Former Vice President Joe Biden said during Thursday's final presidential debate that he wanted to transition away from fossil fuels. His campaign tried to say he misspoke after the event, but he didn't. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is an essential component of any serious climate change policy, and Biden knows it.
Climate change is a political issue because humanity is causing rapid global warming through its emission of greenhouse gases into Earth's atmosphere. That happens almost exclusively because of the release of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels. The amount of carbon released differs according to the type of fuel burned: Coal tends to emit more carbon per energy unit released than does natural gas, for example. But the fact remains that it is only because people burn fossil fuels to produce energy that climate change is a problem at all.
That's why any serious climate change policy seeks to reduce or eliminate fossil fuel burning as rapidly as possible. That is what "green" or "renewable" energy means: Replacing fossil fuel burning with energy creation by some method that does not release carbon into the atmosphere. Wind, nuclear, solar -- the exact method used matters less than the fact that these sources are intended to replace carbon-based sources -- or fossil fuels -- as the backbone of the energy production a modern society needs.
This shift can take many forms and occur over a variety of time frames. The Obama administration's Environmental Protection Agency sought to increase fuel efficiency standards for automobiles for this reason; Increasing the number of miles that a vehicle can drive on a single gallon of gasoline reduces the amount burned, thereby reducing the carbon released into the atmosphere. Biden's own plans continue this policy. That's what subsidizing solar and wind electricity generation, encouraging electric car production and building battery generation stations across the United States are meant to accomplish. Fossil fuel use reduction is a feature, not a bug, of Biden's climate policy.
This understandably will scare millions of people. Anyone who works in the fossil fuel industry in any capacity will see their industry decline under the Biden administration. Anyone who transports these fuels, whether by truck, train or ship, will also see their future job prospects decline. Climate change activists know this, which is why they often tout the supposedly high-paying "green jobs" their schemes will allegedly create. That, too, is something Biden did in Thursday night's debate. Whether that is reassuring the families and communities transitioning away from fossil fuels is another matter.
This transition could affect tens of millions more people if it happens quickly. Electric cars remain largely underpowered and more expensive than similar models that run on gasoline. If, as Biden claimed in the debate, the planet really has only eight to 10 years to heal itself before irreversible climate change sets in, that would necessitate him implementing a massive, expensive transitioning from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones. This would cost trillions of dollars in infrastructure investments and subsidies to the purchasers of electric vehicles. That money would have to come from somewhere, and that would almost certainly mean higher taxes, higher car prices for families, or both.
The same applies to the other major sources of carbon emissions, including the production of electricity and the heating and cooling of homes and workplaces. The more rapid the change, the more generation facilities will have to be built and the more homes and workplaces will have to be altered to accommodate these new forms of energy. It defies belief that none of that burden will fall upon families, individuals and businesses.
Ultimately, any serious climate change policy would have to address foreign carbon emission production, too, upsetting the entire structure of global trade. The United States emits only 15% of the world's total greenhouse gas emissions. China and India alone already create more than a third of global emissions, and major oil-producing nations such as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia emit roughly 10%. The United States cannot save the planet on its own, but it also cannot coerce these nations into changing -- unless it uses tariffs and other trade barriers to an unprecedented extent to compel obedience. Such an effort would make the Trump administration's trade policies, which Biden largely opposes, look dilettantish by comparison.
Americans need to be told the truth: There are trade-offs between addressing climate change quickly and maintaining Americans' standard of living. Biden tries to fudge that point by making grand statements about the need to address planetary warming and running away from the specifics such as transitioning away from fossil fuels when he's pinned down. But he cannot run away forever.
Biden likes to say that science is real. So it is: The world can reduce climate change only if it reduces fossil fuel consumption. The real question, to be answered if Biden wins, will be whether Americans are willing to pay the price.