Climate science and energy policy made a surprise appearance during the first presidential debate on September 29 in Cleveland. Moderator Chris Wallace had not included climate and energy when he announced his list of six main topics several days before the debate. Perhaps he told the candidates or their campaigns before the debate started that he had added a topic, but the responses from President Donald J. Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden gave little indication that they were prepared to talk coherently about climate change or energy policies.
At the 48:50 mark (see the transcript), Wallace said, “I’d like to talk about climate change.” He led in with the catastrophic forest fires in western states, noted Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty and rollbacks of Obama’s environmental regulations, and then asked, “[W]hat do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?” Trump replied that he wanted a clean environment, but that his policies, including getting out of Paris, had not destroyed businesses, which is what the Obama policies were doing. He then explained at some length that the fires were the result of forest mismanagement.
But Wallace twice repeated his question about what the president believed about climate science. Trump finally said that he thought a lot of things contributed to climate change, including “to an extent” greenhouse gas emissions.
Wallace then asked, “[I]f you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back the Obama Clean Power Plan…?” Trump replied, “Because it was driving energy prices through the sky.”
At this point, Biden interrupted to bring up the vehicle fuel economy rollbacks. After an extended and confused response by Trump that Obama’s fuel economy regulations were making cars too expensive, Wallace turned to Biden’s climate plan and Trump’s charge that it would hurt the economy.
Biden reiterated several times that, “It’s going to create thousands and millions of jobs. Good paying jobs.” Trump interjected that the Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion. Biden then stated, “That is not my plan. The Green New Deal is not my plan.”
After some extended crosstalk, Wallace got back to the Green New Deal’s costs. Biden replied, “”The Green New Deal will pay for itself as we move forward.”
To try to clear up the confusion, Wallace again asked Biden if he supported the Green New Deal. Biden replied, “No, I don’t support the Green New Deal,” and then, “I support the Biden plan that I put forward. … The Biden plan, which is different than what he [Trump] calls the radical Green New Deal.”
Both CNN and Fox News tried to sort out whether Biden supports or opposes the Green New Deal by consulting the Biden campaign’s website. They both found support for the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework,” but also found that the campaign does not explicitly support most of the Deal’s policies.
Attempting to have it both ways on an issue is, of course, not uncommon in politics. However, Biden made it clear in the debate that he supports the Green New Deal’s goal for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The relatively small $1.7 trillion cost of the climate programs proposed by the campaign could thus be seen as just the first step. We can discuss the full costs of achieving the Green New Deal’s goal after the election.
The debate’s climate and energy segment lasted over 13 minutes. It remains to be seen whether this will satisfy the environmental pressure groups and Democratic Members of Congress that had demanded that climate change be one of the topics in the first debate. My guess is that most of them will now demand that it also be included in the second and third debates and in the vice presidential debate.