Fossil fuel Phaseout, Fenceline Communities, Environmental Justice Take a Seat at the Table

Last night's presidential debate underscored the environmental movement's success in pushing the needle forward on the political discourse on climate change.

The mute button worked! Or at least the threat of it being used did. Last night’s final presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in Nashville, Tennessee turned out to be a much tamer affair than one would have expected. The parley managed to stay more-or-less focused on the candidates’ views on key election issues including the ongoing pandemic, healthcare, race relations, economy, foreign policy, and, of course, an entire segment climate change.

debate screenshot
Unsurprisingly, Trump and Biden laid out vastly different visions for how they would tackle the climate crisis. .

It helped that candidates were muted while the other was answering a question.

That the nearly 12-minute segment brought up mentions of transitioning from fossil fuels, fenceline communities, and environmental justice, is a measure of how successful the environmental movement has been pushing the needle forward on the political discourse on this intersectional crisis that impacts us all.

While the past two debates — between the presidential and vice-presidential candidates — had already made clear that climate change has now become a key election issue, moderators’ framing of the question as a matter of belief left much to be desired. That changed last night, when NBC journalist Kristen Welker simply asked the two candidates: “How would you both combat climate change and support job growth at the same time?”

Unsurprisingly, Trump and Biden laid out vastly different visions for how they would tackle the climate crisis. As in the last debate between the two, the current president didn’t really have much to offer.

“So we have the trillion trees program, we have so many different programs,” he said, trotting out old tropes about the US having the “best lowest numbers in carbon emissions” (untrue) from the last debate without bothering to elaborate on what exactly those “different programs” were. Instead he talked about how “we are working so well with industry” and attacked the Paris Climate Accord as unfair.

Biden, on the other hand, went farther than his relatively light statements during the previous debate, doubling down on his commitment to end subsidies to fossil fuel companies, rejoining the Paris Accord, and, most importantly, admitting that the US needs to phase out fossil fuel use. That’s a biggie (“I will transition. It is a big statement,” he insisted when challenged by Trump). I honestly didn’t think we would get to hear a statement like that on this platform.

He did, however, also double down on his commitment to not ban fracking. Some context here:

It was encouraging to hear Biden start his answer with an acknowledgement that many of us had been waiting to hear on this stage: “Climate change, global warming is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it, he said, adding that we were “going to pass the point of no return within the next 8 to 10 years.”

He elaborated on his climate plan, talking about how investments in clean energy, including building electric car charging stations on highways and retrofitting homes would “create millions of new good paying jobs” and move the US “toward net zero emissions” by 2035.

Trump critiqued the plan, which he called a “pipe dream,” saying windmills killed birds and also emitted carbon, that “solar doesn’t quite have it yet,” and a repeat of his mystifying comment about how home retrofits would involve building houses with “little, tiny, small windows.”

Welker deserves kudos for asking the first-ever question on environmental justice in a presidential debate.

“President Trump, people of color are much more likely to live near oil refineries and chemical plants. In Texas, there are families who worry the plants near them are making them sick. Your administration has rolled back regulations on these kinds of facilities. Why should these families give you another four years in office?” Welker asked.

Trump’s response — “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they are making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made” — was inadequate to say the least. And Biden was quick to point that out.

“Those people live on what they call fence lines. He doesn’t understand this. They live near chemical plants that in fact, pollute, chemical plants and oil plants, and refineries that pollute,” he said, going on to talk about how when he was growing up in the frontline community of Claymont, Delaware, which was located near oil refineries there would be oil slicks on their car window.

“The fact is those frontline communities, it’s not a matter of what you’re paying them,” he added. “It matters how you keep them safe. What do you do? You impose restrictions on the pollutions that if the pollutants coming out of those fenceline communities.”

But as we know, the Trump administration has officially reversed, revoked, or rolled back more than 70 environmental rules and regulations, that would protect such communities, and another 26 rollbacks are still in progress.

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We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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