The fossil fuel industry has had a Voldemort like quality for most of the general election: they are The Threat To The Planet That Shall Not Be Named. Despite all of Joe Biden’s rhetoric on climate, he rarely mentions the coal, oil, and gas corporations that are driving the problem. During the Democratic National Convention, speakers during the long segment on addressing the climate crisis didn’t utter the words “fossil fuels” once.
"That is a big statement." —Joe Biden
The conventional wisdom is that this is a smart strategy. As Michael Grunwald wrote in Politico yesterday, “Basically, Biden has accentuated the popular, focusing on climate dessert rather than climate spinach, portraying climate action as a job-creating, economy-boosting, relatively painless no-brainer for a warming world that’s already besieged by costly wildfires and storms.”
But at the debate last night, Biden finally talked about the need to eat some vegetables. It came up towards the end of the debate in the closing segment on climate change. Here was the exchange:
Trump: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
Biden: “Yes. I would transition.”
Trump: “That is a big statement.”
Biden: “That is a big statement.”
Trump: “Why would you do that?”
Biden: “Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly. … Because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry, I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”
Trump: “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Biden: “He takes everything out of context. But the point is, we have to move toward a net zero emissions. The first place to do that by the year 2035 is in energy production. By 2050: Totally.”
The Trump Campaign clearly thought they’d produced a slam-dunk gaff. Minutes after the debate, Trump had pinned to the top of his Twitter feed a video mashup of Biden talking about the need to transition away from fossil fuels, as if they’d caught him reading from the Communist Manifesto. This morning, the press has been full of headlines like this one in the Washington Post, “How politically damaging were Biden’s comments about closing down the oil industry?”
Polling and experience suggests: not damaging at all. This summer, Fossil Free Media commissioned a poll with Data for Progress that looked at voter attitudes around phasing out fossil fuels. Where most polls only ask general questions about climate change or clean energy, we asked voters directly about whether they thought a transition away from fossil fuels would help or hurt the economy.
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The answers were striking. We found that by a 2:1 margin, voters agreed that minimizing our reliance on fossil fuels would create millions of new jobs in the clean energy economy, rather than kill jobs or reduce our nation’s energy independence.
That’s good news for Biden, because it’s exactly the case that he made last night. And reality backs him up. The oil industry has been hemorrhaging jobs over the past few years, not because of any particular environmental regulations—Trump has done everything he can to slash those—but because of the industry’s own terrible management and advances in renewable energy. Job growth in clean energy now dramatically outpaces growth in fossil fuels. Trump namechecked Texas last night, but in Texas the fastest growing job isn’t oil driller: it’s wind turbine technician.
All of this means that Biden and his fellow Democrats shouldn’t be so afraid about talking about the need to move away from coal, oil, and gas. And yes, that includes ending the polluting and toxic practice of fracking. Biden has repeatedly said that he won’t ban fracking, but polling in places like Pennsylvania suggests that he’d find plenty of support for a ban. A majority of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking and numerous anti-fracking candidates have won in the very regions of the state that Biden wants to peel away from Trump.
"Of course, the real reason that Biden should talk about phasing out fossil fuels isn't because it polls well, but because it’s the right thing to do."
Of course, the real reason that Biden should talk about phasing out fossil fuels isn’t because it polls well, but because it’s the right thing to do. Scientists are clear that the United States and other industrialized countries are still producing far too much coal, oil and gas if we’re going to keep global warming below 1.5°C. Meanwhile, the industry continues to poison people across this country, especially in Black, Brown and Indigenous communities. And as Kate Aronoff has written, if politicians really cared about workers in the industry, they’d be talking to them about providing a just transition to a clean energy future, not selling pipedreams about more pipelines.
I don’t imagine that Joe Biden is suddenly going to become a Keep It In the Ground activist during these final days on the campaign trail (although a man can dream), but I do hope that this experience of speaking clearly about fossil fuels and living to tell the tale helps break the spell the industry seems to have cast over Democratic politicians. As Dumbledore told Harry Potter, “Call him Voldemort, Harry. Always use the proper name for things. Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself.” When it comes to talking about fossil fuels, Biden has no more reasons to be afraid.