Why I’m Voting for Biden
It’s the environment
I’m sometimes asked by people who say they can’t see a difference between Joe Biden and Donald Trump why I would support the former in the election, which I plan to. I’m never articulate when I answer — it’s too easy, in those conversations, to get mired in palace intrigue, the Tweets, or banal and inaccurate equations of the two candidates.
None of this ever addresses Trump’s or Biden’s actual policy stances, which is how the Trump administration is genius. It operates like a decadent funhouse full of shiny magnets for liberal rage. Leftist pundits are riled by his latest wackadoo proclamation or attack against a woman who made him feel threatened, while behind the scenes, Trump’s flying monkeys exact measurable harm on the physical world and its inhabitants. It’s an impossible debate to navigate.
I want to quickly distill the most important frame, with specific examples, for why I’ll vote for Biden — it’s the environment. I’ll also provide some resources — essays and writers who I think do a great job of analyzing environmental policy — for understanding where I come from. There are many factors that don’t fit in this frame, all of which also stack up in Biden’s favor, even if he was probably the least exciting, most problematic candidate of the Democratic primary. But those are other discussions, and I will focus only on the environment because it is one area that, all other things being equal between the two, presents me with an ethical responsibility to vote for Biden.
The simplest way to say it is this: Joe Biden believes climate change is real and that we should do something about it; Donald Trump does not. In fact, Trump is running the environmental torch in the diametrically wrong direction. I’ve picked five of the worst Trump actions to highlight. Some, resting on what legal scholars consider shaky justification, are under legal review or being challenged in the courts.
1) At the end of 2017, Trump gave the Republican Party a lusty victory, signing legislation that would open the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge — one of the world’s final pristine ecosystems — to oil and gas exploration. It was mostly symbolic. The justification was to advance American energy independence, but the New York Times reports that hand is likely overplayed, citing disappointing returns on nearby wells.
But opening ANWR to drilling is part of a larger national campaign by the Trump administration to subject protected public land to the predations of the energy industry, including Dinosaur National Monument, near my home town in Colorado. This movement promises to disrupt more wildlife habitat, accelerate resource use that is already out of control, and worsen climate change. (It’s also economically unsound — there’s a global oil glut.)
2) Early last year, the Trump administration loosened safety regulations for offshore drilling implemented after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster that killed 11 roughnecks; devastated Gulf of Mexico ecosystems, causing uncounted death, including dolphins that died from respiratory infections; and devastated American industries along the Gulf Coast.
This too is part of a larger drive by the Trump administration to open all American coastline to offshore drilling, a dangerous practice that imposes an understudied and misunderstood toll on ocean ecosystems.
3) Trump is frantically trying, against formidable legal challenges from environmental and aboriginal groups, to allow Canadian oil giant TC Energy to finish building the Keystone pipeline system through several states. Though this system is not yet complete, the existing parts have already spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil in North Dakota.
This pipeline transports oil from Canada’s tar sands fields, which occur on vast swaths of former boreal forest crucial to containing much of the world’s carbon stores. The forests are razed in a process author and activist Naomi Klein calls “skinning.” The sand that’s extracted is rich in petroleum but requires a hugely energy intensive manufacturing process to render it that effectively triples its carbon footprint.
4) In August, the Trump administration significantly weakened the Endangered Species Act. This action comes amid what ecologists refer to as the Sixth Extinction, when uncounted species are dying off — some of which we haven’t even discovered yet. In its latest Living Planet Report, a kind of treatise on the state of Earth’s life, the World Wildlife Fund showed that since 1970 “we’ve seen an astonishing 60% decline in the size of populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians.”
Trump’s weakening of the United States’ flagship species protection regulation will make it easier to harm sensitive, threatened, and endangered species and harder to protect them.
Chief among the changes is the removal of blanket protections for threatened animals and plants.
Until now, any species deemed threatened — a category for organisms at risk of becoming endangered — by the FWS automatically received the same protections as endangered species. They include bans on killing threatened and endangered species. Now, those protections will be determined on a case-by-case basis, a move which will probably reduce overall protections for species that are added to the threatened list. …
The revisions also narrow the scope of those protections. Previously, government officials considered threats that would affect a species in the “foreseeable future”, such as climate change. Now, they have leeway to determine the time period meant by the foreseeable future, and can only consider threats that are “likely” to occur in that time frame. Critics say that this weaker language could allow regulators to ignore threats from climate change, such as rising sea levels, because their effects might not be felt for decades.
5) And the Trump administration is vigorously undoing much of the plodding regulatory progress the Environmental Protection Agency has made since 1970, when it was established by the Nixon administration. One example of this is the effort to limit the kinds of waters that are regulated under the Clean Water Act to make them clean enough to swim in.
This effort is under review, but if it goes into effect, it will redefine “navigable waters” to include a year-round flow regime. Snopes writes that 80 percent of streams west of 100th Meridian do not have water in them all year, so the effort effectively seeks to withdraw protection from most of the West’s most vulnerable and essential waterways.
I chose the list above because those instances are subtle but impactful. There are more blunt examples, like Trump’s abdication of American leadership when he pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord or his dismantling of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan.
In addition to all this, Trump has fashioned himself as a best friend for industries that pollute. He has built his cabinet of and generally surrounded himself with oil lobbyists, lawyers who made names for themselves by eroding environmental protections, and people who have amassed large fortunes from environmental exploitation. (Rick Perry, the energy secretary, once said he would get rid of the Department of Energy, but famously couldn’t remember its name; Andrew Wheeler, the acting EPA director, is a former coal lobbyist; interior secretary David Bernhardt is a former oil lobbyist.)
It’s easy to find more Trump environment stories. The New York Times keeps a handy tally of Trump’s rollbacks of environmental regulations. It monitors and regularly updates the progress on 100 such efforts. National Geographic has a similar, but much shorter, log. Additionally, some very good journalists regularly report how Trump is hamstringing regulatory agencies by slashing their budgets and destabilizing their workforces. (My good friend J. David McSwane of Propublica wrote in September, Trump moved Bureau of Land Management headquarters from D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado, forcing an entire workforce of 200 people to uproot their lives or quit.) More helpful writers to follow: Coral Davenport and Lisa Friedman of the New York Times; Abrahm Lustgarten of Propublica; Naomi Klein and Sharon Lerner of The Intercept; Emily Holden of the Guardian; and Marianne Lavelle, who writes about the election for the Pulitzer-winning environmental news website Inside Climate News. Those are just a few. Though much of the media is similarly tangled in the daily insanity of the Trump circus, there are many more good reporters to follow.
The distinction between Trump and Biden on environment represents an existential issue. Too many of us think of ourselves as separate from the environment. But we are part of it. If we kill it off, we won’t have a place to live.
In my calculation to vote for Biden, there is certainly an element of the “lesser of two evils” argument. I’m settling. I’d be insane to feel comfortable with this. Biden is not perfect on the environment. Last spring, he was casting about for a “middle ground” on climate, as if physical processes respond well to waffling. Competing against more radical challengers, he famously stated early in his campaign that America would pretty much go back to its pre-Trump MO in terms of social and economic equality, two subjects that are intimately entwined with environment.
I much preferred the approaches of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on climate change and environmental issues, who made necessarily sweeping regulatory and social policy frameworks, like the Green New Deal, the centerpiece of their environmental platforms.
But Biden is likely to rescind many of Trump’s actions, which are largely part of a scheme to erase Barack Obama’s legacy on the environment. Many of Trump’s executive orders overturn actions his predecessor took — some of which Biden was instrumental in executing. I can only imagine Biden would want to restore those efforts.
And he seems to be taking environmental and other progressive issues seriously anew. He appointed a series of task forces to reconcile frayed relationships between progressive Democratic figures and the more conservative ones. Systems reform stalwart Alexandria Ocasio Cortez will co-chair his task force on climate change. It’s easy to be cynical about this. Does Biden mean the appointment only as an empty gesture to placate the left wing? But such speculation is deeply nihilistic. To me, the right thing to do is take Biden’s task forces seriously, vote for him, and, if he is elected, hold his feet the fire on his promises, as well as push him leftward on the environment and every other issue.
Because when all is accounted for, we know Trump will continue to harm the environment. Biden can be convinced not to.