If there was any doubt before last night, it is now clear: Climate change has officially arrived on the national political stage.
Within the first 15 minutes of the one-and-only vice presidential debate, Vice President Mike Pence brought up the Green New Deal, virtually out of the blue, in response to a question about the coronavirus crisis and the likely super-spreader event at the White House Rose Garden on September 26. Not long after, Senator Kamala Harris brought up investment in clean and renewable energy in the context of economic development. And then, just 33-minutes into the debate, the candidates received the climate question they seemed to be itching for.
Sure, as many were quick to point out online, the framing of the question left some room for improvement, but it is worth noting that the question came up in the first half of the debate and was given the attention it deserves in a dedicated segment of the discussion.
Though she noted the scientific consensus around climate change, moderator Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief for USA Today, still portrayed the crisis as something one can either believe or not believe in, asking Pence: “This year we’ve seen record-setting hurricanes in the South. Another one, Hurricane Delta, is threatening the Gulf. And we’ve seen record-setting wildfires in the West. Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that manmade climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly, and has made hurricanes wetter, slower, and more damaging?”
The discussion on the subject was much easier to track than that at the chaotic first Presidential debate last week. And, if it made clear the weight the climate crisis could carry in the November election, it also left no doubt about the drastically different approaches we’d see under a Trump versus a Biden administration.
Pence began his response by touting the Trump Administration’s “commitment to conservation and science” and “best estimates” that “our land and air are cleaner than at any time ever recorded.” Fact check: Part of this statement appears to be true. The EPA says the US currently has the cleanest air on record. (Though, researchers have calculated that Trump’s rollback of Obama-era climate regulations will lead to an extra 1.8 billion tons of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere by 2035.) On the clean water front, he’s dead wrong. As BBC fact-checkers noted: “The US is ranked 26th in the world on sanitation and drinking water, according to Yale University’s 2020 Environmental Performance Index.”
“The climate is changing,” Pence went on to admit, before quickly implying the change might not be linked to human activities. “The issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it. Trump has made it clear that we’re going to listen to the science.”
What is that science saying, you might ask? According to Pence, apparently it is saying that hurricanes are not getting more frequent, and that years of devastating wildfires in the West are not linked to climate change.
The thing is, as Page had already implied in her question, the link between climate change and hurricanes has more to do with an increase in intensity rather than an increase in frequency of storms. And when it comes to wildfires, one is tempted to ask for Pence’s sources, as scientists have established a clear connection between global warming and bigger, more intense fires in the American West.
Echoing Trump’s response in the first presidential debate, Pence argued that the wildfires can be solved through better forest management, which in his playbook probably means more logging. And climate change? That can be addressed through the free market economy and innovation.
Throughout the debate, Pence also embraced familiar conservative tropes pitting environmental action against jobs and the economy, all within the context of the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus. In doing so, he repeatedly conflated Biden’s climate plan with the Green New Deal, while suggesting that the $2 trillion in investments wrapped into the plan would “bury our economy.” (Read about the difference between Biden’s climate plan and the Green New Deal here.)
His climate position in a nutshell? “Many of the climate alarmists use hurricanes and wildfires to try to sell the bill of goods of the Green New Deal, and President Trump and I are always going to put American jobs and American workers first.”
For her part, Harris, who co-sponsored the Green New Deal in Congress and at one point during the debate referred to climate change as an “existential threat,” used much of her time to tout the economic benefits of investing in clean energy and green infrastructure: “Joe understands that the West Coast of our country is burning, including my home state of California. Joe sees what is happening in the Gulf states, which are being battered by storms. Joe’s seen and talked with the farmers in Iowa whose entire crops have been destroyed because floods. So Joe believes, again, in science… Joe’s plan is about saying we’re going to deal with [climate change], but we’re also going to create jobs.”
Unlike Pence, Harris also laid out several policy goals, including investing in renewable energy, re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement “with pride,” achieving carbon neutrality by 2035, and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Though she was a bit sparse on the details.
To the dismay of many environmentalists, however, Harris made sure to hammer one point home: In response to Pence’s repeated and false claim that Biden said he would “ban fracking” and “abolish fossil fuels,” she emphasized more than once that “Joe Biden will not ban fracking.” Nor did she mention that, despite Pence’s implication to the contrary, fracking won’t solve the climate crisis.
While this might make political sense — Biden is fighting to win his home state of Pennsylvania where fracking is a significant job-creator — it served as a reminder that Biden’s climate plan leaves room for improvement. As Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez summed it up on Twitter, “Fracking is bad, actually.”
Something else that was left wanting in the debate was any discussion of climate justice — the disproportionate impact that rising temperatures will have on already vulnerable communities received no mention at all.
Gaps in the discussion aside, it’s hard to deny the fact that the early climate change question, as well as multiple unprompted mentions of the Green New Deal, in a general election debate mark a turning point in the national discussion on the issue. Thanks to the dogged work of environmental advocates, climate politics have entered the mainstream political discourse.
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