In Thursday’s debate, President and Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden laid out starkly different visions of addressing America’s climate crisis. In their lengthiest exchange to date on the topic, Trump assured viewers that America has “the best, lowest number in carbon emissions,” while his contender stressed climate change as “an existential threat to humanity” requiring urgent remodeling of the energy industry.
Addressing the threat of climate change has always been difficult for Trump. He’s settled into a consistent, alternating pattern of confirming and denying its existence or blaming others for his own confusion. In 2009, Trump and several of his children signed an open letter to Barack Obama calling for a global climate deal. Months later, he changed his mind because New York experienced a cold winter. If he had taken the time to Google global warming, he would’ve read that extreme weather trends, including seasonal freezes, are a symptom of Earth’s thinning ozone layer. In 2016, Trump referred to climate change as “a very expensive hoax” generated by and “for the benefit of China.” However, he later backtracked and specified that he didn’t believe in “man-made climate change” and dubbed his comments about China as “a joke.” In May of 2016, he asked officials in County Clare, Ireland, to approve a sea wall to protect his resort from rising sea levels. On his application, he stated, “If the predictions of a rise in sea levels as a result of global warming prove correct…it is likely that there will be a corresponding increase in coastal erosion rates…In our view, it could reasonably be expected that the rate of sea-level rise might become twice of that presently occurring.”
However, once he assumed office, Trump replaced the White House website’s climate page with his own America First Energy Plan, which pledged to “eliminate harmful and unnecessary policies such as the Climate Action Plan.” This promise was fulfilled when Trump gutted Obama-era climate policies, including the Clean Power Plan, and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. However, he kept revisiting his stance on man-made climate change. When asked outright about his beliefs in a 2018 60 Minutes interview, he responded, “Something’s changing, and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax.” He specified, “But I don’t know that it’s man-made. I will say this. I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t wanna lose millions and millions of jobs.” After being reminded that NOAA and NASA studies have concluded that humans are indeed warming the planet, Trump responded, “We have scientists that disagree with that.” He later added, “Look, scientists also have a political agenda.”
Trump’s ever-changing opinion has contributed to confusion among his supporters, the majority of whom identify as deniers of climate change, which Trump’s flakiness only perpetuates. The question on climate policy posed at Thursday’s presidential debate sought to clarify any last-minute confusion. When asked by the moderator about his plan to combat climate change, Trump assured viewers, “I do love the environment,” and cited a federal program to reduce carbon emissions by planting trees.
However, veering away from the topic at hand, Trump was quick to rank his priorities. He made it clear he is not willing to harm business in order to help the environment–a sacrifice Biden is willing to make. Biden’s plan would replace lost jobs with more, higher-paying opportunities in the clean energy industry, believing a clean energy industry would only boost U.S. businesses. He believes in balancing the welfare of the economy and environmental initiative, because “global warming is an existential threat to humanity” and thus an equal priority. He stated firmly, “We have a moral obligation to deal with it and we’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time.”
Trump immediately challenged him on the specifics of his plan. The President asked, “Would you close down the oil industry?”, to which Biden responded, “Yes. I would transition.” According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2018, about 50% of U.S. energy-related emissions came from the burning of fossil fuels. Biden reasoned, “the oil industry pollutes, significantly, [and] it has to be replaced by renewable energy.” He assured this would be a gradual shift, beginning with the elimination of federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry. Solar, wind, and other forms of non-polluting power would flourish in their absence and provide high-paying jobs.
Trump was quick to reprimand his competitor: “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?” These states traditionally vote red in favor of Republican candidates backed by energy companies. In 2016, the oil industry donated $1.5 million to Trump’s presidential campaign, with “drill, baby, drill” rising as a popular chant at his rallies. So far, his 2020 re-election campaign has received $936,000 from the fossil fuel industry.
Biden’s hardline stance has been criticized by Republicans and even some moderate Democrats. U.S. Representative Kendra Horn (D-OK), who is seeking re-election this year, was quick to distance herself from Biden on Twitter, citing his energy plans as “one of the places Biden and I disagree.” Former Texas Governor Rick Perry, who served as Trump’s energy secretary, was quick to pounce on the comments, claiming Biden’s plan would kill millions of jobs.
In an interview after the debate, Biden told reporters he did not plan on “getting rid of fossil fuels,” but rather “getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels. But we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time… [energy workers] are not going to lose their jobs.” Once again, he reaffirmed that “a lot more jobs are going to be created in other alternatives,” namely his plan for updating agriculture and conservation, transit, sustainable housing, building upgrades, the auto industry, and infrastructure into clean energy industries.
Trump falsely accused his Democratic opponent of supporting a ban on fracking–a claim Biden has repeatedly denounced. “I never said I oppose fracking,” he assured viewers. (Hydraulic fracturing is a process of extracting natural gas and petroleum from deep-rock formations and is opposed by many environmentalists.) Instead, the Democratic contender wants to end the leasing of federal lands in the West to drilling for oil and gas. This practice would still be permitted on state and private lands, such as those in Pennsylvania–a crucial swing state in the election that typically favors Republican candidates backed by the oil industry.
The president mocked a section in Biden’s climate plan calling for energy-efficient buildings, saying, “They want to knock down buildings and build new buildings with little, tiny windows.” In between jabs, Trump failed to adequately address his own climate plan. He claimed, “We are energy efficient,” despite the United States importing about 9.14 million barrels of oil per day from about 90 different countries.
Discussion on climate change has been virtually absent from presidential debates for the past two decades. But after a year marked by heat waves, hurricanes, record wildfires, droughts, flooding, and other climate-related catastrophes, there was simply no avoiding it. It is a pressing matter to many voters, who feel its media presence has been surpassed by the COVID-19 pandemic, economic instability, jobs, and racial injustice–all of which receive regular attention in debates. In offering an explanation for this trend, political scientist Larry Sabto said that “[c]limate is a long-term concern, as opposed to joblessness, which is today, or a pandemic, which is today.”
However, the effects of climate change have brought homelessness, property damage, injury, and death to the doorstep of thousands of Americans this year. If able, they, too, will be at the polls. President Trump’s claims of America’s “[c]rystal clear water” and “cleanest air” lack substance and only shroud the lurking economic damage that environmental disasters will continue to inflict c every year. Flint, Michigan is part of the United States too. Where’s their “crystal clear water?” Trump’s suggested initiative to clean California’s forest floors may help lower the rate of wildfires in wooded areas, but not in the drier, grassland regions. Further, his budget cuts to the U.S. Forest Service won’t make climate disasters any less potent.
It is unlikely that the issue of climate change will fade from presidential debates any time soon. While the near future remains uncertain, carbon emissions will continue on their upward trend, bringing a fire season even more destructive than the last. We can only hope that our president, lawmakers, and representatives in Congress will answer the call to cut greenhouse gas emissions and adopt clean energy initiatives. Lives are on the line.