Last week, the popular science journal Scientific American issued its first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. Much of the editorial, which urges readers to support Joe Biden, is spent on well-founded condemnation of Donald Trump’s environmental record — which the editors rightly associate with an anti-scientific approach to politics:
The evidence and the science show that Donald Trump has badly damaged the U.S. and its people — because he rejects evidence and science…. That is why we urge you to vote for Joe Biden, who is offering fact-based plans to protect our health, our economy and the environment. These and other proposals he has put forth can set the country back on course for a safer, more prosperous and more equitable future…. It’s time to move Trump out and elect Biden, who has a record of following the data and being guided by science.
The sentiment reflects what has become the standard conception of climate change denial in politics. Anti-science politicians, or so the story goes, openly or implicitly reject scientific evidence in their decision-making, particularly vis-à-vis the environment. As a simple observation this certainly makes sense. Most countries, after all, still have some subset of elected lawmakers who either deny or downplay the science of climate change — and, thanks to the noxious culture of the Republican Party, this phenomenon is particularly acute in America.
The problem is one that applies to virtually all political rhetoric: merely acknowledging the reality of climate change means very little unless the sentiment is paired with commensurate action.
Last week, as wildfires burned throughout the west coast, liberal politicians like Gavin Newsom and Nancy Pelosi went rhetorically all in on the idea of imminent climate emergency — the former having approved some forty-eight new fracking permits since April, and the latter famously dismissing the Green New Deal. It’s all well and good to call climate change “the existential threat of our time” (as Pelosi once did) but actualizing that belief requires a lot more than the perfunctory nod to science so regularly offered by liberal politicians.
The same can be said about the Democratic presidential nominee who, like Pelosi, has boldly come out in favor of “science” on numerous occasions. During a recent CNN town hall, Biden made clear he doesn’t support a ban on fracking — the practice of injecting chemicals into the ground at high pressure to extract natural gas:
Fracking has to continue because we need a transition…. We’re going to get to net-zero emissions by 2050, and we’ll get to net-zero power emissions by 2035. But there’s no rationale to eliminate, right now, fracking.
The United States is now one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters, and a massive increase in fracking — which, it turns out, may be an even worse contributor to climate change than previously thought — is a major reason. This means, as several prominent environmental leaders told Jacobin last year, that banning the practice is absolutely essential to any serious green agenda.
As Mitch Jones of Food & Water Watch put it: “Having a fracking ban as a component of your climate plan is a litmus test for how seriously you’re taking the problem of climate change.” Without that, he added, “you have no way to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions that we have at the rate we need to do it.”
By refusing to embrace a fracking ban, Biden is following the well-trodden liberal path of rhetorically acknowledging the threat posed by climate change, while rejecting the measures necessary to actually deal with it. If he really believes, as per the language on his own official website, that “climate change is the greatest threat facing our country and our world” he and other liberal politicians should start behaving like that threat is real.