Nearly 2,000 miles west of the Cleveland auditorium where President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden sparred in their first televised debate Tuesday night, fires have scorched a record 2.5 million acres and incinerated entire towns ― and there are still several months left in the fire season.
The president shrugged off a question about what should be done about it.
“That’s burning down because of lack of management,” he said, echoing past arguments that raking leaves and other forest management tasks were all that is needed to combat wildfires that in the past decade have burned more than twice as many acres per year on average than in the 1990s.
Pressed on whether he understands the role that human-caused emissions are playing in heating the planet, causing prolonged droughts and extending a fire season that has already doubled in length since the 1970s, Trump extolled the need for “immaculate air and immaculate water.”
“You know, we’re planting a billion trees,” Trump said.
That there was any climate question at all was a surprise from Fox News moderator Chris Wallace, and it offered one of the clearest contrasts in a 90-minute verbal cacophony of disinformation, petty jabs and schoolyard squabbling.
Biden pitched his plan to add “millions of good-paying jobs” created by new efforts to eliminate the energy sector’s emissions by 2035 and build 500,000 charging stations for electric vehicles. He vowed to halt Trump’s chaotic withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and marshal U.S. allies to fund efforts to stop deforestation in countries such as Brazil.
“We’re going to be in a position where we can create good jobs by making sure the environment is clean and we are all in better shape,” Biden said.
Climate is perhaps Trump’s greatest weakness. For years, his party’s opposition to climate science has been out of step with the American public, which overwhelmingly has favored clean-energy incentives and has understood that the climate is, in fact, changing.
Sixty percent of registered voters in eight battleground states said they or someone they know have experienced the effects of climate change, according to a Public Policy Polling survey of 896 registered voters earlier this month. Fifty-five percent said they “trust Joe Biden more to address climate change,” compared with just 38% who said the same of Trump. A Guardian-Vice poll released last week found two-thirds of U.S. voters favored a presidential candidate who would completely shift the United States’ electricity generation to renewables, such as wind and solar power.
“Joe Biden spoke directly to voters, most of whom support climate action,” Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, the North America director of the climate group 350 Action, said in a statement. “He laid out his plans for addressing the climate crisis, the pandemic, and racial and economic injustice.”
The former vice president avoided Wallace’s question about the future of hydraulic fracturing in the United States. Under the Obama administration, in which Biden served as vice president, the drilling technique known as fracking took off, transforming the country into one of the world’s top producers and exporters of oil and gas.
“Nobody is going to build another coal-fired plant in America. Nobody is going to build another oil-fired plant in America.”
Scientists and policymakers across the world have called for the rapid phase-out of fossil fuels, the primary source of planet-warming pollution. Despite calls from experts and some Democrats to end fracking altogether, Biden has said the natural gas it produces is still needed to replace more carbon-intensive fuels like coal and oil.
“Nobody is going to build another coal-fired plant in America,” Biden said. “Nobody is going to build another oil-fired plant in America.”
Trump gave no direct response. Despite running in 2016 on restoring coal as the nation’s primary fuel for electricity, coal plants have closed at the fastest rate to date under Trump, a sign of decline for the industry.
Still, Trump tried to paint the Democrat as a stooge of the climate hard-liners to Biden’s left. The president repeatedly pressed Biden to swear his fealty to the Green New Deal, the policy framework that progressive Democrats have outlined for a sweeping, World War II-style economic mobilization to rapidly transition away from fossil fuels and industrial farming and remake the United States as a green manufacturing powerhouse.
The core demands of the movement remain popular. But more than a year of unfounded smears from Republicans, amplified on partisan networks such as Fox News, have spread the lie that the Green New Deal is a costly boondoggle that would mean the end of all air travel or meat production. Trump parroted those falsehoods on stage with little pushback from the moderator, claiming the Green New Deal would cost “$100 trillion,” a figure based on a bogus number fabricated by a conservative think tank.
“It’s the dumbest,” Trump said. “They want to take out the cows.”
Biden said the plan would “pay for itself as we move forward” by mitigating the mounting costs of extreme weather catastrophes, though he still distanced himself from the Green New Deal.
“I support the Biden plan that I put forward,” he said. “The Biden plan, which is different than what he called the radical Green New Deal.”
Green New Deal supporters didn’t seem fazed by the apparent wedge. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the legislative godfather of the Green New Deal whose ties to the movement beat back a heated primary challenge earlier this month, quickly issued a statement in support of the Democratic nominee.
“I support the Green New Deal and I’m voting for Vice President Joe Biden,” he said after the debate late Tuesday night. “Donald Trump is wrong. The progressive left is with Joe Biden, and we will pass a Green New Deal.”