Essay Jeff Cohen

There’s One Issue Joe Biden Has Refused to Follow the Science On

The president-elect says he'll to listen to scientists when it comes to the pandemic—unlike Donald Trump—but he hasn't done so when it comes to the most pressing crisis of our time.
[jlhervàs / CC BY 2.0]

By Jeff Cohen   

One of the keys to Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was his constant and accurate accusation that Trump “refuses to follow the science” on COVID-19 – that “he won’t listen to the scientists.” 

It proved to be a winning campaign theme. Indeed, it’s sobering to realize that without COVID – both Trump’s mishandling of it and the accompanying economic downturn – Trump might have easily defeated Biden. Presidents often win reelection if they can point to a decent economy, and it was relatively strong in certain job numbers (despite Trump) before the COVID crisis. 

Our country and globe face another huge crisis that scientists warn us about: the ever-worsening climate catastrophe.  On the issue of climate, Joe Biden too often seems unwilling to follow the science.  

There are a couple reasons that Biden’s reluctance to “listen to the scientists” on climate is somewhat obscured: 1) Republicans are far worse science deniers; and 2) much of the mainstream media – especially TV news – shares Biden’s climate denialism. 

In covering the pandemic, TV networks have paraded scientists (epidemiologists, infectious disease specialists, public health experts) on the screen day after day – and on cable news, hour after hour. Trump’s refusal to listen is totally clear.  

No matter how many droughts, wildfires, hurricanes and floods hit our country and planet, there’s never a similar parade of anxious climate scientists on corporate TV networks – which rake in millions from the auto, oil and gas industries. We do see continual ads telling us how much these corporations care about the climate crisis.   

It’s this media environment that enables Biden to refuse to fully heed climate scientists . . . and get away with it. Soon after he launched his campaign in 2019, Biden’s advisors on climate told a Reuters journalist that Biden was looking for a cautious, “middle ground” on climate policy. Reuters reported that an advisor said Biden’s policy would include “fossil fuel options like natural gas and carbon capture technology, which limit emissions from coal plants.” 

This report of a Biden “middle ground” brought an immediate and angry response from activists (including the Green New Deal-supporting Sunrise Movement) who’d gone into high gear after the world’s top climate scientists issued their landmark 2018 United Nations report, which warned there were only 12 years left for bold action to prevent catastrophic damage by holding global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.   

Under intense pressure from progressives throughout the Democratic primaries, Biden developed a more serious, science-based climate policy. After securing the nomination, he included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise’s Varshini Prakash in the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, which made strong recommendations. These included 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, heightened energy efficiency in housing and transportation (including 500,000 charging stations nationwide), programs to retrofit 4 million buildings, and millions of high-paying, non-exportable jobs.

It was a nice plan . . . amounting to mere campaign promises.   

In the closing weeks of the campaign, Biden again reverted to an evasion of climate science as he vacillated over fossil-fuel production and fracking, in the face of a united assault by Team Trump and mainstream media pundits. Scientists tell us that most of the world’s fossil-fuel reserves must stay in the ground, and fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is a dangerous, often-dirty technology that extracts some of the most difficult-to-reach gas and oil from the earth. 

When Biden vacillated – he said at the final debate that he would “transition away from the oil industry,” then backtracked to a transition from federal oil “subsidies,” and that he wanted to halt fracking only on “federal land” (roughly 12% of all U.S. fracking) – he was targeting his pitch more to misinformed pundits than to voters. And certainly not to climate scientists.  

Those national TV talking heads kept insisting that criticism of fracking could cost Biden the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania. The commentary was way overstated. Rarely mentioned was a CBS poll in August that found 52 percent of registered voters in Pennsylvania opposed to fracking. Or an earlier poll that found 48 percent of the state’s registered voters supporting an actual ban on fracking versus only 39 percent opposed. It’s all explained in a prophetic, pre-election Philadelphia Inquirer column by Will Bunch: “Trump, TV pundits don’t have a fracking clue about Pennsylvania and fossil fuels.”  

As we look to a Biden presidency, the question is: who will Joe be listening to? Will he listen to scientists – or to corporate media? Unlike the COVID crisis, during which corporate liberal and centrist TV networks have deployed many dozens of blunt-talking scientists to challenge Trump, those networks rarely feature blunt-talking climate scientists, and even less so to challenge Democrats.  

Big corporate media outlets are great at policing progressive Democrats who “go too far.” They’re not so watchful over Democratic presidents who cling to a go-slow, corporate-friendly “middle ground.”  

When Team Obama slowed or undermined progress at U.N. climate conferences, that was spotlighted by independent outlets like Democracy Now. When the Obama administration and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exported fracking across the globe, that was exposed by investigative journalist Mariah Blake at Mother Jones.  

A president can do a lot in battling climate change, without Congressional approval, through executive orders and EPA regulations. Obama’s record was mixed and hesitant. Biden will need to do many times better.  

A slow and steady “third Obama term” might thrill corporate media pundits. But it won’t get the job done on the climate emergency. Just ask a scientist. 

                                                           —— 

Jeff Cohen is co-founder of the activism group RootsAction.org and founder of the media watch group FAIR. He is a retired journalism professor and author of “Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media.” 

11 comments

  1. “Look man, science is OK with this virus thing. But oil, that’s big money. The biggest! I ain’t messin’ wit dat.”

    1. “I’m gonna die pretty soon anyway. Hunter’s gotta have megabucks, that’s all I care about.”

  2. “A slow and steady “third Obama term” might thrill corporate media pundits. But it won’t get the job done on the climate emergency. Just ask a scientist.”

    Okay, I’m a biologist, studying, teaching & researching for 40 years (while loving trees more than my own defective species). I voted Green because the moment Joe told us he wasn’t anti-fracking, he confirmed everything we suspected — those of us aware of his record of corporate fealty. If you’re not going to leave it in the ground, you’re essentially delusional and possibly a lunatic. Or you’re in denial, having never seriously examined or dismissing the data of the past 200 years. And even if you think solar activity plays some role in climate warming, it’s hard to ignore the fading away of genuinely toxin-free water and how completely fracking pollutes the one resource an earth-evolved species can’t do without— the solvent of metabolic life. We’ve managed, despite all our bloody technology to shit where we eat, turning the planet into our toxic trash dump. (Welcome to micro- and nano-bits of insoluble plastic inside your cells, with the potential to interrupt all sorts of targeted transport processes.) Hundreds of species extinctions a day. Decimated insect populations. Insanely infectious pathogens. Dying soil (a complex ecosystem in its own right). To continue fracking is to hardheadedly ignore feedback signals from the immensely complex natural system. That IS lunacy.

  3. Science also says nuclear weapons must be abolished or they will surely abolish us. This issue equals — even tops — climate change. Nuclear annihilation can happen anytime, but unlike climate chaos, it can be totally prevented. Listen to the experts, and act accordingly. See ICANW.ORG.

  4. Long before technology and the climate crisis, the British socialist thinker Raymond Williams theorized that in a time of irrevocable despair world leaders would tend to react in one of two ways.
    The intelligent greedy leader would recognize the hopelessness and simply pretend it wasn’t there to keep the machine running rather than undertake the messy perhaps unfixable repairs.
    The stupid greedy leader would see in the wasted machine only further possibilities to advance his station and would seize those possibilities.

    The outgoing US leader is quintessentially stupid, quintessentially greedy.
    He lets certain institutions in on the swag, hence has those institutions in thrall.
    Alas, Joe Biden, beholden to big oil and his other corporate benefactors, and cognitively challenged to boot, will likewise turn his back on genocidal climate change.

  5. “amerikans believe anything described as scientific with out question”. Goeffrey Gorer
    Both Hofstadter and Jacoby demonstrate amerikans misuse science—the vast numbers of cults in USA: Rolfing, mindfulness, etc more than half of amerikans under 40, liberals, believe astrology is scientific
    “in amwerika science is adopted for the ruling elites” Horkheimer/Adorno
    “the scientific attitude is naive and dishonest”. Merleau-Ponty
    “man must awaken to wonder and so perhaps do peoples: science sends them back to sleep again”. Wittgenstein
    “amerikans fetishize science; in amerika it is the most dogmatic and aggressive religion that like all others should be separated from the state”. Paul Feyerabend

    1. To learn from the experience of others is a high-order skill and exists in the evolutionary tree at least as far down as some birds (the famous example of bluetits and robins in Britain makes clear the species advantage of that ability).

      Since humans don’t live long enough to learn everything from personal experience, a point made by the late Jerry Bruner, and since some supposed humans exploit the trustfulness inherent in real humans, the way to stop people believing that e.g. astrology is a science is to (1) provide real training in critical thinking from birth onward and (2) put the scammers in prison for life.

  6. trump did follow the “science” re: Covid
    it was the fascists that rejected thinking to enrich the oligarchy
    observe the narcissistic self loathing vilification of trump comments above…trump cares nothing about money: amerikans do…Simmel demonstrated that societies where people worship money, the rich care little about money
    “amerikans are farcical when it comes to money and force majeure–the 2 things they worship…”Gore Vidal
    “the only god in America is money”. Malcolm X
    “as one digs deeper into the national character of amerikans one sees they have sought the value of everything in this world according to the answer to a single question: how much money will it bring in?” Tocqueville

  7. I came across the Greenpeace “Just Recovery Agenda” yesterday. It is an expansive, in depth, positive path forward.

    https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/reports/just-recovery-agenda/

    “The economy we have today works for the 1%, not the 99%. The devastation wrought by COVID-19 in the United States—the death, anxiety, isolation, and instability—is the direct result of a system designed to concentrate power in the hands of a few. People are suffering and dying not only because of the virus, but because of the longstanding inequality and racism it has laid bare. This is the same system that has landed us in a climate and extinction crisis in which our very life support system—our planet—is under attack.

    “As we chart the course toward recovery, we must also confront these social, environmental, and economic injustices at their roots. The centuries-long era of racial capitalism[1]—the system under which wealthy white elites and massive corporations have controlled and exploited land, communities, and cultures to acquire power—must end.

    “Going back to normal is not an option. The past was not only unjust and inequitable, it was unstable. What we knew as “normal” was a crisis. We must reimagine the systems our country is built on from the ground up. We envision a world where everyone has a good life, where our fundamental needs are met, and where people everywhere have what they need to thrive.”

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