Wallace’s original question was whether Trump believes the scientific consensus about climate change in light of the fires burning in California; the president dodged it rather than repeat his recent assertions that the science can’t be trusted and the earth is about to start cooling. When Wallace pressed him to clarify whether he accepted that greenhouse gases contribute to global warming, he grudgingly conceded: “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes.” That made political sense, too, since the Yale survey found 72 percent of Americans believe global warming is happening, while only 12 percent don’t.
The survey found the public also agreed by a 61 percent to 29 percent margin that global warming will harm Americans, by a 56 to 44 margin that it’s already harming Americans, and by a 60 to 11 margin that the president should do more to address it—all of which helps explain why the president tried to tack toward the climate majority on the debate stage.
“We now have the lowest carbon,” Trump said. “If you look at our numbers now, we are doing phenomenally.”
America’s emissions are indeed lower in 2020, but that’s because of the coronavirus lockdowns, not because of Trump’s energy or environmental policies, which have had the consistent objectives of relaxing restrictions on polluting industries and promoting the mining and drilling of fossil fuels. Trump scrapped Obama’s Clean Power Plan that would have regulated carbon emissions—which, incidentally, had 75 to 24 support in the Yale poll—as well as rules limiting mercury, soot and other pollution from coal-fired power plants. As Biden tried rather inarticulately to point out, Trump’s administration has also ditched rules limiting methane emissions by oil and gas companies, accelerated permits for drilling, mining and logging on public lands, rolled back protections for wetlands, and made the United States the only nation to announce its withdrawal from the Paris climate accords.
Nevertheless, Trump tried to portray himself as a champion of clean air and water—or, as he put it, “immaculate air, immaculate water”—another nod to the power of environmental issues, especially among the suburban women who have been such a problem for his reelection campaign. The only specific environmental policy Trump brought up, aside from his nonexistent electric vehicle incentives, was his support for a global initiative to plant a trillion trees, which he misidentified as the Billion Tree Project. “It’s very exciting for a lot of people,” he said, although he didn’t really make it sound like he was one of those people.
Trump’s message was that he’s an environmentalist, but Biden is a radical environmentalist who would destroy the American economy with left-wing nonsense. Again, though, he had to resort to wild falsehoods to make that case. He attacked the Obama-Biden administration’s Clean Power Plan for somehow “driving energy prices through the sky,” even though it never went into effect. He accused Biden of wanting to spend $100 trillion on the climate, using a sketchy right-wing analysis of the “Green New Deal” that Biden doesn’t even support, and also of wanting to ban cows and air travel, another misleading reference to the Green New Deal, or at least to a list of talking points about the Green New Deal that Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s office released and then hastily retracted.
Biden, on the other hand, seemed delighted to discuss the substance of issues he sees as politically advantageous as well as globally consequential. When Wallace said he’d like to discuss climate change, Biden blurted out: “So would I!” He talked with a lot of passion, though not a lot of focus, about his role overseeing the Obama stimulus that helped bring down the cost of wind, solar and other renewable energy sources; about “weatherization” programs that could put unemployed Americans to work caulking windows and otherwise upgrading the energy efficiency of homes and businesses; and about his idea to pay the Brazilian government to crack down on the destruction of the carbon-rich Amazon. He also called for electrifying the federal government’s fleet of vehicles and installing 500,000 charging stations on America’s roads—a solution for the Darling-where-do-I-get-a-charge problem.
Wallace also challenged Biden about the fiscal and economic cost of his climate plan, which irritated many climate activists, but it’s a legitimate question that led to one of Biden’s strongest moments in the chaotic debate. He argued not only that his $2 trillion plan will provide millions of jobs in green industries and green infrastructure projects, a common Democratic argument, but that the cost of inaction would be far greater, since America is already spending more than ever on climate-driven floods, hurricanes, fires and droughts.
“We’re in real trouble,” Biden said. “Look what happened in the Midwest with these storms that come through and wipe out entire sections and counties in Iowa. They didn’t happen before. They’re because of global warming.”