Solving the climate crisis will require politicians to aspire to new levels of ambition, free themselves from the fossil fuel industry, and listen to the science. At the moment, the Democratic establishment is doing none of the above. Its failure was made clear during Sunday night’s Democratic presidential debate. And this is exactly why the party needs a political transformation.
Moderators offered a mere 10 minutes to the topic of climate change, but both former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders seized the opportunity to talk about their various policy proposals. Biden even went ahead and declared, “No more, no new fracking.” His campaign had to later clarify that the former vice president meant no new fracking operations on public lands and waters, which was already his stance. This is insufficient. In comparison, Sanders has put forth a bill along with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to ban all fracking infrastructure and create a just transition for workers in the industry.
Unfortunately, the current political system would never allow such a bill to pass. Why? Not because banning fracking is unnecessary or because it’s unsafe for families. But because the Democratic establishment is all about finding a middle ground where private and public interests meet. The problem is, this middle ground doesn’t come anywhere close to sufficiently addressing the global issue of climate change, which requires us to leave fossil fuels in the ground in order to avert the worst impacts. And the longer the party (never mind Republicans) put off doing that, the more severe the impact will be on workers who depend on the industry. Just look at what’s happened in recent weeks with covid-19 and oil prices as a preview of what’s to come if we don’t act to protect workers now.
“The party needs to catch up with the science,” Julian Brave Noisecat, the vice president of policy and strategy at research group Data for Progress, told Earther. “We need the party to catch up with reality. That’s number one. Number two, we need the progressive movement … to have more and more seats and influence on Capitol Hill.”
Hydraulic fracturing—the formal term for extracting oil and gas using pressurized water, sand, and other chemicals to create underground fissures in deep rocks—emits methane, a greenhouse gas that’s 84 times more potent than carbon. Yet under Donald Trump, the federal government has cut regulations on this greenhouse gas. And studies have shown that methane emissions may already be much higher than previous estimates.
The fracking process also emits air pollutants such as cancer-causing formaldehyde and toxic hydrogen sulfide, which can harm cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Fracking is dangerous for pregnant women and fetuses, and low-income communities and communities of color are disproportionately exposed, several studies have found. Sanders’ proposed fracking ban mentions the unequal burden some communities face in regards to fracking—especially black children that suffer higher-than-average asthma rates in the U.S.—as part of the justification for proposing a ban in the first place.
While Trump has continued to try and foster fracking, the boom began under Barack Obama’s presidency. Democratic leadership, including Joe Biden, fostered the fracking boom in the U.S. And now they’re fighting to keep it going despite the climate and community risks.
“This system has not worked,” Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of New York-based environmental justice organization UPROSE, told Earther. “That system has moved slowly to benefit the privileged. It’s moved slowly for the comfort of the privileged. Whether it’s civil rights or human rights, every reform has moved slowly and taken a long time because [politicians] have wanted to accommodate the needs and sensitivities of the most privileged in this nation.”
That’s in large part why progressives are trying to take over the Democratic party. Sanders has been trying to do this for decades, but a new wave of progressivism is what the party—and the planet—needs if it’s to pass any bold climate policy that can meaningfully lower emissions. We need more AOC’s, more Ayanna Pressleys, more Ilhan Omars, more Rashida Tlaibs, and more Deb Haalands in Congress if a ban on fracking (or any fossil fuel infrastructure) is going to happen in the necessary timeframe.
Democratic voters want meaningful action on climate change: More than 60 percent of Democrats support a fracking ban, and 46 percent of the public at large does, according to Data for Progress polling. The party has been slow to respond to these results, which is why a number of groups are throwing their weight behind getting more progressives in Congress to enact legislation.
“The biggest thing we do is we support primary candidates to incumbents who are out of touch with their districts or not doing enough to build a movement around the kind of transformation we need ,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, a PAC that supported a number of progressives who took over the House in 2018, told Earther. “When you win, you get to say where you think the party should move because now you represent the party too .”
The Green New Deal wasn’t on the table two years ago. Now, after AOC made it a priority, the plan has shaped almost all Democratic presidential candidates’ climate plans. That includes the two candidates left. But a key part of the Green New Deal—which aims to smoothly transition the U.S. off fossil fuels by 2030—is banning fracking. Only Sanders’ plan includes that. And though it won’t pass Congress as it’s currently made up, the only way the U.S. can succeed in preventing unspeakable human suffering is if Democratic (and Republican, for what it’s worth) leadership finds the political will to make it happen. That includes Biden, should he win the nomination and then the White House.
“The system has failed, and it has failed because it compromises human rights for corporate greed, and we’re now facing the consequences of a history of doing that,” Yeampierre said. “So what does governance look like in the age of climate change? It has to be radically different than it has been not because we want it to be but because we have no choice at this point.”