Biden, Trump refine climate messages in final push

Source: By Thomas Frank, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, November 1, 2020

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is varying his message on climate change in the final days of the presidential campaign as he faces heavy attacks from President Trump over Biden’s vow to “transition from the oil industry.”

A new Trump ad says Biden will “end fracking,” and Trump told a recent campaign rally in Florida that Biden’s energy plan “would mean America’s seniors have no air conditioning during the summer, no heat during the winter and no electricity during peak hours.”

Biden has responded by branding his agenda “the Biden climate plan,” stressing that it would boost the nation’s economy and saying less about reducing emissions.

“Combating climate change means jobs,” Biden told a rally in South Florida yesterday. “We can unleash the American ingenuity and manufacturing to build a stronger, more climate-resistant nation, creating millions of new high-paying jobs.”

Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Monday, Biden said: “I’m not shutting down oil fields. I’m not eliminating fracking. I’m investing in clean energy.”

The jobs-tinged focus on climate comes as the two candidates hone final arguments targeting the small number of undecided or unmotivated voters in a few swing states, particularly Pennsylvania. The new messages contrast with earlier strategies when Biden touted his ambitious goal to make the U.S. carbon neutral by 2050 and Trump declared himself “the great environmentalist” as he reversed his earlier plan to allow offshore drilling along the Atlantic Coast.

“I would imagine that there is internal campaign polling in Pennsylvania that leads both campaigns to think, we need to be careful when talking about fracking,” said Nathaniel Stinnett, executive director of the nonpartisan Environmental Voter Project, which urges people to vote. “It makes sense, especially when you combine with bigger-picture stuff Joe Biden is saying about climate.”

Megan Mullin, a professor of environmental politics at Duke University, said during a panel Wednesday on the election that some “tipping-point voters” in places such as Pennsylvania “could be concerned about potential restrictions on fracking.”

“That could drive small numbers of people to vote who might not otherwise vote, or to vote for President Trump instead of [former] Vice President Biden,” Mullin added.

The last-minute strategies reflect polling that shows while climate change is increasingly important to the public, the issue is not likely to persuade people who have not selected a candidate or decided if they are going to vote. That’s especially the case this year when the nation is preoccupied with COVID-19 and the economic damage from the pandemic.

“There’s a lot on the minds of voters, particularly this year,” said Alec Tyson of the Pew Research Center, whose latest polling shows that climate change ranks 11th out of 12 issues in importance to voters. The top issue in the Pew poll, done three months ago, was the economy, which 79% of respondents said was important.

Only 42% said climate change was important. And that figure probably is lower among late-deciding voters.

“We know that at this stage of a race, sometimes the undecideds have lower levels of political engagement,” Tyson said. “You have to think about how much climate change would matter for less politically engaged voters.”

In Florida, which has been devastated by intensifying hurricanes and sea-level rise, only 4% of poll respondents said climate change was “the most important factor” in their decision about whom to support for president, according to a University of South Florida poll conducted in mid-October.

“Climate will be a motivating issue for some segments of the Democratic base,” said University of South Florida communications professor Joshua Scacco. “But climate is being swamped by concerns about the economy and concerns about the coronavirus.”

When Biden running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) campaigned in Orlando on Oct. 19, she mentioned climate change only once, citing “climate justice” as one of several vital issues along with “economic justice,” “health care justice,” “reproductive justice” and “criminal justice reform.”

Harris’ speech “put the emphasis in a different frame in terms of something related to fairness,” Scacco said. “If we think about justice — justice affects everyone. In that way, it’s attempting to broaden the appeal beyond what climate change and the environment mean.”

Trump has aggressively attacked Biden since their Oct. 22 debate at which the Democratic nominee said that while he would not ban fracking, he would “transition” away from fossil fuels “because the oil industry pollutes, significantly.”

A new Trump ad shows a young woman, portrayed as a “fracking technician,” driving a pickup truck to her job and saying: “If Joe Biden’s elected, he’ll end fracking. That would be the end of my job and thousands of others.”

In campaign appearances this week, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have portrayed their opponents as climate extremists.

Pence told supporters Wednesday in North Carolina that Harris will “put her radical, environmental agenda ahead of North Carolina workers, ahead of North Carolina agriculture.”

At a rally in Pennsylvania on Monday, Trump said that if Biden became president, “the radical left will be in charge of the party. … There won’t be any fracking.”

And speaking yesterday to supporters in Tampa, Trump accused Biden of backtracking on earlier statements against fracking.

“So he goes to Pennsylvania. All of a sudden he changes [and says], ‘Yes, I have nothing against fracking,'” Trump said.

Some analysts say both campaigns are overstating the political influence of Pennsylvania’s fracking industry.

A September survey of 659 registered voters in Pennsylvania found that when asked which type of energy production would generate more “good jobs for Pennsylvanians,” 30% said fracking and 48% said renewable energy.

“Very few Americans are still taking the stance of, we love fossil fuels and we want fossil fuels forever,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, which conducted the survey with Climate Nexus and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.

“Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives want to move to 100% clean energy. They don’t think it’s going to happen overnight. But they are totally on board for a transition that’s going to happen over the next couple of decades,” Leiserowitz added.

Leiserowitz understands Biden’s caution in talking about moving away from fossil fuels, particularly in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania.

“I don’t begrudge the fact that Biden wants to play it safe. I just don’t think he needs to,” Leiserowitz said.