Trump acknowledged the role of greenhouse gases in driving climate change while Biden embraced a number of specific climate measures in debate marred by interruptions and personal attacks
Donald Trump and his Democratic Party challenger Joe Biden clashed over their radically divergent visions for confronting the global climate crisis in the first US Presidential debate of the 2020 election yesterday, in what was one of the more coherent stretches of a debate marred by interruptions, wildly inaccurate claims and personal insults.
Yet despite the relatively poor quality of political insight on show last night and the broadly critical response from commentators, the debate marked the first time climate change had taken centre stage in a US Presidential debate, indicating the issue is likely to sit centre stage in the run up to the critical election day on 3 November.
The issue had not been among the six topics up for discussion which were released ahead of the event, but it was introduced by moderator Chris Wallace towards the end of an event that was characterised primarily by crosstalk, interruptions and insults.
Even so, the discussion saw Trump offer arguably his most extensive and substantive comments on the topic of climate change. He began with generalisations on the need for "crystal clean water", "beautiful air" and "the lowest carbon". But Wallace refused to allow him to dodge questions on the merits of climate science, asking the President: "Do you believe greenhouse gas emissions contribute to the global warming of this planet?"
"I think a lot of things to do but I think to an extent yes," President Trump responded. He focused on the wildfires that have scorched the western USA in recent years, saying "we have to do better management of forests" and that "we're planting a billion trees."
However, Trump reiterated his rejection of the Paris Agreement on climate change - which he has sought to exit the USA from - calling it "a disaster from our standpoint." The President has repeatedly argued that the US is being asked to shoulder an unfair burden in tackling climate change, and the US is set to leave the Paris Agreement the day after the election next month, although Biden has promised he will re-enter the accord if elected president.
Trump also highlighted his support for electric cars, saying "I'm all for electric cars, I've given big incentives." He defended his apparently contradictory decision to roll back fuel economy standards, arguing it made cars "much less expensive" and "much safer". He also defended his dismantling of Obama's Clean Power Plan, which limited carbon emissions in power plants, because "it was driving energy prices through the sky".
Challenger Joe Biden, who was Vice-President when Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan in 2015, highlighted several specific climate measures his administration would take, including rejoining the Paris Agreement, electrifying the federal vehicle fleet, and improving the energy efficiency of four million buildings.
"We're going to put 500,000 charging stations on all of the higways we're going to be building in the future," Biden said.
He also emphasised the shift to renewable energy: "Nobody's going to build another coal-fired plant in America, nobody's going to build another oil-fired plant in America, they're going to move to renewable energy," he said, adding that: "we can get to net zero in terms of energy production by 2035."
Biden also raised concerns about deforestation in the Amazon, saying "more carbon is absorbed in that rainforest than every bit of carbon that's emitted in the United States."
However, despite support for policies to tackle these issues, Biden rejected Trump's claims that he backed proposals for a Green New Deal, saying: "that is not my plan." Trump had falsely claimed the Green New Deal would cost "not $2bn or $20bn" but "$100bn".
One estimate from the American Action Forum, run by a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, has estimated that the Green New Deal would cost between $51tr and $93tr over ten years.
Previously, Biden's campaign had called the Green New Deal a "crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face", but had stopped short of explicitly endorsing it.
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