The final presidential debate was decidedly more civil than the first matchup between President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. Although there was no breakout moment that could shift the race in a meaningful way, one exchange was particularly significant. For the first time in U.S. presidential history, climate change was not only a featured issue at the debate, but was discussed as a fact rather than as a theory. In the past, climate change was either not discussed, or candidates were debating its reality. The final debate hosted the most substantive discussion about climate policy of the election cycle. Trump praised our “beautiful” factories but criticized wind energy. Biden reiterated he won’t ban fracking but will “transition” away from oil.
After climate was left off the list of topics for the first presidential debate, thirty-six senators, spearheaded by Ed Markey (D-MA), signed a letter addressed to the Commission on Presidential Debates, urging that climate change receive more attention. The senators implored the commission to ask the candidates about what they would do to address climate change and environmental justice at every debate. The letter insisted that any discussion on the economy, racial justice, public health, national security, democracy, or infrastructure would be “incomplete” without addressing the global climate crisis. This letter echoes the sentiment of 74% of voters who said it was important to ask about climate change during the debates in a Climate Nexus poll.
The issue of climate made a surprise appearance at the first presidential debate, marking the first time candidates considered questions of climate change on that stage in 12 years. Trump failed to acknowledge the role humans play in causing climate change, even after Fox News’s Chris Wallace pressed him on the topic. The president pointed to poor forest management as the cause of the wildfires in the West, returning to his idea that the fires could be avoided by raking the forest floors. He refuses to accept that fossil fuel burning has led to an increase in dry, warm, and windy days — the perfect wildfire weather. Biden, on the other hand, has made climate change a focus of his campaign. He released a $2 trillion plan to build a clean energy economy, including the ambitious goal of achieving a 100% clean electricity standard by 2035.
Leading up to the debate, the Trump campaign complained that climate change had already been covered at previous debates and did not need to be discussed again. Heeding the criticism from Democrats, NBC instead devoted 12 minutes to climate change in which moderator Kristen Welker framed human-caused global warming as a fact. She questioned both candidates on climate policy, rather than on whether they believe the science. In the first debate, Chris Wallace only pressed the candidates on whether they accepted data indicating a human impact on climate change.
President Trump claimed to want clean air and water while still preserving the economy, emphasizing his productive cooperation with industry. However, despite insisting he wants “crystal clean water and air,” Donald Trump has rolled back more than 100 regulations designed to preserve clean air and water and to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Trump celebrated his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aims to keep the global temperature increase under 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. He added, “I will not sacrifice tens of millions of jobs, thousands of companies” to abide by the Paris Accord.
Possibly the most absurd claim Trump made was that Biden’s proposal to make four million buildings more energy efficient would result in smaller windows. He also posited that the “fumes” coming from wind turbine manufacturing “is more than anything we’re talking about with natural gas.” Neither of these is true.
Offering a stark contrast, Biden began by saying climate change posed “an existential threat to humanity” and that in eight to ten years, the country would “pass the point of no return” that climate scientists warn us about. He considers dealing with climate change as an issue of morality, pointing to the gravity of the environmental, social, and economic ramifications should we not address it. Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan includes the creation of 50,000 recharging stations for electric vehicles and improving millions of buildings’ energy efficiency. The former vice president also emphasized the need to reenter the Paris Accord to hold other nations such as China to their agreement.
The largest point of contention between the two candidates is their varying opinions on the future of the fossil fuel industry. Biden promoted the need to transition to renewable energy, stating he would “get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels.” He went so far as to say he would transition the United States away from the oil industry because of the significant pollution it creates. Trump remarked, “that’s a big statement,” and took this as his chance to appeal to oil-producing battleground states such as Texas, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma. This was a prominent talking point for the president throughout the remainder of his campaign.
The candidates sparred again over whether Biden opposes fracking, cueing Welker to ask if Biden would rule out banning fracking. Biden responded “I do rule out banning fracking,” which he then qualified by saying he would ban fracking of oil and gas on federal lands. Trump’s primary defense regarding climate policy is to highlight Biden’s stance on fracking in hopes to win over energy-rich states and create animosity between Biden and the progressive voters. While this strategy is not enough to win over more progressive voters, Trump’s enthusiasm towards fracking could make a difference in oil-rich communities.
Biden’s refusal to ban fracking and his previous statements denying support for the Green New Deal have created a complicated relationship with progressive Democrats. Though Biden’s climate plan isn’t as far-reaching as the Green New Deal (GND), which was sponsored by Rep, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-MA), it has still earned praise from climate scientists. In response to Trump’s efforts to divide Biden voters from supporters of the GND, Rep. Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Our differences are exactly why I joined Biden’s Climate Unity Task Force — so we could set aside our differences & figure out an aggressive climate plan to address the planetary crisis at our feet. Trump doesn’t even believe climate change is real.”
With a meaningful conversation about climate policy finally being on the presidential debate stage, moderator Kristen Welker prompted an unprecedented conversation about environmental justice. She asked each candidate how he would protect communities of color from industrial pollution. Environmental justice is the concept that communities of color often live closest to polluting facilities and are therefore most vulnerable to health risks. This problem has received renewed attention as the nation focuses more on systemic racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death.
Trump largely deflected, diverting to how he helped get oil-producing countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia to agree to curb production during the pandemic. He also said those who live near polluting chemical plants and oil refineries “are employed heavily and are making more money than they have ever made.” He insinuated the possible health risks these communities face pale in comparison to wage growth they have seen during the Trump administration. However, studies have shown that people who live near industrial facilities don’t experience enough financial benefits to outweigh the harm associated with exposure to the polluted air and water those operations cause. Biden responded that Trump “doesn’t understand” what a frontline community is. Biden focused instead on “how you keep them safe” by imposing “restrictions on the pollutants” coming out of those refineries in those communities.
Back in March, a Pew Research Center survey found that 60% of Americans say climate change is a major threat to the U.S., up from 44% in 2009. The inclusion of climate issues in the presidential debate reflects voters’ heightened interest in the subject. Across the nation, climate change has emerged as a key issue for Democratic voters, in ways that would have been unheard of even four years ago. As we approach the “point of no return” climate scientists warn about, this is perhaps the most important election we’ve faced to ensure a fighting chance against climate change.