This month, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden unveiled a sweeping green energy plan. It marks a strong contrast from President Donald Trump, who has long championed fossil fuels.
In the lead-up to the general election, WESA is following four western Pennsylvania voters and asking them about the issues that could sway their decision at the ballot box this fall. This month, they talked about energy and the environment.
‘An existential issue’
The climate crisis has always loomed large in Linda Bishop’s mind.
“You could make the case that climate is the biggest issue because it's an existential issue,” said Bishop. “As far as where it ranks compared to other issues, it’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges. There are much more immediate issues that concern me that I pay most attention to, like the coronavirus, like the pandemic, like racial justice, like women's issues. But to me, climate change is an overarching issue that's always there, always there in the background and always very important.”
Bishop is a Democrat, though she’s also been a Republican and describes her political history as “purple.” She’s in her 60s, retired, and lives in Mars, Pa. She spends a lot of her time on political organizing, and keeping up with the news and developments on the campaign trail.
“Trump is always saying he wants to create jobs, but where's his infrastructure plan?” she asked. “There hasn't been an infrastructure plan. Biden has an infrastructure plan.”
Biden’s multi-trillion dollar plan would build green infrastructure and invest in renewable energy. The former vice president believes that would eliminate emissions that cause climate change by 2050. Some Democrats say his proposal is too middle-of-the-road, in part because it doesn’t ban fracking, which is widely used to drill for natural gas in Pennsylvania. But Bishop is glad his plan doesn’t take on the gas-drilling technique.
“It's unrealistic and bad for Pennsylvania to ban fracking, [Biden] knows that," she said. "So the question is, how do we go about this? And that's where I like the Biden plan, because he has not come out in favor of banning fracking.”
Progressive Democrat Savannah Henry also sees climate change as a big problem. She was originally a Bernie Sanders supporter, and unlike Bishop, she thinks it’s critical to ban fracking now. Henry will be a junior at the University of Pittsburgh this fall, and has been spending the pandemic at home with her mom in Erie, Pa.
Last year, Henry went to protests and organized around climate justice. But a number of other stories -- and simply being away from campus -- has shifted her priorities.
“I think right now a lot more people are worried about COVID,” she said. “And I think that's where I am too ... and freaking out about going back to school. I think my lack of spark is because of the isolation.”
But as she pours energy into organizing around race and equity, she points out the intersectionality of racial and climate justice.
“The two intersect,” she said. “Environmental racism is really real.”
In any case, she’s confident Biden is a better pick than Trump, who has rolled back environmental protections and campaigned on promises to bring back coal mines and expand oil and gas drilling.
“I can't think of anything that [Trump’s] done that's even borderline helpful for the environment.”
‘We are in self demise’
Savannah Henry has a surprising climate change ally in Mary Henze, who’s otherwise a huge Trump supporter.
“There is global warming,” Henze said. “It's man's greed that has created it. When we dig and we take away the coal and the oil that has been there for millions of years … it was dead and buried for a reason. What did we expect was going to happen?”
Henze is in her 50s and lives in Jefferson Hills. She’s been on disability for about a decade, and was a Democrat for years before flipping to Trump in 2016.
Both the coal and gas industries were suffering before the pandemic, and Henze acknowledges that Trump’s campaign promises haven’t done anything to change that.
“I’m going to vote for Trump,” Henze said. “But every politician says things to get what they want."
But Henze believes that even if Biden’s proposal was put into action, the planet’s already too far gone. She thinks the environmental problems we’re seeing are a warning from God, and that the remedy is prayer.
“Get yourself right,” she said. “Because the time is coming. We are in self-demise.”
‘It’s just nonsense’
Republican Ed Cwiklinski works part-time in cyber security. He’s in his 40s and lives with his wife and young kids in Bethel Park. Of our four voters, he’s the only one who doesn’t believe in climate change.
“I don't see it,” he said. “The pictures of polar bears stranded on ice caps out in the middle of nowhere, it's just nonsense.”
Cwiklinski thinks researchers are simply making up numbers about the problem, and that teachers shouldn’t talk to kids about climate change at school. He believes that should be left to parents like him.
“Because I'm going to tell them the truth,” he said. “I’m serious.”
Cwiklinski said he gets his information about climate science from “life experience” and online sources like the conservative site PragerU.
Like Henze, Cwiklinski said Trump’s promise to bring back fossil fuels like coal hasn’t amounted to much. But he calls Biden’s plan “smoke and mirrors.”
He said there’s no way the Democrat’s proposal could reduce greenhouse gases, or for scientists to even accurately measure carbon emissions. But the groups who do keep track of that data say in order to curb the most dramatic effects of global warming, action in the next decade will be critical.