WASHINGTON – Joseph R. Biden’s Thursday night pledge to ‘get out of the oil industry’ to tackle climate change brought the issue to the fore for the latter part of a campaign year in which global warming has played a bigger role than ever.
Mr Biden’s statement in the closing moments of Thursday’s debate gave President Trump what his campaign saw as a huge opportunity to blunt his opponent’s appeal to working-class voters. Mr Biden’s campaign attempted to play it down, saying he was simply saying he would phase out long-standing tax subsidies for the oil industry.
But the shift away from fossil fuels is the inevitable end of Mr Biden’s promise to end net carbon pollution by 2050. The policy has energized some young voters and helped unite the left and moderate wings of the Democrats, but always posed risks for Mr. Biden.
“Last night Joe Biden made a clear threat to 19 million Americans with his promise to wipe out the oil industry. No rotation or cleanup by Biden or his team can correct this mistake, ”said Steve Guest, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee on Friday morning.
In no political year has climate change been as dominant an issue as 2020.
The two presidential debates examined the issue for the first time in history. Mr Biden has campaigned fiercely on promises of reduced emissions from global warming, and President Trump has even worked sporadically to moderate his long-standing climate denial by promoting tree planting as an environmental solution.
But the closing moments of the debate reverted to an older question: Can the nation switch to clean energy from fossil fuels without huge economic and political disruption?
“Basically what he’s saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry,” Mr. Trump accused, adding, directly to the camera, “will you remember that, Texas? of that in Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?
The line recalled the Republican response in 2016 to Hillary Clinton’s recognition that “we are going to put a lot of miners and coal companies out of business” as the nation shifts to clean energy. These comments resonated in coal mining states like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wyoming.
Mr Biden’s comments may have brought into play a new set of states that have seemed friendly to Mr Biden, such as Texas and New Mexico. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, an endangered freshman Democrat in New Mexico, said on twitter, “We need to work together to promote responsible energy production and stop climate change, not demonize a single industry.”
Although more talked about than stated, the transition from fossil fuels will be necessary to meet Mr. Biden’s goals of eliminating emissions from the energy sector by 2035 and achieving net zero emissions in the economy. by the middle of the century.
Still, he walked a fine line throughout the campaign, insisting that natural gas production – and the jobs it creates – will remain at the core of America’s energy makeup for several years, so even that he envisions a future powered more by wind, solar and other renewable sources.
Some energy experts have said that the Trump campaign’s attacks on Mr Biden may not have the same resonance as those against Ms Clinton four years ago, largely because public understanding of climate change has increased and the world’s major oil companies have, to varying degrees, made commitments to cut emissions.
“It’s a playbook that they keep coming back to, and it’s less and less effective. The economy is changing and the public is changing, ”said Joshua Freed, who heads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank.
Freed called the level of attention to climate change received in the two presidential debates and throughout the campaign as “delayed” and said he believed the United States had taken a step forward in accepting it. the need to reduce greenhouse gases. “When you have the worst wildfires in history on the west coast, when you’ve flooded after flood after a record storm and hurricane in the rest of the country, you have people saying, ‘That’s a big problem and we want to see it addressed, ”he said.
In NBC’s 12 minutes on climate change Thursday, NBC moderator Kristen Welker described man-made global warming as a fact. She asked candidates for their solutions rather than whether they “believe” in science.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump have engaged in a sustained debate on the economic effects of solving and failing to solve the problem. And for what many analysts said was the first time, contestants were asked to talk about the consequences of pollution on communities of color that live disproportionately near industrial sites.
“His presence in both debates underscores the difference and the extent to which this issue is seen as a voting issue and not just a niche issue in a party primary,” said Robert Gibbs, former press secretary for the White House under President Barack Obama.
“This means that climate change and the solutions to climate change have brought a number of other really important issues to the fore not only of what is being discussed in the final days of the elections, but probably at the top of the order. from the day to the start of the next Congress. It’s fundamentally different, ”said Gibbs.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Climate Change Communication Program, attributed the shift to an increase in public awareness and engagement with climate change over the past five years. Mr. Obama has made climate change a centerpiece of his second term. The science around the dangerous consequences of the climate has strengthened. And more and more, Americans are faced with the reality of record extreme weather conditions with floods, hurricanes and wildfires.
“Americans have a different awareness of climate change than they did 12 years ago,” he said.
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And for the first time, climate change was seen as a major issue for Democrats in the primaries, which Mr Leiserowitz called “very important”.
He also said that Mr. Trump’s outspoken denial of climate science helped bring attention to the issue. “Having a chief climate denier saying this is a Chinese hoax is all helping to sharpen the line between the positions of the two sides,” Leiserowitz said.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who was an economic policy adviser to Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign against Obama, said areas of agreement were poor rallying points. That year, the two candidates not only believed that climate change was real and serious, but had similar proposals to address it.
“I thought it would be a time when the nation would learn a lot about greenhouse gas emissions,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said. But other than a few press articles, it has been largely ignored.
“Problems become important when they are a point of differentiation between candidates,” said Mr. Holtz-Eakin. “What I finally realized in hindsight is that there’s no point in talking about it because it doesn’t help you choose.”
In the 2020 election, the difference between the candidates could not be more striking.
Mr. Trump has denigrated climate science and installed climate change deniers in prominent positions in both the White House and environmental agencies. He has sought to roll back all federal regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, took action to allow aging coal-fired power plants to continue operating, and encouraged increased production of oil and gas.
During Thursday’s debate, Mr Trump claimed he had “so many different agendas” to tackle climate change, but offered no solution beyond an executive order he signed to support a tree planting initiative of the World Economic Forum. He attacked renewables and wrongly said that retrofitting buildings to make them energy efficient would eliminate windows.
Mr. Biden called climate change an “existential threat to humanity”. His plan calls for spending $ 2 trillion over four years to boost renewable energy.
In 2012, recalled Lanhee Chen, director of policy for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign against Mr. Obama, “there was really no pressure of any kind in the political market to have, for example, your plan on the climate change. In this race, the two candidates also accepted the reality of climate change and the need to tackle it, albeit to different degrees.
But, he said, even the Obama campaign did not raise the issue to force public debate. “Politicians and campaigns reflect the public situation very well. Campaigns don’t tend to spend time on issues that people don’t care about, ”he said.