American voters worried about climate change might have been encouraged when moderator Susan Page put forth a substantial question about the issue at Wednesday night’s vice presidential debate. But even though any thorough discussion of the climate on a national stage is a significant development, the conversation at Salt Lake City was a strange one. Kamala Harris strategically and disappointingly framed herself and her running mate as moderates on climate action, particularly when it comes to fracking—even though polls show the majority of Americans (yes, even some Republicans!) are eager for a sweeping climate movement.
Instead of taking the high ground, Harris seemed to act on the defensive. Vice President Mike Pence harped on the same line of attack multiple times, claiming that “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to raise taxes, bury our economy over a $2 trillion Green New Deal. They want to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking.” He repeatedly returned to his belief that taxes and regulation would crush American energy companies, noted that Harris had been one of the first co-sponsors of the original Green New Deal proposal (which serves as a “framework” for Biden’s own climate plan), and alleged that that legislation would “crush American jobs.” Pence did acknowledge that “the climate is changing” but suggested the best way to preserve the environment is through a “strong free market economy” that does not rein in the energy companies that are responsible for the majority of carbon emissions.
Pence’s arguments should have been easy for Harris to refute. But she took an alternative tack, not mentioning the Green New Deal at all, vaguely citing investments in “clean” and “renewable energy,” and emphasizing over and over again that a Biden administration would not ban fracking, at one point looking toward the camera to make this point.
Why did Harris opt to focus on fracking rather than her ticket’s climate policies? Biden himself has repeatedly stated he will not ban the process, which has a documented history of environmental destruction. But some states, including Maryland and New York, already have their own laws forbidding the practice.
One answer here, naturally, is swing states. The relatively recent, widespread adoption of fracking has allowed for a boom of cheap energy and jobs, particularly in Pennsylvania, which the Democratic Party hopes to win back after Trump’s upset in 2016. Yet polls now show that a majority of Pennsylvanians oppose fracking, a gradual but noteworthy shift from just a few years ago. This follows a national trend of public opinion moving away from favoring natural gas and fracking.
Biden and Democrats are also afraid of alienating rural voters and fossil fuel workers, who worry about their jobs. But the “free market” Pence proudly talks up is wrecking fracking on its own: Over the past few years, hundreds of fracking operations have faced bankruptcy, and that rate will likely accelerate due to coronavirus-related economic devastation facing some fossil fuel companies. The Trump administration, through the CARES Act, sent billions to some of these companies as part of an attempted bailout, much of which came with no strings attached and mostly benefited investors. But it’s also worth noting that this industry does not create as many jobs as some may think: According to a 2015 report by the Conversation, oil and gas employment made up 0.5 percent of U.S. private sector employment. Even so, climate legislators and activists are not leaving these workers to dry, addressing time and again concerns about the fossil fuel phaseout’s inevitable losses by proposing job and transition programs not dissimilar to the structure of the Works Progress Administration. Cleanup initiatives addressed by the Green New Deal could also take care of the toxic wells left behind that sharply affect human health.
Harris’ reticence to take on climate more strongly could also be an attempt to distance herself and Biden from what Trump and Pence like to call the “radical left.” In an attempt to appeal to former Republicans, disaffected Trump voters, and moderate suburbanites who may be scared of “socialism,” Biden and Harris have tried to make clear that they are not of the AOC wing of the party. During the Democratic primary, both presented far less sweeping policy goals, including on health care and the environment, than what other candidates brought. With his ascent to the top of the ticket, Biden has adopted bits and pieces of more ambitious climate proposals, but it’s unclear whether he actually intends to follow through.
A tight lip on climate might have been rhetorically advantageous not long ago. But there could not be a more ideal time than right now to explain why a green, non-fracking-dependent economy could be far more beneficial to the country and the planet than whatever the Trump administration is doing. If Biden and Harris win and actually make climate change a policy priority, they could, with some necessary executive aggression, pave the way for an equitable, green future that won’t have to rely on fracking for energy or jobs. Our climate cannot afford more years of a Trump-Pence administration, but it also cannot depend on a moderate presidency hesitant to take bold moves. It’s far too late for that.
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