The climate crisis is missing from the lineup of questions planned for Tuesday’s first debate between President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden.
The topic is shelved even as California wildfires have again kicked up, as the private sector advances its own net-zero carbon plans absent federal leadership and as the global threat to biodiversity from urbanization and forest loss risks a repeat of pandemics on the scale of COVID-19, scientists stress.
Even with climate off the agenda, several analysts emphasize the wide differences in a head-to-head comparison of the candidates as the Nov. 3 election nears and as other major economies, including China just last week, have advanced a climate-change blueprint that may leave the U.S., without its own proposal, flat-footed on trade, security and more in the years to come.
Accepting the science: Describing the difference between the two candidates often starts with acceptance of the factors behind rising emissions, extreme temperatures and droughts, as well as swelling sea levels that threaten coastlines. While it’s true that the science is evolving, Trump has repeatedly called man-made climate change a “hoax” and says “science doesn’t know” what lies ahead.
He and supporters have stressed the importance of keeping fossil fuels in the energy mix to hold down operational and transportation costs for businesses and households and to help the U.S. cling to a newly dominant position as an oil and natural gas exporter, which they claim earns a valuable position against geopolitical heavyweights Saudi Arabia and Russia. Additionally, the administration and its supporters are concerned that the U.S. effort to curb its polluting is not matched in the developing world; this prompted Trump to pull the U.S. from the Paris Climate accord.
Trump’s position on climate change may not matter as much as the makeup of Congress after the election.
Some Republican lawmakers have tried to separate themselves from outright denial of climate change as they push for a “clean energy mix” that pulls from several sources, so it’s unclear what a Trump win might mean for energy policy, including clean energy initiatives, in the next Congress. Rep. Dan Newhouse, Republican of Washington, wrote for the Wenatchee World Empire Press, “we still have work to do to secure our nation’s energy independence and clean energy future, but there is a bright future ahead.”
And the just-completed National Clean Energy Week was a rallying point for the authors of the American Energy Innovation Act, a package of more than 50 energy-related bills considered by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and compiled by Chair Lisa Murkowski, the Republican of Alaska, and Ranking Member Joe Manchin, Democrat of West Virginia, they said in a release.
Biden, who calls climate change an “existential threat,” has said the scientific community plays a big role in shaping policies. He would push the U.S. to rejoin its global peers in trying to turn back the climate-change clock.
Comprehensive plan: Biden has announced a $2 trillion plan to, he claims, create millions of jobs and achieve 100% clean electricity by 2035, a target that has seemed more realistic as solar and wind pricing became competitive with traditional energy sources in just the past decade. Biden has embraced portions of the Green New Deal from the Democratic party’s more-progressive arm, but not all.
Biden has called for achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 and supports the Clean Cars for America plan, a pledge he made earlier this year but one given fresh emphasis after California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a proposal to halt sales of new gasoline-powered passenger cars and trucks in the influential state by 2035.
The Trump administration has not put forward a specific plan to address the climate crisis and environmentalists have cried foul at the reversal of roughly 100 environmental rules, some decades-old regulations carried across administrations from both political parties. For example, Trump will open the 19 million-acre Alaska Arctic refuge to drilling for the first time, after more than 30 years of oil-industry lobbying for such access.
Trump did expand the rules that limit offshore drilling in Florida.
The fracking fracas: One of the stickier policy points for Biden has been his stance on allowing new or even maintaining existing oil drilling, including fracking, with particular emphasis on swing state Pennsylvania and its resource-reliant economy. Critical ads have claimed Biden would ban fracking; the candidate says that’s not true, he would only ban new fracking on public lands and water. Most fracking takes place on private property, but can impact nearby land. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial board says the state remains confused about where the candidate stands on fracking.
As part of the coronavirus response, Trump pushed a tax law that gave a $25 billion break to the fossil-fuel industry. He has expressed no plans to curb fossil-fuel subsidies. Biden says he has a plan to end the estimated $20 billion the U.S. spends on fossil-fuel subsidies annually.
Carbon tax revisited: Another of the more controversial environmental policy points lies with assigning a federal price, or a “tax” depending on who has control of the language, on carbon. The influential CEO group Business Roundtable has just released a series of market-driven climate-change positions that includes pricing carbon.
Attempts to create a national cap-and-trade market to introduce buyers and sellers in order to share the carbon burden have largely fizzled over the past few decades. Early in the Trump administration, it was reported that Vice President Mike Pence met with business leaders on a carbon tax, but more recently the president has been fairly quiet about the topic all together.
As part of a party platform, Democrats have been generally in favor of such a tax; but most reports show Biden is less likely to make it a priority.
Environmental justice: This year, Trump weakened the National Environmental Protection Act, a law that gives communities of color the ability to provide input on major polluting projects and pipelines being built in their neighborhoods, the left-leaning advocacy group Climate Power 2020 says. Trump has tried to defund environmental justice enforcement at the EPA. His administration says these regulations are expensive and difficult to enforce equally.
The Biden ticket, say political analysts, earned improved marks for environmental justice when Sen. Kamala Harris of California was named as the vice presidential candidate. She has spoken out on the importance of always including social justice within environmental policy-setting.