Time for Biden to Follow the Science

Photograph Source: Clive Varley – CC BY 2.0

One of the keys to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was his constant and accurate accusation that Trump “refuses to follow the science” on COVID-19 – that “he won’t listen to the scientists.”

It proved to be a winning campaign theme. Indeed, it’s sobering to realize that without COVID – both Trump’s mishandling of it and the accompanying economic downturn – Trump might have easily defeated Biden. Presidents often win reelection if they can point to a decent economy, and it was relatively strong in certain job numbers (despite Trump) before the COVID crisis.

Our country and globe face another huge crisis that scientists warn us about: the ever-worsening climate catastrophe.  On the issue of climate, Joe Biden too often seems unwilling to follow the science.

There are a couple reasons that Biden’s reluctance to “listen to the scientists” on climate is somewhat obscured: 1) Republicans are far worse science deniers; and 2) much of the mainstream media – especially TV news – shares Biden’s climate denialism.

In covering the pandemic, TV networks have paraded scientists (epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, public health experts) on the screen day after day – and on cable news, hour after hour. Trump’s refusal to listen is totally clear.

No matter how many droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods hit our country and planet, there’s never a similar parade of anxious climate scientists on corporate TV networks – which rake in millions from the auto, oil and gas industries. We do see continual ads telling us how much these corporations care about the climate crisis.

It’s this media environment that enables Biden to refuse to fully heed climate scientists . . . and get away with it. Soon after he launched his campaign in 2019, Biden’s advisors on climate told a Reutersjournalist that Biden was looking for a cautious, “middle ground” on climate policy. Reuters reported that an advisor said Biden’s policy would include “fossil fuel options like natural gas and carbon capture technology, which limit emissions from coal plants.”

This report of a Biden “middle ground” brought an immediate and angry response from activists (including the Green New Deal-supporting Sunrise Movement) who’d gone into high gear after the world’s top climate scientists issued their landmark 2018 United Nations report, which warned there were only 12 years left for bold action to prevent catastrophic damage by holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Under intense pressure from progressives throughout the Democratic primaries, Biden developed a more serious, science-based climate policy. After securing the nomination, he included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise’s Varshini Prakash in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, which made strong recommendations. These included 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, heightened energy efficiency in housing and transportation (including 500,000 charging stations nationwide), programs to retrofit 4 million buildings, and millions of high-paying, non-exportable jobs.

It was a nice plan . . . amounting to mere campaign promises.

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Biden again reverted to an evasion of climate science as he vacillated over fossil-fuel production and fracking, in the face of a united assault by Team Trump and mainstream media pundits. Scientists tell us that most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground, and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a dangerous, often-dirty technology that extracts some of the most difficult-to-reach gas and oil from the earth.

When Biden vacillated – he said at the final debate that he would “transition away from the oil industry,” then backtracked to a transition from federal oil “subsidies,” and that he wanted to halt fracking only on “federal land” (roughly 12% of all U.S. fracking) – he was targeting his pitch more to misinformed pundits than to voters. And certainly not to climate scientists.

Those national TV talking heads kept insisting that criticism of fracking could cost Biden the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. The commentary was way overstated. Rarely mentioned was a CBS poll in August that found 52 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania opposed to fracking. Or an earlier poll that found 48 percent of the state’s registered voters supporting an actual ban on fracking versus only 39 percent opposed. It’s all explained in a prophetic, pre-election Philadelphia Inquirer column by Will Bunch: “Trump, TV pundits don’t have a fracking clue about Pennsylvania and fossil fuels.”

As we look to a Biden presidency, the question is: who will Joe be listening to? Will he listen to scientists – or to corporate media? Unlike the COVID crisis, during which corporate liberal TV networks have deployed many dozens of blunt-talking scientists to challenge Trump, those networks rarely feature blunt-talking climate scientists, and even less so to challenge Democrats.

Big corporate media outlets are great at policing progressive Democrats who “go too far.” They’re not so watchful over Democratic presidents who cling to a go-slow, corporate-friendly “middle ground.”

When Team Obama slowed or undermined progress at U.N. climate conferences, that was spotlighted by independent outlets like Democracy Now. When the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exported fracking across the globe, that was exposed by investigative journalist Mariah Blake at Mother Jones.

A president can do a lot in battling climate change, without Congressional approval, through executive orders and EPA regulations. Obama’s record was mixed and hesitant. Biden will need to do many times better.

A slow and steady “third Obama term” might thrill corporate media pundits. But it won’t get the job done on the climate emergency. Just ask a scientist.


Jeff Cohen was director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College and cofounder of the online activism group RootsAction.org.