Between cross-talk and insults, climate change got more attention last night than in any other presidential debate in history.
Voters might not have noticed.
The bare-knuckle bar fight of a presidential debate was nearing the end when it turned to fuel economy standards and the Clean Power Plan.
The candidates presented starkly different climate agendas. But their policies were buried under a night’s worth of inflammatory statements — from President Trump denouncing the election’s legitimacy and telling white supremacists to "standby," to Democratic nominee Joe Biden snapping, "Will you shut up, man."
Neither side emerged from the debate with climate on their lips.
"Let’s try to be serious," debate moderator Chris Wallace said at one point as he tried to reassert control, later pausing the event to tell Trump: "I think the country would be better served if we allow both people to speak with fewer interruptions."
Yet their answers were still revealing. Trump said nothing about boosting fossil fuel production, the lodestar of his administration’s energy agenda.
Instead, he said supportive things about electric vehicles and planting trees, mischaracterizing his record on the former and getting his numbers wrong on the latter (see related story).
Trump still denied the impacts of global warming, but he dropped his mockery of climate science, and he aimed his attacks about the Green New Deal at a conventional target: its cost.
Trump also wove climate into his recurring critique of Biden as a career politician who talks about problems but doesn’t fix them.
"So why didn’t he do it for 47 years? You were vice president. Why didn’t you get the world — China sends up real dirt into the air. Russia does, India does, they all do," Trump said, shortly after disparaging the Paris climate agreement between China, India, Russia and more than 190 other countries.
Biden outlined specific aspects of his plan — including his ambitions to retrofit 4 million buildings in his first term and achieve carbon-free electricity by 2035 — while trying to smother accusations of radicalism under his moderate reputation.
But he did waver under Trump’s familiar and sometimes misleading attacks, including the president’s claim that Biden’s $2 trillion plan would actually cost $100 trillion.
That number comes from a conservative group that inflated its estimate by including the costs of universal health care and a jobs guarantee (Climatewire, April 1, 2019).
"That is not my plan. The Green New Deal is not my plan," Biden said, choosing to distance himself from the progressive framework rather than defend it.
He stumbled on it later, though.
"The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward. We’re not going to build plants that, in fact, are great polluting plants," Biden said.
The moderator interrupted to ask if he did support the Green New Deal, and Biden backtracked.
"No, I don’t support the Green New Deal," he responded. Trump, who has sought to split Biden’s moderate and progressive supporters, interjected: "Oh, you don’t? Oh, well that’s a big statement. That means you just lost the radical left — it’s gone!"
"I support the Biden plan that I put forward. The Biden plan, which is different than what he calls the ‘radical Green New Deal,’" Biden said.
The moment recalled Biden’s final primary debate in March when, in a heated exchange, he said his plan would ban fracking, only for his campaign to walk back that statement afterward.
Back then, Trump’s campaign hammered Biden as hostile to fracking in hopes of peeling away voters in Pennsylvania.
But the president didn’t go there last night. In fact, Trump dropped almost any mention of energy jobs to instead talk about energy consumers.
Although the Clean Power Plan never entered into force, Trump claimed the Obama-era regulations on power plant emissions had spiked electricity costs. Trump’s vehicle emissions rollbacks would make drivers buy more gasoline, but he said less-efficient cars would sell more cheaply.
Trump returned to that same theme for the Green New Deal. He also floated more outlandish criticisms of it.
"They want to rip down buildings and rebuild the building," Trump said, as Biden tried to speak over him. "It’s the dumbest, most ridiculous — where airplanes are out of business, where two-car systems are out, where they want to take out the cows, too. Oh, that’s not true either, right?"
Biden, a longtime deficit hawk, parried questions about the cost of his plan by saying it’s cheaper than recovering from climate-fueled disasters like wildfires and hurricanes.
"We spend billions of dollars now — billions of dollars — on floods, hurricanes, rising seas. We’re in real trouble. Look what’s happening just in the Midwest with these storms that come through and wipe out entire sections in counties of Iowa. That didn’t happen before, [and it’s] because of global warming," he said.
He pointed to his experience overseeing the 2009 stimulus, the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.
"[We were] able to bring down the cost of renewable energy to cheaper than — or as cheap as — coal and gas and oil. Nobody’s going to build another coal-fired plant in America. Nobody’s going to build another oil-fired plant in America. They’re going to move to renewable energy," Biden said.
Republicans have portrayed Biden as a Trojan horse for socialism. As he did for the Green New Deal, Biden dodged right when Trump tried hitting him with proposals to his left, like Medicare for All.
"My party is me. Right now, I am the Democratic Party," Biden said. "The platform of the Democratic Party is what I, in fact, approved of."
That statement promises to reverberate among climate hawks, who were outraged this summer when the Democratic National Committee removed opposition to fossil fuel subsidies from the party platform at the last minute. At the time, Biden’s campaign said he still opposed subsidies.
Biden said the Paris Agreement has been "falling apart" since Trump announced he would quit the deal. He pointed to Brazil’s rainforest destruction as an example of what happens without U.S. diplomatic pressure backing climate action.
Trump repeated his claim that poor forest management, not climate change, is to blame for deadly wildfires in the western U.S.
Experts say both are at play. But many scientists say Trump’s plans to increase logging could exacerbate the problem by removing the biggest, most valuable trees that are the most resistant to fires while leaving behind the smaller, economically worthless vegetation that becomes kindling.
"Every year I get the call, ‘California’s burning, California’s burning.’ If that was cleaned, if that were — if you had forest management, good forest management, you wouldn’t be getting those calls," Trump said, saying the U.S. could learn from Europe’s "forest cities."
The moderator repeatedly pressed Trump to explain his views on the connection between climate change and human pollution.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide is at the highest level in modern history, though the rate of emissions has fallen due to the pandemic’s temporary lockdowns. Trump seemed to conflate the two.
"We have now the lowest carbon. If you look at our numbers right now, we’re doing phenomenally," Trump said, adding later about people’s connection to rising temperatures: "I think a lot of things do [contribute], but I think to an extent, yes. To an extent, yes. But I also think we have to do better management of our forests."
Biden referenced a report that Trump had asked his advisers in 2019 about stopping a hurricane with a nuclear weapon (E&E Daily, June 9).
Biden also took aim at Trump’s deregulation of methane, a greenhouse gas that in the short term is more than 80 times as potent as carbon dioxide. Trump’s Interior Department and EPA have each moved to roll back methane regulations.
"You can now emit more methane without it being a problem," Biden said.
Trump shook his head: "Not true."