Sep 15, 2020 - Science

Wildfires ignite Trump vs. Biden climate battle

hans pointing at each other in front of a fire

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Getty Images photos: Joshua Roberts and Paul J. Richards/AFP

The devastating West Coast wildfires have, at least for now, put a hot glare on the role of climate change in the 2020 presidential election.

Catch up fast: Joe Biden called President Trump a "climate arsonist" Monday in a speech that argued his dismissal of consensus climate science is a threat to people nationwide.

Shortly afterward, Trump clashed with California officials over global warming's role in states' fire crisis, even as both sides agreed on the need for better vegetation management.

  • "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch," Trump told Wade Crowfoot, the state's natural resources secretary. Crowfoot said, "I wish science agreed with you," and Trump replied, "I don't think science knows."

Why it matters: The day's events together represent a proxy clash over climate policy, and also show how the disasters on the West Coast are raising the topic's profile in the election's final stretch.

Quick take: Let's go back to Biden's speech, which showed the campaign's political strategy on climate change and extreme weather.

  • Biden is trying to politically flip the script as they compete for suburban votes. Trump has, among other things, suggested that the sometimes-destructive protests in some cities will drive suburban voters to embrace his law and order message.
  • "Donald Trump warns that integration is threatening our suburbs. That's ridiculous. You know what is actually threatening our suburbs? Wildfires are burning the suburbs of the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest," Biden said.
  • From a raw political standpoint, the states hardest hit by the wildfires — California, Oregon and Washington — are not up for grabs.
  • But while the wildfires prompted Biden's speech, it was shot through with efforts to emphasize the effects of climate change across the country — including key swing states.
  • The speech ranged from discussing flooding in Michigan to the impact of powerful storms hitting Florida and North Carolina, all of which are in play in November.

What we're watching: How much climate change comes up in the Trump-Biden debates that begin in late September.

  • It seems very likely that the tragedies unfolding in on the West Coast will lead to more questions about climate change than would have occurred otherwise.

Go deeper: In California, Trump continues to deny climate change is real: "It will start getting cooler" (L.A. Times)

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