The Pence-Harris Showdown Came up Well Short of an Actual ‘Debate’ on Climate Change

Vice President Mike Pence reduced the issue to slogans, forcing Sen. Kamala Harris to deny support for fracking or the Green New Deal.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice-presidential debate at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah on Oct. 7, 2020. Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Vice President Mike Pence participate in the vice-presidential debate at Kingsbury Hall at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Utah on Oct. 7, 2020. Credit: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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Vice President Mike Pence brought two bludgeons to his face-off with Sen. Kamala Harris Wednesday night to fend off questions on climate change.

Bring up the Green New Deal, and assert that former Vice President Joe Biden plans to ban fracking if he wins in November. 

Biden and Harris do not support a fracking ban—much to the dismay of party progressives—and have a climate plan that many Green New Deal advocates feel falls short of their grand vision for societal transformation.

But Pence played to the Trump base for effect, not accuracy.  


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In the one vice presidential debate before the Nov. 3 election, Pence’s aim was to put Harris in the no-win situation of alienating either the left or moderates, while avoiding answering for President Donald Trump’s retreat on climate action just as manifestations of the crisis become more clear.

Harris, for her part, sidestepped the chance to detail what Biden’s $2 trillion plan shares with the Green New Deal or how it differs. Instead, the former prosecutor drilled into the theme with which she opened the evening—that the Trump-Pence administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has been an historic, catastrophic failure. 

Harris left no doubt of the parallel she sought to draw between Trump’s dismissal of climate science and his failed response to a pandemic that has killed more than 210,000 Americans and infected more than 7 million, including the president and more than 30 others who either work for his administration or attended White House ceremonies last week, which public health experts now are calling possible superspreader events. 

Do you know, this administration took the word ‘science’ off the website, and then took the phrase ‘climate change’ off the website?” Harris asked. “We have seen a pattern with this administration, which is they don’t believe in science.”

An Unsatisfying Exchange on Climate

No one who sought a substantive discussion of climate change could have been satisfied with the exchange of pat answers between two candidates who, as moderator Susan Page of USA Today noted, would be next in line to the oldest President of the United States ever, no matter who is the victor in November.

When Page tried to get to a bottom line—”Do you believe that climate change poses an existential threat?”—Pence parried with slogans.

“The climate is changing,” he said. “We’ll follow the science.” He never was forced to address the administration’s consistent denial of the scientific consensus or its dismantling of more than 100 environmental regulations. Instead he pivoted quickly back to the script, hitting Harris over the Green New Deal and the supposed fracking ban.

I will repeat and the American people know that Joe Biden will not ban fracking,” responded Harris. “That is a fact.”

She went on to quote Moody’s, the economic analytics firm, and to say that Biden’s $2 trillion plan for renewable energy and vastly reduced carbon emissions would create 7 million more jobs than Trump’s continued reliance on fossil fuels. “Part of those jobs,” Harris said, “are going to be about clean energy and renewable energy.”

That was hardly satisfying to the most ardent climate activists, who said they felt Harris passed up an opportunity to make a clarion call for a clean energy economy. In trying to “tone down her record” on climate to appeal to more centrist voters in swing states, said Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy at 350 Action, Harris is risking the ticket “losing ground with the base that they need…the enthusiastic vote that is tired of having their water poisoned by fracking, that is tired of living in a climate hellscape.”

An August study by Data for Progress shows that calls for bold climate action play well in key Senate battleground states. 

“If the Democrats aggressively go on offense with their plans to address the climate crisis, they will win this election,” Evan Weber, the Sunrise Movement’s political director, said in a statement. “The American people want climate action, and polls show Democrats have no reason to shy away from being bold.”

Pence’s repeated efforts to spar on a fracking ban—and Harris’ refusal to engage in that fight—showed that both campaigns believe that there are votes to be gained or lost in key states like Pennsylvania, the No. 2 natural gas producing state, by coming down on the right or wrong side. In the past week, following the combative first debate between the presidential candidates, Biden opened up a significant lead in Pennsylvania, according to the polls.

Fracking has the potential to be a wedge issue that Republicans hope will allow them to claw back some of that support. Hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and oil has become a key part of the U.S. economy, even while it has created new water and air pollution hazards, and tied the nation more deeply to a fossil-fueled future.

Biden never favored a fracking ban, as did his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Instead, he has called for no new fracking permits on federal land, greater regulation, and a transition to a clean energy economy with net zero carbon emissions by 2050—a program that would eventually phase out or greatly transform fracking, but not in the short term.

The Record on Climate

After the vice presidential debate, mainstream environmental groups praised Harris’ performance and sought to remind like-minded voters of the historic nature of her candidacy and that action on climate will be at a standstill under a continuation of the Trump-Pence regime.

“Kamala Harris, the first ever woman of color on a major party ticket, showed us what it will be like to have compassionate, just, pro-science, pro-environment leadership in the White House,” said Pete Maysmith, the League of Conservation Voters’ senior vice president. “Biden and Harris have a plan to make the largest-ever investment to combat climate change, address environmental injustice and create 10 million good-paying jobs.”

Pence, a long-time foe of climate action and former conservative talk radio host with a style he called “Rush Limbaugh on decaf,” was unapologetic about the Trump record on climate. He used some of the Trump campaign’s stock rejoinders, which greatly mischaracterize the administration’s record. 

For example, he said that the United States has reduced carbon emissions more than the nations that have stayed in the Paris climate accord. While in raw tonnage, that is true, the percentage decline of emissions for the U.S. has been far less than that of many other developed nations. 

U.S. carbon emissions remain second only to those of China, and the trends are ominous, with the U.S. on track to emit an extra 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2035 under the Trump rollbacks.

For now, Pence made clear that the Trump campaign is betting that ignoring his record on climate will be a winning strategy, as long as it can paint Biden and Harris as radicals who will destroy the U.S. economy. Harris showed that the Biden team plans to counter by reminding voters that the U.S. economy is already on its knees, and action on climate will be integral to bringing it back.

“Are you listening corporate America?” tweeted Matt Schlapp, chair of the American Conservative Union, during the debate. “If Biden wins Harris will be President in a year and she is coming for all profits, outlawing fracking, raising corp tax rates and picking judges who will reregulate the US economy. Danger Danger.”

“Ugh, don’t tease us,” shot back the Sunrise Movement on its Twitter feed.