The Democrats' climate betrayal

Joe Biden has a choice to make. Condemn the party's stance on fossil fuels, or lose significant credibility on climate.

Joe Biden speaks to a crowd at a Democratic National Committee event in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo credit: Dustin Chambers/Getty Image

Imagine a world where cigarette smoking is rampant. Imagine nearly everyone around you, all the time, sucking down stogs and flicking butts on the ground.

Imagine every day, more kids getting addicted; more hospital beds filling up with lung disease and heart attack and cancer patients; and more loved ones dying. Imagine the economic toll of these deaths and hospitalizations souring, costing society trillions. Imagine voters—particularly young voters—mobilized and motivated to stop this problem.

Now imagine there’s a presidential election. The Republican Party’s nominee—the sitting president—is taking millions from the tobacco industry, dismantling anti-smoking protections, and denying the evidence of smoking’s devastating consequences. He’s allocating millions of relief dollars to the tobacco industry during a pandemic. Worst of all, he’s pledging to preserve at least $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies for that industry, so it may continue selling death sticks at artificially low prices.

Fortunately, the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee has the most progressive anti-smoking plan in presidential nominee history. He has promised to end taxpayer subsidies for the tobacco industry, and redirect those funds to improve public health. He has strong anti-smoking rhetoric, and has pledged to reject campaign money from the tobacco industry, which has a demonstrated history of corrupting candidates.

But now, imagine the Democratic nominee’s credibility on smoking taking a serious hit mere weeks before the election. This happens because the Democratic Party—which still takes heaps of tobacco money and is advised by tobacco industry lobbyists—has decided that it wants to preserve those $20 billion in taxpayer subsidies for cigarettes, and hide that decision from the public.

Instead of publicly condemning this decision, the Democratic nominee remains silent—signaling that, like almost every politician before him, he is likely helpless to the tobacco industry’s power.

I don’t need to say it, do I? Replace smoking with climate change. Replace the tobacco industry with the fossil fuel industry.

This is what is happening with the Democratic Party right now.

The Democratic Party quietly goes backwards on fossil fuels

Yesterday, HuffPost’s Alex Kaufman reported that The Democratic National Committee quietly erased previously-approved language from its party platform calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks. A DNC spokesperson said the language was an “error.”

(Taxpayers currently pay at least $20 billion a year to prop up the fossil fuel industry; though depending on how you calculate it, it could be as high as $649 billion.)

It’s a truly bewildering development in a bewildering saga. Fossil fuel subsidies have not previously been this controversial in Democratic Party politics. In 2016, the Democratic Party platform explicitly called for an end to fossil fuel subsidies. Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has been running on this promise.

This all makes a ton of sense for a party that claims it intends to solve climate change, as studies have shown the clean energy transition would be happening much faster if we weren’t artificially propping up the industry causing the climate crisis. It also makes sense politically, since voters support ending fossil fuel subsidies.

But as HEATED reported last month, the first draft of the 2020 Democratic Party platform—released on July 22—didn’t include a promise to end fossil fuel subsidies. This was truly confusing. When did this become controversial? What had happened between 2016 and 2020?

The situation appeared remedied a few days later. During the platform amendment process, DNC members voted to add the anti-fossil fuel subsidy promise back to the platform. The so-called “Manager’s Mark,” a ledger of party demands to add to the platform approved on July 27, stated explicitly that “Democrats support eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels, and will fight to defend and extend tax incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy.”

In the final platform, however, that language is not there. It was “incorrectly included in the Manager’s Mark,” a DNC spokesperson told Kaufman, and taken out “after the error was discovered.” 

Climate activists confused, pissed

“I’m seething with rage right now,” said RL Miller, the head of Climate Hawks Vote and a DNC delegate, in an email to Earther.

“Thousands of climate hawks spoke out in favor of ending fossil fuel subsidies,” she added. “They spoke out in complete harmony with Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris, both of whom campaigned on ending fossil fuel subsidies.”

Geoffrey Supran, who studies the history of fossil fuel industry disinformation about climate change at Harvard, also condemned the decision in comments to Earther.

“It sends a troubling, confusing signal to the public that even though the DNC talks big on climate, it is literally uncommitted to putting its money where its mouth is,” he said. “It is also a reminder that despite the fossil fuel industry’s financial freefall, it continues to tip the balance of U.S. politics away from serious climate action.”

Joe Biden’s silence so far

It’s been less than a day since the news of the DNC’s reversal on fossil fuel subsidies broke. Biden so far hasn’t commented.

If he wants to retain the credibility he’s gained so far on climate, he must. Because the fossil fuel industry’s crushing grip on our political system is, and will always be, the biggest obstacle to meaningful climate action.

The fossil fuel industry is fundamentally incompatible with a safe and livable climate. That’s just physics. There is no physically possible way to solve the climate crisis without winding the fossil fuel industry down.

So the fossil fuel industry will always work against meaningful climate policy. That is inevitable. What’s not inevitable is the industry’s power over the Democratic Party. That’s a choice the party and its leaders make every day, both with their words and their silence. And it’s a choice they continue to make in ways far beyond a few sentences in a party platform.

Stayed tuned for tomorrow’s edition of HEATED, where I’ll tell you about one more of those ways.

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