Amid the interruptions and relentless bickering during Tuesday night’s confrontation, Americans witnessed something they hadn’t seen in over a decade: a discussion of climate change in a presidential debate.
Centered on the devastating wildfires that have already burned millions of acres across the western United States, the approximately 10-minute dialogue was the longest debate on the topic in an election debate since 1988, according to the climatologist Eric Holthaus. It was also the first time in 12 years that a presidential debate host had asked a question about climate change, a shift that shows how important the issue of global warming is to American voters today.
“You guys, I’m so glad they talked about climate change for 10 minutes, and those were really good questions. We are in a climate emergency, and we have come a little closer to this response this evening ”, Holthaus tweeted on Tuesday following the debate.
He also recognized the importance of bringing global warming to the debate stage, especially after climate change was notoriously absent from the list of topics selected by moderator Chris Wallace and published by the Presidential Debates Commission September 22.
“This doubles the total time of the 2000 minutes of presidential debates since 1988”, Holthaus said.
This sentiment has been echoed by other climatologists who have long waited for meaningful political action at the federal level to combat climate change.
“I am really glad that climate change was brought up in the debate last night,” said Julie Caron, climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “It is a significant issue that impacts a number of aspects of the lives of people here in the United States and around the world, including health, safety and national security.”
But when it comes to the position of President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on the issue, they remain distant.
Trump has not explicitly acknowledged the role humans have played in climate change, even after Wallace urged him on the matter. Discussing wildfires in the West, the President blamed poor forest management for the fires, reverting to an idea he often cited about how wildfires could be avoided by raking the forest floor. .
Scientists have said that forest management plays a role in forest fires – primarily because dead trees and dried leaves act as “fuel” for fires – but studies have shown that climate change makes forest fires more frequent and more intense.
Trump’s comments were largely in line with his previous statements, including his continued, mostly erroneous and too narrow focus on forest management practices as the cause of wildfires, which science tells us. they are being fueled by climate change, ”Nathan Hultman, said the director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland.
In his nearly four years in power, Trump dismantled many environmental policies and overturned more than 100 regulations designed to keep water and air clean and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“I want crystal clear water and air. I want clean air, ”Trump said during the debate. “We have the least carbon. Look at our numbers now. We are doing phenomenal things.
Although carbon dioxide emissions in the United States have declined in recent years, scientists have said the trend is likely to be reversed following the dismantling of environmental regulations by the Trump administration.
“That’s the biggest lie he’s told tonight, and there have been some big problems,” Michael Mann, climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, tweeted after Trump’s claim to have the “lowest” carbon emissions.
Biden, on the other hand, has made climate change a goal of his campaign. In July, he released a $ 2 trillion plan to build a clean energy economy that includes the ambitious goal of achieving a 100% clean electricity standard by 2035.
While Biden’s climate plan is not as ambitious as the proposed Green New Deal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, DN.Y., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., It has been lauded by climatologists and environmental activists.
Trump tried to divide Biden’s camp and supporters of the Green New Deal, saying Biden’s failure to support the plan meant he “had just lost the radical left.”
Ocasio-Cortez rejected the notion, tweet in response: “Our differences are exactly why I joined Biden’s Climate Unit Working Group – so we can put our differences aside and develop an aggressive climate plan to deal with the planetary crisis in our country. feet. Trump doesn’t even believe climate change is real.
During the debate, Biden also reiterated his intention to join the Paris Agreement and work with global partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump announced in 2017 his intention to back down from the landmark climate deal, a move that has been widely criticized by climate researchers.
Yet for all the vitriol of the debate, experts said, it is important that climate change is a featured topic. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March found that 60% of Americans say climate change is a major threat to the United States, up from 44% in 2009. The inclusion of climate issues in the presidential debate “reflects increased political and popular interest in the subject Hultman said.
“Yesterday’s presidential debate, while controversial, appropriately focused attention for some time on the challenges of climate change and the opportunities for response through our US and international policies,” he said. he declares.