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Why Are Democrats So Afraid to Say Fracking Is Bad?

The vice presidential debate put a new face of climate disinformation on display. So far, establishment Democrats seem willing to play along.

Senator Kamala Harris speaks at the vice-presidential debate.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Senator Kamala Harris speaks at the vice-presidential debate.

If you’re freaked out about the climate crisis, it might be nice to live in Mike Pence’s imaginary world. There, the Paris Climate Agreement is a muscular international treaty capable of shaping trade flows and investment decisions through binding rules. The Democratic Party and its presidential ticket are in lock-step behind a wide-ranging Green New Deal, pledging to ban fracking and stop burning fossil fuels as it spends vast sums of public money to take on the greatest existential threat humanity has ever known. In reality, of course, Pence’s version of the Democratic platform, articulated at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate, is vastly more ambitious than the one Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are actually pursuing.

The planet and its people deserve a climate program resembling the one the GOP has spent this election fearmongering about. Thanks to efforts from the likes of the Sunrise Movement and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Biden’s climate plan is much closer to that vision than it might otherwise be. Biden’s plan would invest $2 trillion in a green recovery aimed at creating millions of jobs, and might even create a new White House office on climate. It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s the most ambitious climate plan a presidential candidate has ever run on.

As Kamala Harris pointed out last night, though, contrary to Pence’s insistence, the Biden climate plan would not ban fracking along any timeline. And despite Trump’s, Pence’s, and the Republican Party’s repeated attempts to link the candidate to the Green New Deal, Biden himself made it clear in last week’s debate that he does not support a Green New Deal, portraying his plan as a more reasonable alternative. The DNC platform committee couldn’t even agree to officially withdraw the party’s support for fossil fuel subsidies.

Democrats don’t have some ingenious political reason for swallowing the fossil fuel industry’s and its GOP allies’ framings on these issues. Their reluctance to ban fracking, despite its prolific contributions to the climate crisis, is clearly an attempt to woo Pennsylvanians. Yet more voters there favor a ban on fracking than oppose it, according to a January 2020 Franklin & Marshall poll. As David Sirota pointed out today, another YouGov poll in August found that 62 percent of self-identified moderate voters in that state support a fracking ban, along with 55 percent of its registered Independents.

Meanwhile, although it’s been lambasted by the right for nearly two years, an expansive Green New Deal and its various components remain popular among undecided voters and those in swing districts, who both care deeply about the climate and don’t trust Trump to deal with it. As bankruptcies and layoffs rise in the oil and gas sector, there’s also a strong case to be made that Medicare for All, a federal job guarantee, and the other Green New Deal ideas Biden’s team left out of his platform would do more to protect fossil fuel workers and their communities than the golden parachutes industry executives are currently sewing themselves.

The frustrating part about Democrats’ decision to cede ground to the right on climate policy is that this is precisely what yesteryear’s climate-denying lobbyists—and today’s Trump supporters—want them to do. Among the fossil fuel industry and conservative funders, straight-up climate denial has mostly fallen out of fashion. But polluters sent dozens of lobbyists last year to stop a non-binding resolution on the Green New Deal, H.R. 109., and a Koch-funded front group bought up a billboard in Times Square against Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced it. At the Heartland Institute’s deflated annual conference last year, I asked Caleb Rossiter—head of the CO2 Coalition, essentially a pro-carbon dioxide propaganda group—what his donors said they wanted out of him. In recent years, those have included the Sarah Scaife Foundation, the Searle Freedom Trust and the Mercer Family Foundation, whose principals have been enthusiastic Trump supporters. “Some of them are no longer interested in climate science but are much more interested in what it will cost” to deal with it, he told me. “Clearly they’re trying to stop a Green New Deal… That’s what they want to do. They want to kill the Green New Deal. I agree!”

Harris, on Wednesday, didn’t debate Mike Pence about the extent of humans’ contribution to warming or whether the sun was to blame for higher temperatures—the kind of debate that was common on cable news until just a few years ago. Science and the climate crisis, she insisted, are real. Yet Democrats are still getting duped by disinformation tactics that have only been slightly dressed up since the heyday of outright climate denial.

Whereas the strategy of an older generation of deniers was to cast doubt on the existence of the problem, they’ve now mostly trained their guns on solutions that might actually pose a threat to the corporations fueling it. All the old hallmarks are there—from bogus, corporate-funded studies to redbaiting to throwing a thousand discordant talking points at Fox News and seeing what sticks. If right-wing propaganda made an earlier generation of establishment Democrats fear being called climate alarmists, today’s politicians fear being called Green New Dealers for the same reasons. Bowing to that means having a debate about climate solutions on the GOP’s—in other words, the fossil fuel industry’s—terms.

To her credit, Harris didn’t throw progressives too far under the bus. Rightfully, she pointed out that Biden’s climate plans are job creation plans. Like her running mate, though, she still made sure to distance herself from more ambitious proposals that are actually quite popular. The idea that either the Green New Deal or banning fracking is a guaranteed loser with some critical portion of the electorate is part of an industry disinformation campaign. Mainstream media outlets and Democrats are eating up almost as eagerly as they ate up the debate, ten years ago, about whether the climate is changing.

2020 is entirely too late a date for Democrats to be defending oil companies’ right to keep fracking the planet into oblivion. There’s now a 20 percent chance that the world will exceed 1.5 degrees of warming in the next 5 years. At some point before then, it’d be heartening to see the Democratic Party’s leadership go to bat for measures that might avoid that fate instead of needlessly kowtowing to the fossil fuel industry.