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Biden Plan Triumphs Over Trump's Climate Lies in Debate, But Green Groups Demand Greater Urgency to Fight Global Emergency

"They talked about climate for 10 minutes and 30 seconds. This is an existential threat we have 10 years to address. We need a climate debate."

People watch the first presidential debate between U.S. President Donald J. Trump and Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, on September 29, 2020, in Hoboken, New Jersey, United States. (Photo: Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Climate action groups on Tuesday night said the inclusion of questions related to the planetary emergency in the first presidential debate was "a testament to the pressure of our movement" while urging a far greater focus on the climate in upcoming debates.

The Commission on Presidential Debates sparked outrage and disbelief earlier this month when it released a list of planned topics for the first debate that did not include the climate crisis—even as the deadly effects of the manmade crisis were evident on the West Coast, where wildfires in recent weeks have torn through millions of acres and have killed dozens of people. 

"This election comes down to a choice between a candidate who’s tried to roll back more than 100 basic environmental and public health protections during his time in office and one who wants to put millions of people back to work by investing in clean energy."
—John Noël, Greenpeace USA

After more than 100 lawmakers, 45 climate advocacy organizations, and about 200,000 people across the U.S. demanded debate moderator Chris Wallace include a discussion of the climate crisis—which was supported by three-quarters of respondents in a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication—the FOX News anchor brought up the subject towards the end of the debate.

Biden and Trump spent about 10 minutes and 30 seconds discussing their views on the planetary crisis, with the president refusing to state agreement with the scientific consensus that human activity is causing the planet to grow warmer and Biden stating his support for a transition to a renewable energy economy. 

"Because of activism and pressure from everyday Americans, elected leaders, and advocates, Chris Wallace couldn't ignore the climate emergency facing our country," said Lori Lodes, executive director of advocacy group Climate Power 2020. "What these 11 minutes showed is that Trump is continuing to deny science, ignore experts, and putting the country at risk due to his inaction and corruption."

Though Biden has come under fire for insisting that he would not ban fracking if elected president, the former vice president won praise for clearly connecting economic security for working people with climate action. 

Biden stated his intention to make sure no new coal- and oil-fired power plants are built in the U.S., refurbish infrastructure across the country to ensure millions of buildings "emit significantly less gas and oil," and create "thousands and thousands of jobs" while reaching "net zero, in terms of energy production, by 2035."

The Democratic candidate also pivoted to the climate crisis and Trump's failure to confront it earlier in the evening, rejecting the president's narrative about the danger posed to American suburbs by a breakdown in "law and order" by saying the planetary emergency poses a much greater threat to working families than violent crime. 

"His failure to deal with the environment, they're being flooded, they're being burned out because [of] his refusal to do anything," Biden said. "That's why the suburbs are in trouble."

On the subject of the wildfires on the West Coast, the president repeated his claim that poor "forest management" is to blame for the loss of millions of acres of land, some of the poorest air quality in the world in recent weeks, and the burning of most of an entire town in eastern Washington. 

Trump also baselessly claimed the Green New Deal—the legislative framework supported by a majority of Democratic voters, but not by Biden, which would create millions of jobs while transitioning toward a renewable energy economy in the coming decade—would "take out the cows," referring to plans to reduce methane emissions and curtail factory farming. 

"Instead of offering a single plan to combat the climate crisis, Trump proved he's unable or unwilling to comprehend the magnitude of the climate crisis," said Climate Power 2020, praising Biden for offering "a stark contrast to the president's climate denial." 

The Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Green New Deal advocate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the Democratic primary but has worked with the Biden campaign to develop a far-reaching climate action plan, contrasted the two candidates' performances on social media.

"It was a smart move by the Biden campaign to highlight the connections between climate change, energy, and our economy," said John Noël, a campaigner with Greenpeace USA, which has given Biden and Trump a B+ and an F on their respective climate plans. "This election comes down to a choice between a candidate who’s tried to roll back more than 100 basic environmental and public health protections during his time in office and one who wants to put millions of people back to work by investing in clean energy."

"On the other side of the stage tonight, Donald Trump looked every bit like a desperate crook [who] knows he's losing," Noël added. "Whether it's gutting the EPA, weakening the Clean Water Act, or giving handouts to fossil fuel polluters, Trump's agenda has put corporate profit ahead of public health and environmental justice since day one."

Advocacy group also applauded Biden for making clear "that climate action will boost the economy and generate millions of good jobs, despite misinformed claims from his opponent," but expressed hope that the former vice president will continue to work to match the sense of urgency felt by the American public, two-thirds of whom say they want the federal government to act more aggressively to combat the climate emergency, according to polling by Yale.

"Going forward, we'd like to see Biden show he's listening to our movement by committing to real solutions to address systemic racism, such as defunding the police, and comprehensively addressing the climate crisis through unequivocally supporting the Green New Deal," said Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, North America director for 350 Action.

The Sunrise Movement expressed hope that moderators of the upcoming presidential debates will double down on addressing the crisis.

"They talked about climate for 10 minutes and 30 seconds," the group tweeted. "This is an existential threat we have 10 years to address. We need a climate debate."

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