Oct 23, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Climate change goes mainstream in presidential debate

Photo illustration of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.
Photo illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photo: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty

The most notable part of Thursday’s presidential debate on climate change was the fact it was included as a topic and assumed as a fact.

The big picture: This is the first time in U.S. presidential history that climate change was a featured issue at a debate. It signals how the problem has become part of the fabric of our society. More extreme weather, like the wildfires ravaging Colorado, is pushing the topic to the front-burner.

Flashback: Until now, climate change either was wholly absent from presidential general elections or debate was fleetingly focused on whether or not it is real — it is and humans are the driving factor, most scientists agree.

My thought bubble: It’s a (good) sign that politics has finally caught up with reality and the debate didn’t focus on whether or not climate change is real.

  • But, Trump has largely denied the science and hired people with similar views to run the federal government, which is having a major impact on policy. So a question about Trump's record of climate change denial would have helped put him on the record.

The intrigue: Moderator Kristen Welker of NBC asked how the candidates would create jobs while also tackling climate change and how to combat environmental justice.

  • The latter is the concept that communities of color often live closest to polluting facilities, a dilemma receiving renewed attention as the nation focuses more on system racism in the wake of police brutality toward people of color.

The highlights:

  • Prompted by Trump asking whether he would “close down the oil industry,” Biden said: “I would transition the oil industry because the oil industry pollutes significantly.” That incited Trump to remark: “That’s a big statement.” Expect this to come back again in remainder of the campaign.
  • The candidates’ sparring over whether Biden opposes fracking made another appearance Thursday evening, which cued the moderator to ask whether Biden would rule out banning fracking. Biden responded: “I do rule out banning fracking.” He then said he would ban fracking of oil and gas on federal lands. Actually, his plan bans new leasing of oil and gas on federal lands (not current production).
  • One of the odder parts of the exchange came when Trump indicated Biden wants no windows in buildings as part of the Green New Deal.
    • Reality check: Biden has said he doesn’t support the Green New Deal and windows actually make buildings more energy efficient.
  • Trump largely deflected when asked about environmental justice, diverting to talk instead about how he helped get oil-producing nations like Saudi Arabia and Russia to agree to curb production in the depths of the pandemic. “Everybody has very inexpensive gasoline,” said Trump.

My quick take: When gasoline prices are high, that’s pretty much the only thing politicians will talk about when it comes to energy policy. With low prices, it affords the political room to talk about longer term problems like climate change.

Go deeper: Climate’s surprise appearance in the first debate

Go deeper