Vice President Joe Biden made waves last Thursday evening in the final presidential debate of 2020. He talked eloquently about environmental justice the first time a question on that topic had ever been asked in debate history, and he agreed that tackling climate change requires a “transition” away from burning oil for energy.
Biden went on to clarify that this transition would take decades to complete, and that his plan more specifically proposes ending federal subsidies to the oil industry. Regardless, the headlines had been created: a major party’s presidential nominee just called out one of the nation’s most economically and politically powerful polluters on the biggest stage of the campaign with less than two weeks to election day.
Substantive policy analysts pointed out that Biden’s comments should come as no surprise to anyone who has read his climate change and clean energy plans. Washington Post analyst Gino Grandoni said, “While Biden’s plan does not call for a ban on fossil fuels and includes measures for continuing their use by capturing their carbon emissions, the 2050 [net-zero carbon emission] goal still cannot be achieved without significantly curtailing the burning of oil and gas. Indeed, the Democrat’s proposal includes a major subsidy for consumers to buy electric vehicles and get rid of cars that rely exclusively on petroleum-based fuels.”
Politically, Biden’s remarks set off a flurry of Republican attacks, focused on states and congressional districts in which the oil industry remains an employment powerhouse. Some vulnerable Democratic candidates in those districts distanced themselves from Biden’s remarks. Other observers noted the oil industry was already strongly in Trump’s camp, and its clout was already in major long-term decline due to dropping demand for gas.
In a larger sense, the side debate over Biden’s oil “transition” comments only underscores the more fundamental and marked contrast between Biden and Trump on confronting climate change and addressing environmental crises. LCV Victory Fund’s Pete Maysmith put it this way: “We saw more climate and environmental justice questions asked in presidential debates this cycle than ever before, and the majority of voters casting their ballots in this election want to see action on climate. In fact, the latest New York Times/Siena College poll found that 66 percent of voters support Biden’s bold plan to put our economy on a path to recovery by making transformative investments in healthy, equitable, safe communities powered by clean energy. If elected, Joe Biden will have the strongest mandate to act on climate and environmental justice of any president-elect in history.”
There’s a reason people are so ready for a president who will lead on this issue. Its effects are being felt more and more, and the media is taking notice. The Raleigh News & Observer has been doing a series of articles focused on climate change’s disparate impacts on communities of color, low-income residents, and rural North Carolinians, and on impacts you wouldn’t always connect to climate change. Check out a few of those articles here, here, and here.
But not everyone has gotten the message. Our Sen. Thom Tillis has prioritized confirming Trump’s climate-denying Supreme Court pick over climate action and COVID relief. Tell him to boost homegrown clean energy jobs over out-of-state oil corporations!