July 22, 2024

After more than an hour and a half of back-and-forth, climate change got just a few minutes of air time during a CNN-hosted debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump on Thursday.

It was the first time the men faced each other on the debate stage since October 2020. Both candidates were believed to be eager for the confrontationwith Biden’s team looking to warn voters about the heightened radicalism Trump promises to bring to a second term, and Trump keen to delve into his rival’s alleged cognitive decline.

Most of the discourse focused on issues such as immigration and the economy. Biden spoke with a raspy voice and sometimes stumbled over his words, while Trump had very wild discourses and uttered several falsehoods that moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper did little to rein in.

A little more than halfway through, however, Bash asked if the candidates would do anything as president to address the climate crisis. Neither candidate answered the question directly, but Biden pointed to policies his administration has implemented to encourage the development of clean energy technologies. Trump gave an incoherent non-answer.

“I want absolutely pristine clean water and absolutely clean air,” Trump said. “And we had it. We had H2O, we had the best numbers ever, and we used all forms of energy, everything.” He said his presidency has seen “the best environmental numbers ever,” a statistic he said his advisers gave him moments before he walked on stage. In fact, Trump rolled back more than 200 environmental policies during his four years in office.

Trump also has credit for pulling the country out of the Paris Agreement – a “ripoff” for the US, as he described it. He otherwise used his allotted climate time to talk about his support among police groups and Biden’s border policy, among other unrelated topics.

Biden, for his part, said he had introduced “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in history,” a reference to the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which contained $369 billion in clean energy tax credits and funding for climate and energy programs. He also mentioned his administration’s creation of the American Climate Corps — a federal program to put young people to work on landscape restoration, renewable energy deployment and other green projects — and reiterated the importance of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit).

In combination with existing policies, the Inflation Reduction Act is expected to reduce the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions by to 42 percent by 2030almost within reach of the country’s commitment under the Paris Agreement to halve emissions by the end of the decade compared to 2005 values.

This is in stark contrast to projections about what could happen to the climate under a second Trump term. According to a analysis published in March by Carbon Brief, another Trump administration could add about 4 billion metric tons to US greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, compared to a second Biden term. This increase could cause $900 billion in additional climate damage worldwide. The analysis predicted that, if Trump rolled back all of Biden’s key climate policies, the US would be “all but guaranteed” to miss its 2030 climate goal.

“Given the magnitude of US emissions and their influence on the world, this makes the election crucial to the hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius,” Carbon Brief said.

Aside from Bash’s one question, the only other climate-related mentions during the debate came from Trump, who blamed the US federal deficit for a failure to “the liquid gold right under our feet” — oil and gas. withdrew and referred to Biden’s climate policy as the “green new scam.” He also used the term “energy independent” to describe the nation on January 6, 2021, the day he told his supporters to stage an uprising on the US Capitol.

This is consistent with some of the former president’s previous messages on climate change, although it is difficult to parse what he actually believes from his history of erratic, contradictory statements. Sometimes he said climate change is a “farce” orchestrated by China; at other times he acknowledged its existence but questioned its relation to human activity.

More recently, Trump downplayed the seriousness of the climate crisis. At a campaign rally in January, he called a youth climate protester “immature” and told her to “go home to mommy.” If elected, he has promised to reverse “drill, baby, drill” and climate policies of the Biden administration such as the Inflation Reduction Act.

Although expectations have never been particularly high about the prominence of climate change during a presidential debate, climate experts expressed disappointment at the brevity and shallowness of Thursday’s climate discussions. “More time to discuss golf than climate. What a world we live in,” tweeted Jeff Goodell, the author of The heat will kill you firstreferring to a bizarre exchange between the two candidates in which Biden challenged Trump to a round of golf.

Other observers shared deeper concerns about Biden’s performance, which included mistakes his opponent was quick to point out.

“I hope he reviews his debate performance Thursday night and withdraws from the race, throwing the choice of a Democratic nominee to the convention in August,” wrote New York Times opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof.

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