Candy Crowley "almost" did it. Bob Schieffer wishes he had been able to do it.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Sway Calloway, a DJ and media personality known for giving rappers Eminem and Notorious B.I.G. their first radio airplay, finally did it. In an interview with President Obama that aired on MTV on Friday evening, Sway asked a question about climate change.

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"Until this year, global climate change has been discussed in every presidential debate since 1988," Sway said, sitting with Obama in the White House's Blue Room. (That's not exactly right—he should have said it's been asked in at least one debate in every presidential campaign cycle since 1988. But close enough.) "It was a big part of your previous campaign but has been pushed back on the back burner. Given the urgency of the threat, do you feel that we're moving quickly enough on this issue, number one? And number two, Samatha from New Jersey wants to know, what will you do to make it a priority?"

The short answers: No, we're not moving quickly enough. And no, I'm not really going to do anything in particular to make it a priority.

I've transcribed Obama's response in full:

Well the answer is, number one, we're not moving as fast as we need to. And this is an issue that future generations, MTV viewers, are going to have to be dealing with even more than the older generation is. And so this is a critical issue. And there's a huge contrast in this campaign between myself and Governor Romney. I'm surprised it didn't come up in one of the debates.
Governor Romney says he believes in climate change. That's different than a lot of the members of his own party who just deny it completely. But he says he's not sure that man-made causes are the reason. I believe scientists, who say that we're putting too much carbon emissions into the atmostphere, and it's heating the planet, and it's going to have a severe effect.
So there are a couple things that we have already done over the last four years. Number one, we doubled fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks. That's the first increase in 30 years in the fuel-mileage standards. And as a consequence we'll be taking huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, even as we're also saving folks money at the pump and reducing our dependence on foreign oil. We've doubled clean-energy production: wind, solar, biofuels. And that means that increasingly people are getting—you know, electricity companies are generating power without the use of carbon-producing fuels. And that's helping as well. The next step is to deal with buildings and really ramp up our efficiency in buildings. You know, if we had the same energy efficiency as Japan, we would cut our energy use by about 20 percent. And that means we'd be taking a whole lot of carbon out of our atmosphere. And if we do those things, we can meet the targets that I negotiated with other countries in Copenhagen to bring our carbon emissions down by about 17 percent, even as we're creating good jobs in these industries.
In order for us to solve the whole problem, though, we're going to have to have some technological breakthroughs. Because countries like China and India, they're building coal-fired power plants. You know, they feel that they have to prioritize getting people out of poverty ahead of climate change. So what we have to do is help them and help ourselves by continuing to put money into research and technology about how do we really get the new sources of power that are going to make a difference.

A follow-up would have been nice. If you believe that green building standards alone are going to result in a 17 percent reduction in carbon emissions, then Obama might have a LEED-certified bridge to sell you. But at least he acknowledged that the emissions-reduction targets are still on the radar screen, even if he doesn't have a real plan to meet them.

A real plan would probably involve taking another shot at serious climate legislation, such as cap-and-trade or a carbon tax, an idea that died very early in Obama's first term. And it's noteowrthy that Obama didn't even mention the most serious effort that his administration is in fact taking, which is regulating carbon emissions through the EPA. That effort, branded a "war on coal" by Romney and other Republicans, is a sensitive subject in southeastern Ohio, where Obama desperately needs votes on Nov. 6.

Meanwhile, he seemed to stand by his policy of investing in alternative-energy technology, a program that has met with mixed results (and unrelenting Republican opposition). That's something that would almost surely end under a Romney administration.

MTV says it has reached out to Romney for a similar interview. If that happens, here's hoping Sway puts the same question to him.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.