Amid the ceaseless interruptions and squabbling during Tuesday night's face-off, Americans witnessed something they haven’t seen in more than a decade: a discussion about climate change in a presidential debate.
Centered around the devastating wildfires that have already scorched millions of acres in the western United States, the roughly 10-minute dialogue was the most that the topic has been discussed in an election debate since 1988, according to climate scientist Eric Holthaus. It was also the first time in 12 years that a presidential debate moderator asked a question about climate change, a shift that indicates how important the issue of global warming is to American voters now.
“You guys I am so happy they talked about climate change for 10 minutes, and they were pretty good questions. We are in a climate emergency, and we got a tiny bit closer to that answer tonight,” Holthaus tweeted Tuesday following the debate.
He also acknowledged the importance of addressing global warming on the debate stage, particularly after climate change was notably absent from the list of topics selected by the moderator Chris Wallace and released by the Commission on Presidential Debates on Sept. 22.
“That doubles the total amount of time in all 2000 minutes of presidential debates since 1988,” Holthaus said.
That sentiment was echoed by other climate scientists who have long waited for significant political action at the federal level to address climate change.
“I'm really glad that climate change was brought up in last night's debate,” said Julie Caron, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. “It’s an important issue that impacts a number of aspects of people’s lives here in the U.S. and around the globe, including health, safety and national security.”
But in terms of where President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden stand on the issue, they remain far apart.
Trump failed to explicitly acknowledge the role humans have played in causing climate change, even after Wallace pressed him on the topic. In discussing the wildfires in the West, the president blamed poor forest management for the blazes, returning to an idea he has often cited about how wildfires could be avoided by raking the forest floors.
Scientists have said that forest management does play a role in wildfires — essentially because dead trees and dried-out leaves act as “fuel” for fires — but studies have shown that climate change is making wildfires more frequent and more intense.
“Trump's comments were largely in line with his previous statements, notably his continued, mostly wrong, and overly-narrow focus on forest management practices as the cause of wildfires, which the science does tell us are fueled by a changed climate,” Nathan Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland, said.
In the nearly four years he’s been in office, Trump has dismantled numerous environmental policies and has rolled back more than 100 regulations that are designed to preserve clean water and clean air and curb greenhouse gas emissions.
“I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful, clean air,” Trump said during the debate. “We have the lowest carbon. Look at our numbers now. We are doing phenomenal.”
Though carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. have dipped in recent years, scientists have said that the trend will likely be reversed as a result of the Trump administration’s dismantling of environmental regulations.
“That's the biggest lie he's told tonight, and there have been some biggies,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, tweeted after Trump’s assertion about having the “lowest” carbon emissions.
Biden, on the other hand, has made climate change a focus of his campaign. In July, he released a $2 trillion plan to build a clean energy economy that includes the ambitious goal of achieving a 100 percent clean electricity standard by 2035.
Though Biden’s climate plan is not as far-reaching as the proposed Green New Deal championed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., it has been met with praise from climate scientists and environmental activists.
Trump attempted to sow divisions between Biden’s camp and the supporters of the Green New Deal, claiming that Biden’s failure to support the plan meant he “just lost the radical left.”
Ocasio-Cortez dismissed the notion, tweeting in response: “Our differences are exactly why I joined Biden’s Climate Unity Task Force — so we could set aside our differences & figure out an aggressive climate plan to address the planetary crisis at our feet. Trump doesn’t even believe climate change is real.”
In the debate, Biden also reiterated his plan to rejoin the Paris Agreement and work with global partners to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Trump announced plans in 2017 to quit the landmark climate accord, a move that has been widely criticized by climate researchers.
Yet for all the debate’s vitriol, experts said, it’s important that climate change was a featured topic. A Pew Research Center survey conducted in March found that 60 percent of Americans say that climate change is a major threat to the U.S., up from 44 percent in 2009. The inclusion of climate issues in the presidential debate “reflects the heightened political and grassroots interest in the subject,” Hultman said.
“The presidential debate yesterday, while contentious, did appropriately focus attention for a significant time on the challenges of climate change and the opportunities for responding through our U.S. and international policies,” he said.