July 24, 2024

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Q&A: The First Presidential Debate Hardly Mentioned Environmental Issues, Despite Stark Differences Between the Candidate’s Records

9 min read

From our collaborating partner “Living on Earth,” public radio’s environmental news magazine, an interview by producer Aynsley O’Neill and managing producer Jenni Doering with Phil McKenna, a staff writer at Inside Climate News, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

On June 27th President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump met on the debate stage in CNN’s studios in Atlanta. Trump had a pretty slick demeanor but much of what he said was pretty far from the truth. And Democrats have been agonizing over Biden’s poor performance, whether it be due to a lack of energy, his speech impediment or a cold as his campaign says.

AYNSLEY O’NEILL: And Jenni, I think it goes without saying that environment and climate were only minimally mentioned, but there was one climate question from moderator Dana Bash to former President Trump.

DANA BASH: Another persistent challenge is the climate crisis. 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history, and communities across the country are confronting the devastating effects of extreme heat, intensifying wildfires, stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels. Former President Trump, you’ve vowed to end your opponent’s climate initiatives, but will you take any action as President to slow the climate crisis?

TRUMP: Well, let me just go back to what he said about the police…

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O’NEILL: But, as you can hear, he initially dodges the question.

JENNI DOERING: Yeah, that was a theme for former President Trump in this debate.

I stopped counting how many times he brought it back to blaming immigrants for crime and just about everything, and that’s where he eventually wound up in his answer after saying nothing about climate.

O’NEILL: So Dana Bash tried again.

BASH: 38 seconds left, President Trump, will you take any action as President to slow the climate crisis? 

TRUMP: So I want absolutely immaculate, clean water, and I want absolutely clean air. And we had it. We had H2O, we had the best numbers ever. And we did. We were using all forms of energy, all forms, everything. And yet, during my four years, I had the best environmental numbers ever, and my top environmental people gave me that statistic just before I walked on the stage, actually.

O’NEILL: Besides “clean air and clean water,” I would like a clear statistic. Jenni, what do you think he meant by “best environmental numbers ever”?

DOERING: Good question. If he’s referring to greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution levels, the COVID pandemic did clear up the air during the Trump presidency—because the world shut down.

O’NEILL: Right. And during his presidency Trump rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations, including many protecting clean air and water.

I also feel the need to mention that those issues aren’t at all the same as the climate crisis.

President Biden responded by touting the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act he signed, which invested around $370 billion in climate and energy programs.

BIDEN: I don’t know where the hell he’s been. The idea that anything he said is true. I passed the most extensive, most extensive climate change legislation in history, in history.

O’NEILL: And Biden went on… 

BIDEN: We’re in a situation where the idea that he is claiming to have done something to have the cleanest water? The cleanest water? He hadn’t done a damn thing for the environment. He pulled out of the Paris peace accord, climate accord. I immediately joined it, because if we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius at any moment, there’s no way back. The only existential threat to humanity is climate change, and he didn’t do a damn thing about it. He wants to undo all that I’ve done.

O’NEILL: You heard President Biden mention 1.5 degrees Celsius.

And of course that’s the goal set by the Paris Agreement for the global temperature increase above pre-industrial levels that we’re looking to stay under to avoid disastrous tipping points.

DOERING: Disastrous is right, and by the way the latest U.S. government figures say that in 2023 the global average temperature increase was already 1.36 degrees Celsius. You know, some experts say we’re already over 1.5 degrees.

But you didn’t hear former President Trump acknowledge the risks his opponent called “existential” for humanity.

TRUMP: The Paris accord was going to cost us a trillion dollars, and China nothing, and Russia nothing, and India nothing. It was rip off of the United States, and I ended it because I didn’t want to waste that money, because they treated us horribly. We were the only ones, it was costing us money. Nobody else was paying into it. And it was, it was a disaster. 

BIDEN: The idea is that we, in fact — We were the only ones of consequence who were not, who were not members of the Paris accord. How can we do anything if we’re not able to, the United States can’t get its pollution under control. One of the largest producers in the world, number one. We’re making significant progress. By 2035 we will have cut pollution in half. We have made, we have made significant progress, and we’re continuing to make progress. We set up a Climate Corps for thousands of young people who’ll learn how to deal with, just like Peace Corps, and we’re going to, we’re moving in directions that are going to significantly change the elements of cause of pollution. But the idea that he claims that he has the biggest heart up here and that he’s really concerned about, about pollution and about climate, I’ve not seen any indication of that.

DOERING: Yeah, so Aynsley, I guess we got some talk about climate, but not that much for a 90 minute debate.

O’NEILL: Yeah, I had pessimistically predicted we wouldn’t have any discussion of environment and climate, and I really feel like I was almost right. Not only was the single question half-taken up by other topics, but I think we nearly got more discussion over the candidates’ golf games.

DOERING: [LAUGHS] Oh yeah, um I think you’re right… Well, Inside Climate News reporter Phil McKenna was also listening in to the debate. So Phil, I have to know — what’s your handicap?

MCKENNA: [LAUGHS] Yeah, well, so I’m not much of a golfer but I certainly could carry my own bag.

DOERING: I’m sure you could.

ICN staff writer Phil McKenna

MCKENNA: But yeah, you know, it’s disappointing to see the major candidates for the most powerful job in the world talk about golf when the world is on fire.

The U.S. just sweltered under a heat wave that affected 110 million people, there are wildfires raging in California, and yet there was very little serious discussion in this debate on climate change, which truly is the existential threat of our time.

O’NEILL: Well, besides this debate, what have these candidates been saying and doing about this existential issue?

MCKENNA: Well, whatever you make of Biden and his performance in this week’s debate, I can’t think of a more stark difference on any issue between the two candidates than the issue of climate change in this election.

On the basic science, Trump has repeatedly called climate change a hoax created by the Chinese to hurt the U.S. economy. As for pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Accord, even business leaders urged Trump to stay in the agreement.

Biden on the other hand has re-engaged the U.S. in international climate talks.

DOERING: Oh yeah, by the way Phil, what was this thing we heard Trump say in this debate about the Paris accord costing the U.S. trillions of dollars?

MCKENNA: Yeah, that’s not true, though under Biden, the U.S. has pledged $11.4 billion annually to assist vulnerable countries in developing clean energy and adapting to climate change.

And domestically, Biden passed the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, targeting hundreds of billions of dollars in tax credits towards clean energy, transportation and building initiatives.

That was something he did briefly mention in the debate but he missed an opportunity to really engage and highlight the jobs and economic growth that’s come from it.

O’NEILL: Yes, for example electric vehicle jobs got no coverage at all in the debate.

MCKENNA: Right, those EV tax credits and incentives for manufacturing EVs in America that Biden passed in the Inflation Reduction Act went unmentioned.

Trump, by the way, at one point in the debate obliquely referred to the Inflation Reduction Act as a “Green New Scam,” and he’s repeatedly said he’ll roll it back if elected to another term.

Now that would be difficult to do for two reasons. One, it was passed by Congress, so it can’t be easily undone. And two, a lot of red states, and states run by Trump’s supporters, are benefitting from billions of dollars of investments spurred by the IRA. For example, Republican South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster, is a big Trump supporter, but his state is also a leader in clean energy projects following the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. McMaster will not want those investments to go away.

DOERING: Now, President Biden has not been absolutely perfect on climate; I mean, like every other president he has approved fossil fuel projects on federal lands, you know, after he promised to halt drilling. But Phil, how does that compare to his opponent?

MCKENNA: It’s really night and day. You know, early on in the debate Trump had this phrase, “liquid gold under our feet” referring to fossil fuels, and throughout his first term he cozied up to the industry. He opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and tried unsuccessfully to bring back coal, while Biden just recently put a moratorium on new coal mining on federal lands in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. This is a region that produces more coal than any other in the country.

And Biden has really done a lot to boost clean energy like wind and solar, to help the nation transition away from fossil fuel use.

Trump, on the other hand, has spent a lot of time in speeches recently mocking wind energy and EVs.

And I was a little surprised Biden did not hold Trump’s feet to the fire about this dinner with oil and gas executives that Trump had back in April. He reportedly asked them to spend a billion dollars on his campaign and in return he promised to lift a Biden Administration pause on approvals for new liquified natural gas export terminals, something the fossil fuel industry would love to see happen.

O’NEILL: Phil, another environmental issue we completely skipped over in the debate was public lands. How do the candidates stack up there?

MCKENNA: Well, during his presidency Trump did sign the Great American Outdoors Act, which fully funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund, although an executive order under his administration actually undercut it by giving state governors and local lawmakers the ability to veto federal land acquisitions made through that very same fund. What’s more, he also slashed national monuments including Bears Ears, which Biden then restored.

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DOERING: Now Phil, what about public and environmental health, didn’t seem to be much there.

MCKENNA: Well, with just a couple minutes to go, Biden made a brief reference to getting lead out of water pipes, and in May his administration announced $3 billion for replacing all lead pipes nationwide within a decade.

You heard former President Trump mention “clean air and clean water” but during his first term he rolled back regulations such as rules limiting mercury emissions from coal plants and methane from oil and gas drilling. His administration also weakened rules on toxic discharges into waterways from coal ash and power plants.

Biden’s first term has been spent in part putting protections like those back in place.

DOERING: So Phil, as we mentioned, a lot of the chatter about this debate isn’t about the actual substance of what the candidates said but it’s about their performance. Democrats seem to be agonizing about President Biden’s shaky voice and talking about possible replacements—maybe Vice President Kamala Harris, or California Governor Gavin Newsom.

MCKENNA: Yes, President Biden has sent Vice President Harris out to make public appearances to drum up support for the climate initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act. And Governor Newsom has put his state on an ambitious path towards net zero carbon emissions by 2045.

But there are huge questions about how replacing the presumptive Democratic nominee this late in the election season would go.

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