The long-awaited climate question in last night’s presidential debate broke a 20-year silent streak from moderators on the crisis – thrusting it into prime time but also revealing just how stuck in the past much of the US is on the issue.
After more than an hour of chaos as the candidates talked over each other, the Fox News anchor Chris Wallace asked Donald Trump: “What do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”
Former vice-president Al Gore – who was the last candidate asked directly about climate change in a general election debate, in 2000 – praised Wallace in a tweet for “asking serious and well-researched questions about the climate crisis”. In 2008, the vice-presidential candidates were asked to debate what is true and false about the climate crisis and the presidential candidates were asked about reducing US dependence on foreign oil.
The exchange was the most substantive discussion yet of the climate crisis in a general election presidential debate, said Bracken Hendricks, co-founder of the climate group Evergreen Action. But, that is not necessarily saying much, given the previously low bar.
“However, Chris Wallace also fell into several common traps of asking whether climate change is real and discussing the cost of action without the crucial context of the cost of inaction,” Hendricks said. “The moderators of future debates should build on this foundation and investigate the candidates’ divergent plans on the climate crisis.”
The debate could have focused on the starkly contrasted futures Americans must choose between – tackling the crisis that global leaders call the biggest ever threat to human rights, or fueling it.
Instead, Wallace framed the existence of a human-made climate crisis as something that is for some Americans still debatable, asking Trump “What do you believe about the science of climate change” and “[Do] you believe that human pollution, gas, greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to the global warming of this planet”.
Science unequivocally shows humans are the predominant cause of global warming.
Trump fell back on his common refrain that he wants “crystal clean water and air”, argued we have “the lowest carbon” and said China, Russia and India send up “real dirt into the air”.
Wallace pushed Trump to explain his views on climate science, asking if he believes human pollution contributes to global warming of the planet.
“I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes,” Trump said.
Despite that response, Trump refused to acknowledge the impacts of climate change, which include worse wildfires. And he said climate action would drive energy prices “through the sky”.
Trump proudly cheerleads fossil fuels. His administration has torn down essentially every federal climate action the US has ever undertaken. And his position on climate science waffles from thinking it’s a flat-out “hoax” to questioning that humans are the main cause and confusing it with air pollution.
Biden, on the other hand, has laid out a $2tn plan to invest in green infrastructure that will try to eliminate US climate pollution by the middle of the century.
Wallace queried Biden on his climate plans, and the former vice-president spoke at length about his proposal. He said it would create “millions of good-paying jobs” and that the cost of inaction is more severe weather. He took a jab at Trump for suggesting dropping a nuclear weapon on hurricanes – which are intensifying because of the climate crisis.
Biden said he does not support a Green New Deal – a vision for large-scale spending to fight the climate crisis and inequality that has become a buzzword for Republicans who see Democrats as radical.
“You just lost the radical left,” Trump said.
Biden would put 40% of climate investments toward environmental justice, including in communities of color that are more likely to be surrounded by polluting fossil fuel infrastructure. But it stops short of progressive calls for Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee, two key components of the Green New Deal.
While many climate advocates were elated that a climate question was asked at all, others were disappointed.
“Hot and unpopular take: I would have been OK with Wallace skipping,” said RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote. “He asked a very shallow question with limited follow-up.”