Beto O'Rourke, and every other presidential candidate, must say no to fossil fuels

When it comes to climate change, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke is walking a peculiar path.

In announcing his bid for president, he endorsed the progressive Green New Deal and sounded the alarm that we only have 12 years left to stop the worst impacts of the climate crisis. But just a few months ago, O’Rourke told Texans from the stage of a Senate debate that deciding between oil and renewable energy was a “false choice.” While that might sound reassuring, if he wants to win the presidency and secure the vote of anyone who cares about climate change, Beto’s going to have to pick a side.

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O’Rourke’s “false choice” positioning is the sort of thing mainstream Democratic politicians have said for years, generally following a line in their stump speech about how climate change is real — and we need to listen to scientists. Certainly, that was the tack President Obama took throughout his eight years in the White House. He argued that an “all of the above” energy strategy could allow the burning of oil while also investing in emerging technologies like wind and solar. So O’Rourke’s comment on the Texas debate stage last year wasn’t anything new.

The trouble is that the overwhelming body of scientific evidence disagrees. The science could not be more clear: In order to head off the worst impacts of climate change, we need to transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy fast. If in 50 years, we’re still burning oil, gas or coal, it will mean catastrophe for people across the world. That leaves no middle ground left for O’Rourke or other Democrats, to stand on.

There’s nothing especially unusual about O’Rourke’s rhetoric on climate issues, which is firmly in line with Democratic Party ideology and orthodoxy. But that’s the problem.

They’re all for solar panels, but for her part, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden campaign says no VP pick yet after bike trail quip Hillary Clinton roasts NYT's Maureen Dowd over column Biden edges closer to VP pick: Here's who's up and who's down MORE (R-Calif.) has pointedly refused to support a ban on fracking, a dangerous and highly polluting method of extracting oil and gas.

Former vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden says Trump executive order is 'a reckless war on Social Security' Trump got into testy exchange with top GOP donor Adelson: report Blumenthal calls for declassification of materials detailing Russian threat to US elections MORE has said nice things about windmills, but he has supported investment in “clean coal,” a myth invented and peddled by the fossil fuel industry to delay climate action and slow the transition to renewable energy.

Although she’s in favor of the Green New Deal, Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharSenate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Senate Democrats push to include free phone calls for incarcerated people in next relief package Lobbying world MORE (D-Minn.) has written in favor of “safe domestic oil and natural gas drilling in places like North Dakota.”

Beyond O’Rourke, most Democrats have been content merely to acknowledge the reality of climate change and give us empty words in praise of solar panels. But that can’t be good enough anymore. Because as O’Rourke says himself, “This is the final chance. The scientists are unanimous on this. We have no more than 12 years to take incredibly bold action on this crisis.”

It’s imperative that every single candidate vying to occupy the Oval Office understands the importance of supporting a comprehensive suite of policies that will zero out fossil fuel production.

It’s a positive sign, and indicative of how far climate change has climbed up the ladder of voters’ priorities, that every single Democratic presidential aspirant has voiced support for the vision of a Green New Deal. That resolution, outlined by Sen. Ed MarkeyEdward (Ed) John MarkeySanders offers bill to tax billionaires' wealth gains during pandemic Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Budowsky: Why I back Kennedy, praise Markey MORE (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezDemocratic convention lineup to include Ocasio-Cortez, Clinton, Warren: reports Ethics Committee orders Tlaib to refund campaign ,800 for salary payments Hispanic Caucus asks for Department of Labor meeting on COVID in meatpacking plants MORE (D-N.Y.), is hugely ambitious and calls for an economy-wide mobilization to invest in renewable energy sources like solar and wind. 

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However, that won’t mean much if we allow it to become a blank canvas onto which candidates paint their tolerance of fossil fuels. It can’t be enough to endorse the idea of a Green New Deal, to merely say “yes” to the good. We also expect every single candidate for president, especially Democrats, to commit to say “no” to the bad as well. We expect them to use every tool at their disposal, whether by enacting an oil export ban, ending fossil fuel subsidies, or signing an executive order on day one in office banning the extraction of fossil fuels on public lands and public waters.

No matter who wins the White House in the 2020 election, one thing is for sure: Fossil fuel executives will be ready on Inauguration Day to throw everything they have at blocking climate action. We need a candidate who has the conviction, courage and vision to stare down those attacks and do right by the rest of us. There’s simply no hope that’ll happen if on the campaign trail a candidate insists this is all a false choice. 

In fact, this is a very real choice, and for each Democratic candidate for president, there is only one right answer.

Annie Leonard is executive director of Greenpeace USA. Follow the organization at @Greenpeace.