SACRAMENTO, Calif. — President Donald Trump and his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, on Monday offered a striking split screen on the role of climate change in raging wildfires on the West Coast, with each staking out dramatically different positions on what has caused the blazes that have consumed vast amounts of acreage in California in recent weeks.
In dueling events, Biden linked the blazes — as well as deadly heat waves and a recent string of hurricanes and disastrous flooding elsewhere — to climate change, while Trump dismissed the established science that shows global temperatures will continue to climb because of rising greenhouse gases from the use of fossil fuels.
The president, in California for a briefing on the fires, sparred with the state’s natural resources chief over his denial of the role that rising temperatures have played in the worsening fire season, with the secretary at one point responding to the president: “I don’t think the science agrees with you.”
While Biden and Trump’s divergent attitudes toward climate change were already well established, their comments on Monday only stood to underscore their differences on an issue that has put lives at stake.
The showdown came as historic wildfires have displaced tens of thousands of residents up and down the West Coast, tinged the sky a red-orange hue and created some of the world’s worst air quality in parts of California. At least 35 people are dead across California, Oregon and Washington, and more than 3 million acres of land have been scorched.
In remarks from Wilmington, Del., the former vice president pitched himself as the only choice to combat climate change shortly ahead of Trump’s first visit to view the damage in California from the fires that have been raging for weeks.
“If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more America ablaze?” Biden said. “If you give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised when more of America is underwater?”
Trump faced a more direct confrontation at his event here in California’s capital, from Gov. Gavin Newsom and Wade Crowfoot, the head of the state’s Natural Resources Agency.
“I think we want to work with you to really recognize the changing climate and what it means for our forests and actually work together with that science,” Crowfoot told the president at the wildfire briefing, which featured local and federal officials involved in combating the fires. Crowfoot emphasized to the president that “science is going to be key.”
While he applauded Trump’s focus on forest management as a method of controlling and fighting wildfires, Crowfoot warned Trump not to “ignore” the science of climate change, arguing that it would be misguided to “sort of put our heads in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management,” a course of action he said would not ultimately protect Californians.
Trump, however, pushed back on Crowfoot’s assessment, telling the secretary that “it’ll start getting cooler, just watch.”
“I don’t think the science agrees with you,” Crowfoot responded, to which Trump countered: “I don’t think science knows, actually.”
After the briefing, Crawfoot fired back at the president on Twitter, posting a graph of California’s average temperature from June to September, with a trendline showing that figure steadily increasing over the last four decades.
“It actually won’t get cooler Mr. President. #ClimateChangeIsReal,” Crowfoot wrote.
Newsom, a Democrat with whom Trump has had a hot-and-cold relationship, also challenged the president on his views, even as he acknowledged that Trump was unlikely to change them.
“I’d be negligent, and this is not — we’ve known each other too long and as you suggest, the working relationship, I value,” he told the president. “We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier.”
“Something’s happened to the plumbing of the world and we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in and observed evidence is self-evident, that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this,” he continued, urging Trump to “please respect the difference of opinion out here with respect to this fundamental issue of climate change.”
“Absolutely,” the president responded.
Climate change is playing a role in the severity of the fires, which are expected to increase in frequency in future years. The U.S. endured its fourth-hottest summer ever recorded amid an abnormally dry season, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That helped create the volatile conditions on the heels of the nation’s sixth-warmest winter, as lightning strikes ignited West Coast blazes even before official wildfire season began.
“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly,” Biden said on Monday.
Biden laid out the consequences of climate change along the nation’s coasts and in suburbs, pointing to the health concerns stemming from wildfires and other natural disasters that disproportionately affect communities of color, as well as the massive costs to the economy and the national security threats posed by sea-level rise.
“With every bout of nature’s fury, caused by our own inaction on climate change, more Americans see and feel the devastation, whether they’re in big cities, small towns, on coastlines or farm lands,” Biden said. “It’s happening everywhere and it’s happening now, and it affects us all.”
Biden also took aim at Trump’s central campaign theme on law and order, using the same phrasing he has employed when criticizing Trump’s response to the protests that swept across the country to attack him on his lack of action on climate change.
“It’s clear that we’re not safe in Donald Trump’s America,” Biden said. “This is Donald Trump’s America. He’s in charge.”
Trump has also warned that immigration is threatening U.S. suburbs, an assertion that Biden called “ridiculous” in his remarks.
“You know what is actually threatening our suburbs?” he said “Wildfires are burning the suburbs of the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighbors in the Midwest. Hurricanes are imperiling suburban life along our coast. If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned by wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will be flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away by superstorms?”
Biden positioned Trump’s policies and actions as “backward-looking politics” that will stand to harm the environment, make communities less healthy and hold back economic progress.
“It’s a mindset that doesn’t have any faith in the capacity of the American people to compete, to innovate and to win,” Biden said, pointing instead to his own climate plan, which calls for making buildings more energy-efficient, boosting clean-energy jobs and expanding electric transportation.
“We have to act as a nation,” Biden said. “It shouldn’t be so bad that millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking, ‘Is Doomsday here?’”
Trump met with local and federal personnel and attended the wildfire briefing during a trip to McClellan Park near Sacramento, after facing criticism that he has ignored the Western wildfires for weeks.
He forcefully pushed back on that criticism prior to the briefing, appearing annoyed when asked what he says to critics who said he was too slow to respond, calling it a “nasty question.”
“I said it immediately, let me just tell you,’’ Trump said. “I got a call from the governor immediately when the fires began, I called him, and on that call I declared it an emergency,’’ he told reporters on the tarmac upon landing in Sacramento. “That was immediate. So don’t tell me about not doing it, because that was immediate. … That included FEMA coming here, and everything else, so that’s a nasty question.”
Trump has previously denied and downplayed the existence of climate change, and recently reprised attacks on California, accusing the state of causing the wildfires by not taking care of its forests. While forest management plays a role — decades of stomping out flames has allowed fuel to build up, creating kindling — scientists say the drier, hotter conditions and shifting precipitation patterns brought by climate change are a primary factor for recent wildfires.
At campaign rallies over the weekend in Nevada, Trump criticized California’s fire management practices and attacked what he called the state’s “extreme agenda.”
“Please remember the words, very simple: forest management,” he said of the wildfires. Trump has previously accused the state of failing to “clean” or rake its forests.
Newsom has meanwhile emphasized that the fires are the direct result of climate change and pledged to “fast-track” the state’s climate policies in response to the fires.
Asked on Monday specifically whether climate change had a role in the current wildfires, as Newsom has repeatedly argued, Trump disagreed.
“This is more of a management situation,’’ he said. “You look at other countries, Austria, Finland, they’re forest nations and they don’t have problems. They manage their forest and they’ve been doing it brilliantly for many years and it should happen here. The state has to really do that, that includes the state of Washington and Oregon.”
Trump repeatedly cited “explosive trees,’’ as a problem in California, “meaning they catch fire much easier,’’ and can be the start of huge wildfires even with a dropped cigarette.
He downplayed disagreements with Newsom on climate change.
“He does agree with forest management. When I started talking about it years ago, nobody agreed with me,’’ Trump said, adding that “you can do it beautifully.’’
Miles Taylor, the chief of staff to former Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen, has said Trump wanted to shut off emergency relief for California amid the state’s 2019 wildfires because it was a blue state.
Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, is also expected to travel to her home state of California on Monday. She will meet with emergency service personnel on Tuesday for an assessment of the wildfires, according to the Biden campaign.
Carla Marinucci reported from Sacramento, Calif., and Kelsey Tamborrino and Caitlin Oprysko from Washington. Gabby Orr contributed to this report from Sacramento, and Zack Colman from Washington.