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How The Election Became A Referendum on Fossil Fuels

If Biden is able to withstand this fossil fuel industry juggernaut and win the election, it should send a clear signal to him and the Democratic party that they can take on Big Oil and emerge triumphant.

If Trump’s bully pulpit, 87 million Twitter followers, and billion dollar campaign can’t convince the American people that they need fossil fuels, what will? (Photo: 350.org/flickr/cc)

If Trump’s bully pulpit, 87 million Twitter followers, and billion dollar campaign can’t convince the American people that they need fossil fuels, what will? (Photo: 350.org/flickr/cc)

There’s been a lot written about how 2020 became a “climate election,” but something even more remarkable has happened over the last two weeks of the campaign: it’s turned into a referendum on fossil fuels.

It started during the final Presidential debate, when Joe Biden said that he would move to replace the oil industry with renewables. The Trump campaign immediately seized on the comment, turning it into a campaign ad that they’ve been running online and at their in-person, super-spreader rallies.

Trump’s attacks are part of a relentless war that the fossil fuel industry has waged against Biden and the Democrats this election cycle.

In fact, “Biden will abolish fossil fuels,” has become one of the closest things to a closing argument that Trump seems to have for the American people. Trump tweeted about fracking 27 times in October, nearly three times more than any other month, according to an analysis by Axios. Yesterday, during the final day of campaigning, he was still at it, tweeting that “Biden has vowed to ABOLISH the American oil and natural gas industries and BAN fracking.”

Trump’s attacks are part of a relentless war that the fossil fuel industry has waged against Biden and the Democrats this election cycle. Even in the midst of its worst economic crisis in decades, the oil industry increased its political spending in 2020. More than 80 percent of that spending has gone to Trump or other Republican candidates. For the last month, the American Petroleum Institute has been running a series of ads in swing states attacking Joe Biden’s energy policies, saying they would destroy jobs and the economy. Meanwhile, Trump’s favorite Super Pac, America First Action, has raised millions of dollars from fossil fuel companies and CEOs, including $1 million from shale oil billionaire Harold Hamm and $1 million from the recently-deceased coal baron, Robert Murray. Kelcy Warren, the CEO of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, hosted a fundraiser at his home that raised $10 million for Trump’s re-election campaign.

If Biden is able to withstand this fossil fuel industry juggernaut and win the election, it should send a clear signal to him and the Democratic party that they can take on Big Oil and emerge triumphant. After all, these are the same arguments that the industry and GOP will use to attack the Green New Deal and any other climate policies the Democrats put forward. If they don’t work in a highly charged election year, they’re unlikely to gain much traction in an off-year or mid-term election. If Trump’s bully pulpit, 87 million Twitter followers, and billion dollar campaign can’t convince the American people that they need fossil fuels, what will?

I’m writing this midday Tuesday and we may not know the election results for a while, but so far, the polling indicates that not only are Trump and the industry attacks not working, they’re backfiring spectacularly. That’s because despite decades of industry propaganda, the American people overwhelmingly support a transition away from fossil fuels towards 100% clean energy. A recent poll found that  82% of voters believe that “the primary goal of U.S. energy policy should be achieving 100% clean energy." Only 4% of voters strongly disagreed with the statement. There’s just no constituency for remaining addicted to coal, oil and gas.

Even better for Biden and the Democrats, when you bring up energy and climate change with swing voters, they’re actually more likely to vote for Democrats. As Alex O’Keefe, the creative director of Sunrise Movement, said in a recent video, “Biden’s climate plan is more popular than Joe Biden.” The same dynamic holds true for a conversation around fossil fuels. A Climate Power poll found that a conversation about Biden’s plans on regulating fracking actually increased support among swing voters in the critical battleground state of Pennsylvania. That could be because in Pennsylvania, 83% of voters believe that climate change is a serious problem and are eager to support candidates who embrace bold climate action. It turns out that Biden’s comments about replacing oil with renewables weren’t a gaffe at all: they were an effective Get Out The Vote strategy.

Until two weeks ago, I’d been worried that if Biden won, the media narrative coming out of this election would be that he did so by avoiding a conversation about the need to replace fossil fuels with clean energy. I could already see the New York Times headline, “Biden wins in Pennsylvania by walking a fine line on fracking,” or some other piece that credited a few frackers with his victory, rather than the millions of young people who turned out because of his bold plans on climate. There’s still a chance we’ll see those headlines, of course, but I think that any honest assessment of the final weeks of this election will conclude that Biden and the Democrats not only survived while talking about ending fossil fuels, they thrived.

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn

Jamie Henn is the director of Fossil Free Media and a co-founder of 350.org. Follow him on twitter: @jamieclimate 

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