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When the topics for the first presidential debate were announced, climate change was notably omitted which seemed out of touch considering the persistent wildfires raging in California. However, at last night’s presidential debate, moderator Chris Wallace surprised the nation by asking a pointed question to President Trump about his understanding of climate science, after the President previously stated that science was inconclusive on how much a warming planet is driving California’s wildfires.
Worth noting is that Wallace’s decision to add a climate question came as 71 House members, 37 senators, 45 progressive and climate groups, and hundreds of thousands of grassroots voices pushed him to ask the question, according to Climate Power 2020.
Why This Matters: Chris Wallace’s climate change question for Donald Trump showed that this is the President’s weakest issue. Trump had virtually no answer to offer aside from the same line he’s used to blame California’s wildfires solely on forest management. This is where the Biden campaign needs to hit the hardest. When President Trump offers a vague statement like he’s for “crystal clean air and water”, Biden needs to hammer Trump on his record of gutting the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
Even voters in conservative states are splitting with their party on the issue of climate change because its effects are undeniable. Now is the time for Biden and his surrogates to attack President Trump’s record on climate and the environment as voters are listening.
Other Takeaways: Before Chris Wallace asked a direct climate question, Joe Biden did find a way to mention that climate change is a key risk to the suburbs–noteworthy because suburban women will be key in deciding who wins the presidential race in November. This is an important point for Biden to keep reiterating, especially as suburbs across the West are being wiped out by rapidly advancing wildfires. Climate change is not an intangible threat to America’s suburban communities any longer.
Also, while President Trump’s climate denial is not news, he revealed just how little comprehension he has on the topic overall. Here was the exchange of questions between Chris Wallace and President Trump, as Wallace repeatedly attempted to ask Trump about the science of climate change:
Chris Wallace: (48:53) Okay. The forest fires in the West are raging now. They have burned millions of acres. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. When state officials there blamed the fires on climate change. Mr. President, you said, I don’t think the science knows. Over your four years, you have pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama Environmental records, what do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?
President Donald J. Trump: (49:27) I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon… If you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally. But I haven’t destroyed our businesses. Our businesses aren’t put out of commission. If you look at the Paris Accord, it was a disaster from our standpoint. And people are actually very happy about what’s going on because our businesses are doing well. As far as the fires are concerned, you need forest management. In addition to everything else, the forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they’re like tinder and leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there the whole forest burns down. You’ve got to have forest management.
Chris Wallace: (50:09) What do you believe about the science of climate change, sir?
President Donald J. Trump: (50:13) I believe that we have to do everything we can to have immaculate air immaculate water and do whatever else we can that’s good. We’re planting a billion trees, the Billion Tree Project and it’s very exciting for a lot of people.
Chris Wallace: (50:25) You believe that human pollution, gas, greenhouse gas emissions contributes to the global warming of this planet.
President Donald J. Trump: (50:32) I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes. I think to an extent, yes, but I also think we have to do better management of our forest. Every year I get the call. California’s burning, California’s burning. If that was cleaned, if that were, if you had forest management, good forest management, you wouldn’t be getting those calls.
There have been many Republicans who have been adept at spinning the false narrative that action on the environment comes at the direct expense of the economy, Donald Trump is not one of them. This subject is truly his weak spot.
On the other hand, Biden didn’t exactly hit his answers out of the park when Chris Wallace asked him if his climate plan would “tank the economy and cost millions of jobs” as the President has claimed. Biden stumbled where he could have bluntly stated that building a clean energy future as well as a climate change-prepared nation is perhaps the greatest opportunity we have to create wealth and ensure that people along the socioeconomic scale are able to benefit from the transition. The message is as simple as “create jobs while leaving a healthy planet for our children and grandchildren.” Certainly, it was difficult for Biden to get many of his points across with Trump’s overt interruptions but in future debates, he’d be wise to highlight this weakness of Trump’s.
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