Debate Questions on Climate Change Could Put Biden, Western Democrats in Tough Spot
At the final presidential debate on Thursday night, climate change is on the short list of expected topics—and the question could put Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a tough spot. The 2020 campaign season has been dominated by pressure from the party’s left wing for anti-development policies like a national fracking ban but taking back the Senate will require picking up seats in the West, where voters are supportive of energy production.
Previous debates have put the Biden/Harris ticket in an awkward position with respect to the Green New Deal, an ambitious climate proposal that is far more popular in Democratic strongholds than among swing state voters. During the Democratic primaries, Biden promised that there would be “no new fracking” in his administration, while Kamala Harris promised a fracking ban, but during the vice presidential debate, Harris flipflopped, saying a Biden administration would not ban fracking:
“I will repeat, and the American people know, that Joe Biden will not ban fracking. That is a fact,” Harris said.
Though the Biden campaign is trying to soften its earlier anti-energy stances, previous statements by the campaign are already putting Democrats further down the ticket in awkward positions.
For Democrats to flip the Senate, they will need to win some key races in the West, where energy issues have a greater relevance to voters.
As the former Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper tried to balance increased regulation of the energy industry with the important role it plays in the state’s economy. He supported the methane regulations and protected public lands, but also opposed a statewide fracking ban. Now that he is running for national office, he is continuing to try to thread the needle, saying he supports a transition to a renewable energy economy, but rejects the Green New Deal.
“We will transition to 100% renewables and, as we make this transition, utilizing our natural gas resources to offset the need for dirtier forms of fuel, such as coal, will remain important,” Hickenlooper told The Denver Post.
That is not enough for some environmental activists, who say Hickenlooper fails to understand the urgency of the climate change situation. Groups like Colorado Rising, an anti-fracking group, and 350 Action have said that they cannot support Hickenlooper because of his fracking support.
“He’s done very little to make fracking obsolete, and he’s done an enormous amount to support this destructive practice in Colorado,” said Anne Lee Foster of Safe and Healthy Colorado, a coalition of groups opposing drilling.
Other environmentalists, including Bill McKibben and former Colorado state House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, Hickenlooper’s opponent in the primary, said that they would support Hickenlooper in spite of his previous fracking support.
Eric Sondermann, an independent Colorado political analyst, told the Colorado Sun that Hickenlooper has always been a pro-oil-and-gas Democrat, but had gained the support of environmentalist voters because he was the best available option.
“Democrats are so desperate to retake the Senate and send Cory Gardner packing that there are a lot of Democratic voters who are willing to overlook some issues they normally wouldn’t,” he said. Hickenlooper “is never going to be as much of an oil and gas guy as Gardner.”
Similar occurrences are happening in other races across the West.
In New Mexico, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small (D) has been reassuring voters of her support for the oil and gas industry, rebutting her past anti-oil activism. Torres Small opposed the fracking ban introduced by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) in February, but participated in an anti-fossil fuel protest in 2008.
When questioned about her positions, her campaign stressed her support for the energy industry and said that the earlier quotes no longer reflect her position on fracking:
“Rep. Torres Small’s record is clear, she has stood up to her party and opposed its efforts to ban fracking and cut oil and gas workers out of COVID-19 relief,” the Torres Small campaign told the Washington Free Beacon. “Her actions speak much more loudly than a completely out of context quote about the high cost of gasoline from when she was 23.”
This shows a growing divide between voter support for Democrats and for climate policies. While millions of dollars in donations are being spent on the presidential race and western races, green groups have been mixed in their support of these candidates. Bill McKibben endorsed Hickenlooper despite the candidate’s backtracking on the Green New Deal. (Hickenlooper initially said he would support much of the legislation, but later said he supported the concept, but not the legislation’s policy direction.)
Climate donors have been generous in their support of the Biden campaign. Recent reporting by the New York Times found that the campaign had raised more than $15 million from new donors who identify with the cause of climate change. This is a sharp change from 2012, when Barack Obama ran for re-election and the issue was seen as a political liability.
“That is a sea change. We’ve now got a class of people called ‘climate donors’ in a way we had environmental donors before,” said David Bookbinder, general counsel for the Niskanen Center, the DC think tank behind Boulder’s climate liability lawsuit.
And some of these climate donors have very deep pockets. According to the Times, the first major climate change fundraiser for Biden was co-hosted by Tom Steyer and raised $4 million from around two dozen donors during a 20-minute Zoom call. These new donors include some who had supported candidates who were more aggressive on climate change during the primaries but have warmed to him after he released an aggressive $2 trillion climate plan.
These donors are helping to make climate change an issue in the campaign when it isn’t a top priority for most voters. Polling from the Pew Research Center in early October found that 42 percent of registered voters said that climate change was a “very important” issue determining their vote. This trails other leading issues including the economy (73 percent) and the coronavirus pandemic (62 percent). A Politico/Harvard poll in September reiterated this, finding that jobs and the economy were the top issue for likely voters. Even for Biden voters, climate change was their lowest priority.