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Last night was the last time voters would get to see both 2020 presidential candidates on stage together before they head to the polls. This time around moderator, NBC News’ Kristen Welker, picked climate change as a category in advance and began her questions by asking how each candidate would address climate change while also supporting jobs. While Joe Biden aptly touted the job creation and economic potential of his plan, President Trump flailed, saying:
“So, we have the trillion trees program, we have so many different programs, I do love the environment, but what I want is that cleanest crystal clear water, the cleanest air. We have the best lowest number in carbon emissions, which is a big standard that I noticed.”
Why This Matters: There wasn’t even the faintest hint of urgency for the climate crisis in any of Trump’s remarks wheres Biden began his statement by saying that
“Climate change is an existential threat to humanity. We have a moral obligation to deal with it.”
Should Biden be elected in two week’s time, this line could set the tone for how his administration approaches climate change. Biden also made it clear that “we have to move toward net-zero emissions” which will necessarily mean a transition away from fossil fuels. It’s a line in the sand that no president will have made, but it’s an important position to take.
Also, while Trump attempted to spin this as Biden wanting to “destroy the oil industry,” two-thirds of voters support Biden’s climate plan which would invest $2 trillion into renewable energy. Solar and wind jobs (as Biden also pointed out) are the fastest-growing jobs in America which signals that the jobs of the future do not lie with the fossil fuel industry.
Environmental Justice: Kristen Welker also brought up the important topic of environmental justice and when asked, President Trump largely deflected but not before touting his (exaggerated) record on job creation for BIPOC communities. Science shows that part of the reason why Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than whites is that air pollution in Black neighborhoods exacerbates comorbidities. Air pollution has gone up under the Trump administration after years of decline and this affects communities of color most profoundly. Protecting the health of all Americans should be the ultimate priority of any president, the focus on job creation here specifically was awkward.
While Biden missed a chance to talk about the human cost of doing nothing about climate change he did deliver a personal anecdote about what it was like to grow up in a “fenceline” community in Delaware where pollution caused pervasive cancer. Biden shines most when he references personal experience and this answer made clear that this should be his approach to humanize the costs of climate change.
The Bottom Line: Overall, the debate didn’t reveal anything new about each candidate’s views on climate change and the environment. However, the more political candidates are asked about these issues, the more they become narratives that the media covers, and in that regard, Welker’s questions mattered very much.
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