After 12 Years, We Finally Got a Climate Question at the Debate. Glory Be!

Sadly, the bar for any discussion one can expect on the climate crisis on the national stage is pretty low. And it showed.

The presidential debate last night was a train wreck, to put it politely. Moderator, Fox News host Chris Wallace, had worse luck trying to manage the two bickering candidates, especially the constantly-interrupting sitting president, than I have when trying to arbitrate an argument between my two kids, ages 3 and 5.

photo of presidential debate
The section on climate change was one of the rare ones that wasn’t constantly disrupted by the president. Image courtesy of C-SPAN.

The rules of the game were apparently not too clear to some of those playing it. Or perhaps, deliberately ignored. As one Twitter denizen put it:

(By the way, the response thread to Vox climate and energy writer David Roberts’ question offers many rich sum-ups like this, should you care to peruse.)

While many Americans chose not to tune in to the political circus, expecting it to produce nothing of consequence other than heartburn, most of us who did, watched (or heard) the chaotic event play out with something close to horrified fascination.

Wait, did Wallace just try to placate Trump by saying he would be “very happy with the next question”? (It was about law and order)

Hold on, did Biden just call Trump a straight up racist? (He did)

Did Trump actually tell the White supremacist group, Proud Boys, to “stand back and stand by”? (Yup, and that egregious comment is further fueling the already racially charged atmosphere in this country. Proud Boys are celebrating by sporting the president’s call to arms in a new banner.)

While this debate will probably be remembered most for Trump’s disturbing call to arms to an alt right group prone to violence, for those of us concerned about the state of our climate, we will likely also recall it as the presidential debate that included a surprise question (actually two) on climate change after a gap of 12 years — the last the issue made it into a presidential debate was 2008.

There had been quite a bit of hand-wringing among environmentalists ahead of the show when Wallace announced the six topics he would focus on in his questions — the candidates’ records, the Supreme Court, the Covid-19 pandemic, the economy, election integrity, and race and violence. The climate crisis — the biggest threat facing humanity right now — was conspicuous in its absence. But it appears Wallace included the question after environmental groups turned the pressure on.

Persistence pays, clearly. Let’s thank the stars for that. But the question itself was wanting.

“What do you believe about the science of climate change? And what will you do in the next four years to confront it?” (emphasis added) Wallace asked after citing the wildfires raging across the American West, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, and his rollback of numerous environmental regulations.

Sadly, while parts of the world burn, drown, and get blown to smithereens by hurricanes — and a warming atmosphere is making these disasters worse and weirder — we are still toying with the idea of science as a belief system instead of an understanding we reach based on empirical evidence.

Anyhow, the Trump avoided answering the question. “I want crystal clean air,” he said. “[W]e have the lowest carbon. (False. US carbon emissions have increased under Trump.) We are doing phenomenally…. The Paris Accord was a disaster… people are actually happy with what’s going on.” And then, of course, he trotted out his old trope the California’s increasingly destructive wildfires being a product of poor forest management and produced a garbled argument about forest floors being “loaded up” with dead trees and leaves that are “like tinder,” adding how “forest cities” in Europe do it better. (Remember the “raking leaves” advise he gave Californians last year?)

When Wallace pressed him further — “do you believe that human pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to the global warming of the planet?” — Trump responded by saying “I think a lot of things do.”

Also, this was the first time I heard about “the Billion Trees Project” Trump referenced. Can anyone clue me in on what that’s about?

Biden, meanwhile, made good use of the rare minutes during the debate when he wasn’t heckled and interrupted quite as much by his opponent, and talked at length about how his climate action plan and investment in green energy would spur economic recovery.

“Nobody’s going to build another coal-fired plant in America. No one’s going to build another oil fire plant in America. They’re going to move to renewable energy,” he said. He also said he would “rejoin the Paris Accord” and that he would work with global leaders to protect forests, including rasing $20 billion towards protecting Brazil’s rainforests. “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,” he said.

The Democratic nominee did slip up on Wallace’s question about whether he supported the Green New Deal, saying that he did not support it. “You just lost the radical Left,” Trump quipped in response, and his campaign was quick to broadcast that one detail. But the thing is, the progressives are already aware the Biden’s climate plan isn’t the Green New Deal.

The main takeaway from the climate section of the debate was that Trump missed the boat here, as has the Republican Party. When it comes to climate change, 2020 isn’t 2016, or 2012, when climate was such a divisive issue that even Obama didn’t want to bring it up during the debates. More and more American voters today think that climate change is a major threat to their wellbeing and of the country as well. A recent Pew study says that the percentage of Americans who see climate change as a major threat has has grown from 44 percent in 2009 to 60 percent this year. Yet another study from last month shows that despite the ongoing pandemic, the state of the economy, and other competing concerns, tackling climate crisis is still important to people.

Biden is more on message, but could do better than just go after the low-hanging fruit. He’s still saying we need fracking, after all.

Either way climate now is going to be key in American politics. As it should be. I just wish we could get to a more robust and nuanced debate on the matter, sooner.

PS: For more nuggets related to dropping nuclear bombs to stop hurricanes and taking out cows, watch the climate section of the debate here.

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