Sep 6, 2012 · 3 minutes

Climate change will continue to be a sticking point in this election, but Democratic politicians plan to advance clean tech issues by talking instead about an “innovation economy” that will create jobs and fuel economic development.

In a wide-ranging discussion on new energy hosted by Google at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, a panel of politicians described ways to overcome Republicans’ reluctance to take action on climate change.

“If you use the words ‘climate change’ specifically, folks who are quite conservative in the Senate right away will go into their camp,” said Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who will become chairman of the Senate's energy and natural resources committee, if the Democrats prevail in the election. “If you start the conversation by saying how important it is to see if we can find common ground on the value of a low-carbon economy, I think you’ve got a chance to start a different kind of discussion.”

Wyden was responding to a question from the audience about how Democrats could hope to advance a clean-energy agenda given the antipathy of some Republicans to the very idea that the planet’s climate is changing. In his nominee acceptance speech last week, Mitt Romney mocked President Obama’s climate change policies. “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet,” he said, stifling his own laughter. “My promise is to help you and your family.”

Graham Richard, a former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana and now the CEO of business organization Advanced Energy Economy, said language does matter. The vast majority of legislators – Republican, Democrat, and Independent – support the idea of an innovation economy, he said. “If we’re going to get to a point where we’re depoliticizing the energy economy, we’ve got to find practical language.”

In his speech to the convention last night, former President Bill Clinton emphasized the importance of innovation to the country’s future. In endorsing Obama, he said: “I want a man who believes with no doubt that we can build a new American Dream economy, driven by innovation and creativity, by education and – yes – by cooperation.”

But the Democrats may find their message about an innovation economy will be complicated by the GOP’s efforts to highlight how government involvement in clean tech has faltered in the past. In his convention speech last week, Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan took square aim at the government’s stimulus funding of Solyndra, a Silicon Valley solar panels manufacturer that went bankrupt despite receiving half a billion dollars in government loans. Obama’s stimulus spending, Ryan said, “went to companies like Solyndra, with their gold-plated connections, subsidized jobs, and make-believe markets.”

Part of the problem with Solyndra, Senator Wyden said in an interview after the panel, is that it was considered in the same category as other technologies that had already picked up private sector support and had guaranteed customers from day one. “I was just stunned in the evaluation post-Solyndra to see essentially all of this dumped into one bucket with no real distinction in terms of how you look at these,” Wyden said.

If he assumes the role of chair of the Senate’s energy committee, he will review the way loans and grants are given to clean energy companies. He said he wants to emphasize an approach that “favors disruptive innovation”.

“It’s time to start looking at this in terms of a risk-reward kind of approach, so that we can ensure that we can squeeze every dollar of value out of these loans and grants, and also operate on the assumption that, as these promising technologies mature, they graduate and the resources that would be available to them give way to another area.”