Democratic Convention 2016

Democratic Platform 2016: Science Planks Good, Bad and Missing

Are the Democrats really the Party of Science?



In his Hillary Clinton endorsement speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia last night, Sen. Bernie Sanders declared, "Donald Trump? Well, like most Republicans, he chooses to reject science." Sanders was specifically speaking about Trump's calling man-made climate change a "hoax." Trump later insisted that his comment that climate change is hoax perpetrated by the Chinese was a "joke." In any case Trump still says that he's not a big believer in man-made climate change. (Amusingly, Trump's minions cite climate change as a reason why the Irish government should give him permission to construct a sea wall to prevent erosion at one of his golf clubs in County Clare.)

In any case, are the Democrats really the Party of Science? Let's take a look at what the 2016 Democratic Party Platform has to say about the issues of climate change, fracking, nuclear power, energy subsidies, stem cells and genetically modified crops.

Looking through the 2016 Democratic Platform one gets the impression that "science" is largely confined to climate science. The platform states: "Climate change is an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time. Fifteen of the 16 hottest years on record have occurred this century." Surface temperature data from NASA and NOAA support the claim that 15 of the 16 hottest years since 1880 have occurred after 2001. Even the researchers at University of Alabama in Huntsville report that 13 of the hottest years in their satellite data records have occurred since 2001. Given the myriad problems with which humanity must cope, it's an interesting judgement call to say that climate change is the "defining challenge of our time." Still, based on my reading of the evidence, I have concluded that man-made climate change is an open-access environmental problem that could create significant difficulties for humanity later in this century and so needs to be addressed.

So how do Democrats think that man-made global warming should be addressed? Despite the fact that burning natural gas produces about half of the carbon dioxide emitted by coal, the Democratic Platform declares, "We will streamline federal permitting to accelerate the construction of new transmission lines to get low-cost renewable energy to market, and incentivize wind, solar, and other renewable energy over the development of new natural gas power plants." In fact, the switch to natural gas produced by means of fracking shale has been the chief cause for the 12 percent reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions since 2005.

What about fracking? Sanders wanted to ban it entirely. The Platform wants the EPA to regulate it and it would allow NIMBY activism to prevent the exploitation of this fuel source. The Platform evidently accepts the activists claim that fracking releases excessive amounts of methane into the atmosphere and pollutes local groundwater. In fact, there is very little evidence for either claim. In 2015, the EPA released a draft study that reported that the agency "did not find evidence that these [fracking] mechanisms have led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States." Earlier this year, much was made of a study in Pavillon, Wyoming which found that in the 1990s unlined open pits that stored fluids associated with fracking, along with inadequately lined well-bores may have contaminated groundwater there. In June, the EPA noted that even as the fracking revolution was taking off U.S. emissions of methane fell by 9 percent between 1991 and 2014. In fact, the EPA reports, "During this time period, [methane] emissions increased from sources associated with agricultural activities, while emissions decreased from sources associated with the exploration and production of natural gas and petroleum products."

The call for more extensive regulation of fracking in the Platform seems to be responding to anti-fossil fuel activism rather than to the findings of researchers.

Democrats are concerned about climate change caused by burning fossil fuels should embrace nuclear power as a source of no-carbon energy. Instead, Sanders wants to phase it out. The Platform is entirely silent on the issue of nuclear power.

With regard to energy subsidies, the Platform states, "Democrats believe the tax code must reflect our commitment to a clean energy future by eliminating special tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel companies as well as defending and extending tax incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy." (By contrast, the Republican Platform declares, "We support the development of all forms of energy that are marketable in a free economy without subsidies, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower. Note, however, that the GOPers didn't mention renewable energy sources as possible competitors in unsubsidized energy markets.) 

Somewhat opaquely, the Democratic Platform also declares, "We will provide assistance to producers who conserve and improve natural resources on their farms and double loan guarantees that support the bio-based economy's dynamic growth." Is "bio-based" a dog-whistle to biofuels producers? If so, is it really a good idea to encourage farmers to plow up more land to produce biofuels whose contribution to slowing global warming is likely quite marginal?

The Democratic Platform makes no mention of stem cells. On the other hand, it does state, "Democrats believe we must accelerate the pace of medical progress, ensuring that we invest more in our scientists and give them the resources they need to invigorate our fundamental studies in the life sciences in a growing, stable, and predictable way." By "invest," it's pretty clear that they mean more government funding for research and development.

With regard to private sector scientific progress, the Platform observes, "Democrats are committed to investing in the research, development, and innovation that creates lifesaving drugs and lowers overall health costs, but the profiteering of pharmaceutical companies is simply unacceptable." The Democrats have somehow overlooked the fact that no government research agency has ever managed to get a new pill or injection to a patient's bedside. If Democrats are serious about lowering pharmaceutical prices, they should advocate reining in the highly precautionary bureaucrats at the Food and Drug Administration and encourage the agency to further speed up approvals of generic drugs to boost competition. Still, they are onto something when they oppose "anti-competitive 'pay for delay' deals that keep generic drugs off the market." Patents are awarded for 20 years and that should be enough.

Finally, there is not a word in the Platform with regard to genetically modified crops. This is probably just as well since Sanders is for scientifically unjustified GMO labeling and darkly suggests that "huge food and biotech companies … are transforming our agricultural system in a bad way."

For my previous analysis of the science policy planks of the Republican Platform go here. See also below the video, "Are Republicans or Democrats More Anti-Science?" by my Reason TV colleagues Zach Weissmuller, Justin Monticello and Joshua Swain.