Joe Biden’s promise to “transition” away from the oil industry during Thursday’s presidential debate has caused uproar among conservatives while being praised by environmentalists as being a candid acknowledgment of the scale of the climate crisis.
Biden, the Democratic nominee for the White House, was drawn into his statement by Donald Trump, who asked him during the televised debate whether he would “close down the oil industry”. Biden replied “I would transition from the oil industry, yes”, adding that the industry “pollutes significantly”.
Trump seized upon the comment, saying “that’s a big statement” and urging voters in energy-producing states, including Texas and Pennsylvania, to take note. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, said that “Biden just lost Pennsylvania tonight”, in reference to the crucial swing state, while Greg Abbott, the Texas governor, said Biden “just killed paychecks earned by hardworking families in Texas”.
Biden attempted to mend potential political damage after the debate when he told reporters he wanted to end subsidies for fossil fuels rather than the industry itself.
But two vulnerable House Democrats running in oil-producing states, Kendra Horn in Oklahoma and Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico, quickly used Twitter to distance themselves from Biden’s remarks, perhaps mindful of the persistent attacks on Hillary Clinton in 2016 when she was portrayed as being happy to eliminate coalmining jobs.
Climate activists have pointed out that a phase-out of the oil industry is simply a logical consequence of Biden’s climate action plan, which calls for 100% clean energy within 15 years and the negation of all planet-warming gases in the US by 2050. Even some major oil companies, such as BP, have embraced a similar goal of net zero by 2050.
Scientists have warned that emissions must hit zero globally by mid-century to avoid the worst ravages of the climate crisis, including mass suffering and displacement of people due to heatwaves, flooding and wildfires.
Biden’s comments on the oil industry “now counts as the conventional wisdom”, said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the climate group 350.org. “That matters.”
States such as Texas, which Democrats are trying to shift from being reliably Republican, have large numbers of workers in the oil and petrochemical industries.
But the economic and political terrain is shifting – Texas is also the largest wind energy-producing state in the US while polls show that nearly eight in 10 Americans want the country to focus on boosting renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, including a clear majority of Republican voters.
The impacts of the climate crisis, felt painfully this year through record wildfires in the US west and a hyperactive season of destructive hurricanes in the Atlantic, are provoking increasing alarm among voters, especially Democrats and younger people.
This trend has worried some Republican strategists who concede that Trump’s approach of dismissing climate science and dismantling environmental protections is politically unsustainable.
During Thursday’s debate, Trump accused Biden of wanting to “knock down buildings and build buildings with little tiny small windows” while attacking wind turbines for “killing all the birds”. Biden’s $2tn climate plan involves the retrofitting of buildings to make them more energy efficient but doesn’t demand windows to be shrunk, and while turbines do kill thousands of birds, far more are killed by other infrastructure such as power lines and, ironically, windows.
In what may be the most substantive debate on climate during a presidential debate, the candidates were also asked about the disproportionate impact of pollution upon communities of color. Biden recalled that many people in his home state of Delaware were “dying and getting cancer” from nearby industrial facilities while he was growing up there.
“Joe Biden understands what it’s like to live on a fence line; Donald Trump didn’t even understand the question,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of the Climate Power 2020 campaign group, describing communities that live adjacent to industrial polluting sites.
“Black, brown and indigenous individuals have been living with and dying from the pollution and toxic chemicals poured into their communities by the oil and gas CEOs that Trump blindly supports.”