An environmental analysis of the first presidential debate

Yesterday night was on the first of the 3 public debates leading to the presidential election of the United States, planned for 3rd November. In one side we had the president of the United States Donald Trump (Republican candidates) while on the other the former vice president of Obama administration, Joe Biden (Democratic candidate).

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. (Photos by Jim WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON,SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Prologue

I am not a US citizen but, as a citizen of the Western world, I know that the implications of this election will affect both the country I grew up on and the country I currently live in. Nonetheless, we are talking about the most powerful and probably the most influential country on the planet. We live in a crucial period of environmental challenges and so it is important to follow the developments of this election because who if not the most powerful man running the most powerful country in the world could be a leader in the environmental crisis of the Anthropocene.

Moderator of the evening was Chris Wallace, presenter of Fox News among others, who was heavily criticized after by the public opinion for the way he managed the debate. I do not want to defend anyone, but I do not believe the task was easy and I think he proposed good themes for confrontation.

Among some that were unavoidable, like the COVID-19 crisis, the disruption and violence of the recent months, the theme of racism or the economic programme, the fifth of the six segments of confrontation was about climate change, and here is a report of the themes discussed. It is important to know that no fact-checking was allowed during the debate and that none of the candidates was given the questions before going live (but we all know that they went on stage well prepared about anything Wallace could have asked).

Fossil fuels – Trump

When asked about his position on the science of climate change, President Trump reported that “we have the lowest carbon if you look at our numbers right now”. That is partially true, but the merit it’s not his. President Obama introduced numerous reforms to reduce the amount of fossil fuels use and as a result of his administration, the carbon emissions lowered significantly. 

Here is a report from the US Environment Protection Agency showing carbon emissions from 1990 – 2018: it is clear that emissions were heavily reduced in 2008-09 (the year when Obama took over Bush). Trump just kept going on the same trend as his predecessor, reaching the lowest point of the 30 years in 2017.

Climate change – Trump

After that, President Trump hesitated when Wallace directly asked for the second time if he believed in the science of climate change and then went on saying that the recent fires in California were a result of bad management. Here is the political trick: the examples made by the President are actually a possible reason. However, the reason why we had fires in California, Australia before that, and increasing extreme events, like drought and storms, is not because of a cigarette thrown on a forest floor left with dead trunks and leaves: the reason is that by increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, sun rays are trapped in it and so they warm our planet. A warmer planet means ice caps melt, we have less white surface in able to reflect the sun lights back in the outer space, and so the feedback loop keeps fueling itself. For more about that you might want to check this.

I say political trick because President Trump, as well as being inevitably smart (you don’t get that office if you’re not), is a good communicator: politics nowadays is about consent and he knows very well how to keep his numbers up. In the end, when asked about why he backed up on Obama’s clean energy policies, President Trump justified himself by saying that these policies were driving energy prices up.

Environmental plans – Biden

On the other hand, Joe Biden. He actually listed a number of goals for the country, something that the actual President failed to do. His proposals were:

  • 2 trillion investment in green jobs.
  • Stop using fossil fuels to produce electricity by 2035.
  • 0 net emissions by 2040.

Trump jumped in saying that these solutions would cost “trillions of dollars”. Biden replied that these in facts would create jobs and will result in economic growth. Then, he mentioned the fact that in the past he was able to bring prices of renewable energies down and so “no one in America would open a oil/coal powered station again”. I am not sure if this was as a result of his personal action, or if he meant that because he was vice president of Obama. However, he told the truth. Here is a report of the number of power plants in the US from 2008 to 2018: all fossil fuels powerplants (apart from natural gases) reduced, and renewable increased. (source US Energy Information Administration, link to the full table here).

The big claims – Biden

Then he made a big claim: the first thing Biden would do if he was to be elected president would be the rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. He then stressed the importance of the Amazon and proposed a 20 billion dollar fee to be paid to Brasil (together with world-leading countries) to stop exploiting the rainforest.

When talking about green investments, Trump argued that it would cost a significant amount of money, while Biden made clear that recent extreme weather events in US (he cited IOWA) are a result of climate change and are actually costing significat amount of money.

The next appointment will be in two weeks, 15th October, in Miami, Florida.

Conclusion

I will not express my personal opinion because this website is not about politics and I have no intention of endorsing any of the candidates. It is up to the US citizens to vote for the one they think it would be best suited for the job: let’s just hope they will have the environment in mind when making this important decision.

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