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‘It’s a Sea Change’: How Climate Went from the Back Burner to a Central Issue in This Year’s Debates

2020 Election, Federal Agency, Opinions, Policy, White House
October 22, 2020

by Brady Dennis (Washington Post)  The last time there was a substantive discussion at a presidential debate about the climate was 20 years ago. And Democrat Al Gore’s predictions have pretty much come true.  —  … Last month, Chris Wallace of Fox News unexpectedly raised the subject during the first debate between President Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, after some criticism that it was not among the topics that he originally planned. “What do you believe about the science of climate change,” he asked Trump, “and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?”

The issue also came up this month during the debate between Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris, his Democratic challenger. Harris called Earth’s warming “an existential threat” and criticized the Trump administration for repeatedly ignoring or downplaying the scientific consensus that its consequences will only intensify. Pence, meanwhile, acknowledged “the climate is changing,” but added, “the issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it?”

Climate change appears likely to get its biggest spotlight yet Thursday, when it will be among the six topics featured during the final scheduled debate between Trump and Biden, according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. The 15 minutes set aside for the segment would mark the most time devoted to the topic in a presidential debate.

The shift comes as Americans increasingly express concern about the warming planet. A poll last year by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation found that a growing number of Americans describe climate change as a crisis, and two-thirds said Trump is doing too little to tackle the problem. It also found that a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change, and roughly half believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects.

In addition, even as the coronavirus pandemic had dwarfed most other concerns, climate change emerged as a front-burner issue during the Democratic presidential primaries, in ways difficult to fathom only a few years ago. Voters in numerous states ranked it as one of their top concerns, alongside health care and economic issues.

Then, of course, there are the real-world impacts that continue to mount.

Trump is likely to avoid any talk of the science around climate change, instead arguing that his administration has worked for “crystal clean water and air,” and that carbon emissions have fallen, despite his White House’s efforts to roll back scores of environmental protections. He is likely to blame countries such as China for causing much of the world’s pollution and criticize Biden’s ideas as costly, job-killing proposals that would send energy prices soaring.

Biden, meanwhile, is likely to underscore that he trusts science and that the nation needs to act to avert global disaster. He’s likely to highlight his $2 trillion plan to transform the nation to a green-energy powerhouse, creating millions of jobs along the way, while reestablishing the United States as a leader in the international push to combat climate change.

How much are global sea levels rising because of climate change?

By melting polar ice sheets and making the ocean expand as it warms, human-caused warming has raised the global average sea level between eight and nine inches since the preindustrial era. In some places, a variety of other factors — regional ocean currents, erosion, settling of the ground — can make the change even more extreme. One recent study of a “hot spot” along the Outer Banks of North Carolina found that sea levels were rising as fast as an inch per year.

Sea level is now rising at over 3 millimeters per year, showing an accelerating rate of increase in recent years, according to NASA. This is being driven in major part by the loss of ice from Greenland and Antarctica. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, flooding during high tides has doubled in the United States in the past 20 years. In the Bay of Bengal, where sea levels are rising twice as fast as the global average, storm surge from Cyclone Amphan exceeded 16 feet and reached almost 10 miles inland.

How does Biden’s climate plan compare to the Green New Deal?

Both Biden and proponents of the Green New Deal want to curb greenhouse gas emissions while creating jobs, but they disagree on how quickly that goal can be achieved.

Biden wants to eliminate climate-warming pollution from the energy sector by 2035 as a first step to achieving net-zero emissions across the transportation, agricultural and other economic sectors by the middle of the century. His plan includes specific mandates and incentives for cutting power and transportation emissions.

The Green New Deal, as put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others, calls for stopping all U.S. contributions to climate change by 2030. The Green New Deal does not prescribe exactly how the federal government should reach that target. It also calls for universal health care and basic income, among other things.  READ MORE

At The Last Debate, Biden Presents a Green Vision While Trump Flails With Rhetoric (Our Daily Planet)

How to Elect Candidates Who Will Run, Win and Legislate on Climate Change (Our Daily Planet)

A window on the climate (Politico’s Morning Energy)

Biden Calls for ‘Transition’ From Oil, GOP Sees Opening (U.S. News and World Report)

How politically damaging were Biden’s comments about closing down the oil industry? Biden said at the debate he would transition away from oil, then later that he would stop giving federal subsidies to the industry.  (Washington Post)

Oil lobby attacks Trump and Biden’s climate policies after debate (Houston Chronicle)

Biden’s debate-night stumble on oil highlights the delicate tightrope he must walk on climate change (Washington Post)

Energy in the final stretch: (Politico’s Morning Energy)

Biden oil talk scrambles lawmakers, campaigns (E&E News)

Oil Industry Bristles at Biden’s Pledge to Transition Away From Crude (Wall Street Journal; includes VIDEO)

Post-Debate Poll Finds 57% of Registered Voters Support Phasing Out Fossil Fuels (Our Daily Planet)

FROM THE TOPLINES … new poll shows most registered voters say they support increasing the United States’ use of renewables (Politico’s Morning Energy)

As Election Nears, Trump Makes a Final Push Against Climate Science:  The administration is imposing new limits on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that would undercut action against global warming. (New York Times)

 ACROSS THE AIRWAVES: (Politico’s Morning Energy)

Incentivize Renewables or Continue Fossil Fuel Extraction? Slim Majority of Voters Choose the Former (Morning Consult)

Factbox: Trade, biofuels and the environment – key agriculture issues in U.S. election (Reuters)

Column: Climate, biofuels key to farm state election battle (The Morning Sun)

A ‘CLIMATE ELECTION’? (Politico’s Morning Energy)


Excerpt from Politico’s Morning Energy: A WINDOW INTO LAST NIGHT’S DEBATE:The deep divide between Trump and Biden on climate and energy policy is not new to any reader of this newsletter — Trump has stuck to oil and gas while Biden has touted his plan’s transition the country to cleaner energy sources. 

The Trump pitch: Trump kept up his persistent message of economics and U.S. energy dominance, and tried to shift the focus back to China’s “filthy” emissions and his contention that Biden wants to ban fracking. The president reiterated recent campaign trail lines: “We have the cleanest air, the cleanest water” — although that ignores contributions made by the Obama administration — while touting the One Trillion Trees Initiative, a global initiative aimed at planting one trillion trees by 2050. “We have the best, lowest number in carbon emissions, which is a big standard that I notice Obama goes with all the time. Not Joe,” Trump said, minutes before he prefaced a statement with “if you’re a believer in carbon emission.” Trump also took aim at Biden’s plan, calling it the product of “AOC plus 3,” who “know nothing about the climate.”

The Biden pitch: Biden similarly stuck to his tried and true arguments, citing science and a moral obligation to do something about global warming. “We’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time. We’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to 10 years,” Biden said. “Four more years of this man eliminating all the regulations that were put in by us to clean up the climate, to clean up, to limit the emissions will put us in a position where we’re going to be in real trouble.” He reiterated his favorite line, that his climate plan will create millions of “good-paying jobs” (more on that below), while going through the greatest hits of his clean energy plan (think 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and retrofitting buildings and homes).

What caught ME’s attention: As Pro’s Zack Colman and Ben Lefebvre report, Trump accused Biden of seeking to kill the oil and gas industry. “Basically what he’s saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma? Ohio?” Trump said, after Biden repeated that he had no plan to ban fracking, and that his plan would transition the country away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources. “I would transition from the oil industry,” Biden said. “Oh. There’s a big statement,” Trump replied.

Trump on environmental justice: The president was asked about deregulation in the context of the communities of color that are more likely to live near chemical plants and oil refineries. “The families that we’re talking about are employed heavily and they’re making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made,” Trump said. Biden responded saying, “The fact is, those front-line communities, it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them, it matters how you keep them safe.”  READ MORE


Excerpts from Washington Post:  For months, the Democratic presidential nominee has walked a careful line with policies and rhetoric calibrated to satisfy both sides of the long-simmering divisions in the Democratic Party over climate change, fossil fuels and how to talk about them in the campaign while seeking to head off attacks from Republicans. But in the last days of the race, that balancing act has been thrust into jeopardy, creating new challenges for Democrats up and down the ballot.

The United States is already moving away from fossil fuels, and carbon emissions must go down by 7 percent each year by 2030 to avoid catastrophe, but President Trump and his allies seized on Biden’s comments throughout the weekend, portraying them as evidence that he is beholden to his party’s left wing and would eliminate many blue-collar jobs. Some moderate House Democrats in competitive districts where oil is an economic engine distanced themselves from the remarks. And liberals who championed a sweeping “Green New Deal” climate blueprint vowed to pressure Biden to go big on climate change if elected.

The effect has been a muddying of the Democratic Party’s stance, forcing Biden and other candidates into a defensive posture with just over a week until Election Day. Climate change has been one of the most politically vexing issues of the Trump presidency for a Democratic Party that is powered by an energetic liberal base but reliant on suburban moderates in the oil-rich Sun Belt and bent on regaining lost ground with White, working-class voters in the Rust Belt, whose jobs are often connected to fossil fuels.

While there is broad acceptance in the party that climate change is real and presents a dire threat, there is less consensus about how to meet the challenge. Equally unresolved is the question of how to pitch ideas to an electorate that includes working-class voters anxious about losing their jobs in a new energy economy and a younger generation that feels an urgency to reverse harmful trends in the environment.

H (Trump) has campaigned aggressively as an uncompromising champion of fossil fuels and against Democratic environmental proposals.

His positions have alarmed Democrats, prompting many to set aside their own differences to support Biden. But climate and energy issues are expected to spark a fierce internal debate in 2021 if Democrats win the White House and the Senate, along with immigration and health care.

Biden has embraced an ambitious plan to end carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and bring all emissions to net zero by 2050. At the same time, he has shown support for industrial unions and workers with a pledge not to end hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” despite the concerns of environmentalists. And he has rejected the far-reaching Green New Deal that liberal leaders have presented in response to the climate crisis.

Biden’s proposals were signals of how Democrats have focused on climate change with more urgency in recent years. President Barack Obama, for example, set more modest goals.
By then, some moderate Democrats were already scrambling away from him. One of the most prominent was Horn (Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.)), who flipped a Republican district in 2018 that includes Oklahoma City, one of the country’s oil capitals, and its suburbs. “Here’s one of the places Biden and I disagree. We must stand up for our oil and gas industry,” she tweeted.
She said that she has heard some concerns from people in her district about Biden and that his plan is not feasible. She called for a “long-term, sustainable approach” that incudes oil and gas.

Campaigning in Pennsylvania on Saturday, Biden tried to set the record straight.

“Let me get something straight here, in coal country: I will not ban fracking — period,” Biden said at a drive-in rally in Luzerne County, Pa. “I’ll protect Pennsylvania jobs, period.”
Rather than highlighting his proposed transition away from oil, as he did in the debate, Biden talked up increased investments in carbon capture technology. “We’re going to get rid of the $40 billion in fossil fuel subsidies and we’re going to invest in clean energy and carbon capture,” he said.
Even in Pennsylvania, where Biden is seeking not to be painted as an enemy of fossil fuels, 74,000 people have jobs linked to clean energy, more than the 23,000 who work petroleum-based jobs. Texas leads the nation in wind-power generation, forging so far ahead that clean-energy companies are hiring laid off oil workers.
Oil industry representatives begged to differ, saying it will continue to dominate the energy sector for years to come, regardless of who is president. “We aren’t going anywhere,” said Mike Sommers, head of the American Petroleum Institute.    READ MORE
Excerpt from Politico’s Morning Energy:  “The politics of climate have changed,” Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, told POLITICO. “It is now a tier one issue that candidates up and down the ballot must address. It really is this new moment where climate has taken center stage in a very difficult year for it to do so.” 

GOING THE DISTANCE: Democrats battling it out in some redder areas of the country are running ads this season distancing themselves from ideas popular among the more progressive flank of the caucus, such as banning fracking or the Green New Deal. It’s a message that became all the more important for these energy moderates to get out after last week’s presidential debate when Biden said he wants to transition the country to renewables from fossil fuels.

In New Mexico, Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is running ads featuring her standing at an oil rig, saying she “stood up to members of my own party who want to ban fracking.” Rep. Kendra Horn (Okla.) makes a similar push in one of her ads, saying she also “stood up” to oppose a fracking ban.

Independent Alaska Senate candidate Al Gross declared in a hunting-themed ad that Sen. Dan Sullivan “says I’m a liberal. Well, I don’t support the Green New Deal or Medicare for All.” Barbara Bollier, seeking an open Senate seat in Kansas against Rep. Roger Marshall, made a similar declaration in one of her ads. And an endorsement for Alyse Galvin, who’s running against Rep. Don Young in Alaska, notes her husband works in the oil industry: “Don’t believe anyone who says she’s a liberal,” says 89-year-old Alaskan Phil Morrow.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped the attack ads. Outside groups, in particular, have sought to tie many Democratic candidates to figures like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who wrote the Green New Deal. The Congressional Leadership Fund attacked Torres Small as too liberal on green issues, citing her 97 percent score from the League of Conservation Voters. The group also ran an ad saying Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio was “making things worse” for wildfires due to his support for the Green New Deal. And Republican Beth Van Duyne, seeking an open Texas seat against Democrat Candace Valenzuela, warned her opponent “might take your job.”   READ MORE


Excerpt from Politico’s Morning Energy: ACROSS THE AIRWAVES: Four days remain until Election Day and former Vice President Joe Biden’s closing argument to voters in a string of ads is heavily focused on climate change, while his opponent, President Donald Trump, continues to paint a Biden administration as a threat to the oil and gas industry.

The Biden campaign released two ads this week related to climate change that will air across national airwaves between now and Election Day. 30-second, animated ad airing on Comedy Central and Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim” targets young voters. It features audio of Trump calling global warming a hoax and calls for voters to “silence” him by voting for Biden.

Another 90-second ad airing on MSNBC links the ongoing wildfires in the West to climate change by telling the story of “Melanie” a hotshot firefighter in Phoenix. “You keep fighting a battle that doesn’t have an end,” she says in the spot, before noting that “we have the science, we have the technology” to fight climate change, but lack the leadership to take it on. Both ads follow an agriculture-focused climate ad launched in Michigan earlier this month.

Running on climate change in 2020 became a “rocket ride to real power,” said Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, during a virtual rally Thursday hosted by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). “And we can tell that because look what Joe Biden is closing his campaign with: One ad after another about climate change.” Biden spokesperson Matt Hill also noted in an email the ads show “the historic role the issue is playing in the election and how the VP and our campaign has made significant investment in it.”

The Trump campaign’s latest ads meanwhile stick to claims that Biden would be a disaster for the oil and gas sector, an argument particularly aimed at winning Pennsylvania. Late last week, the Trump campaign launched an ad in the Keystone State featuring a fracking technician who declares that if Biden’s elected, he’d end fracking. “That would be the end of my job and thousands of others,” she says in the spot. The Biden campaign has taken pains to express its opposition to a fracking ban, including at debates and campaign stops.

Trump has made his support of fossil fuels and fracking key to his closing message in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state where fracking supports from 20,000 to 50,000 jobs, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.  READ MORE

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