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Hey, Joe Biden! Call Me, Before Debating Trump on Climate Change

image credit: Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

The first debate between President Trump and former Vice President Biden will occur on the 29th of September. In advance of the encounter, 70 Democratic members of Congress sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates asking it to publicly call on the moderators to include climate in the topics that will be addressed during the debates. More precisely, they are requesting that climate be made a centerpiece of the debates.

In their letter, the lawmakers refer to Earth's warming as a clear and present danger:

Climate change is no longer an issue that is looming in the distance. It is here… in the wildfires ravaging the West, the heatwaves gripping much of the nation, the hurricanes and [d]erechos devastating communities, and extreme flooding and drought threatening lives and livelihoods. Not to mention the grave environmental injustices impacting people of color…

The request breaks with precedent. Once chosen by the Commission, the moderators are free to frame the debates as they see fit. The signatories are now waiting for the Commission's response. It is hard to imagine any year better suited to breaking precedents than 2020.

Given the centrality of climate change to the critical events of the day, it is hard to imagine that any of the moderators would fail to present it to the candidates for debate. The same thing could have been and was said by many in 2016, and nary a word was spoken. The lawmakers, therefore, were probably right to raise it.

There is a certain sad irony in the request of the 70 Democratic lawmakers. Climate activists had appealed to Tom Perez, Chair of the National Democratic Committee, to dedicate at least one of the debates between the primary candidates for the nomination to climate matters. Perez's refusal to entertain the request threatened to unleash an unbridgeable rift between the Party's progressive and moderate wings. A separation that would have all but guaranteed a second Trump administration.

Progressive suspicions of Democratic establishment politicians have not been allayed. They have been merely put aside and are likely to dog policy climate policy debates within a Biden administration—should one come to pass—and in the 117th Congress.

In the meantime, Democrats have a presidential election to win in less than two months. A Biden/Harris victory stands a good chance of bringing with it a Democratic majority in the Senate while maintaining control of the House.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of the November elections. The outcome will seal the fate of federal climate policy for at least the next decade. Moreover, it will determine whether the nation has any chance of avoiding many of the worst consequences of Earth's rising temperatures brought on by the emission of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane—consequences much like those highlighted in the letter sent to the Commission by the 70 members of Congress.

As Biden and Trump both seem to see climate change as a winning issue for them in this election cycle, they would likely welcome the debate moderators focusing substantial time on climate-related questions. In fact, the candidates would probably find some way to introduce their positions on climate matters whether or not the moderators choose to do so.

No issue so clearly distinguishes the parties and their presidential candidates than climate change. Throughout the entirety of the Democratic convention, climate was raised as one of the four major crises facing the nation. The other three were the contagion now plaguing the country, the collapse of the economy, and systemic racism.

Addressing climate change is a primary plank in the Democratic Party's 2020 policy platform. It has the fulsome support of the Party's leadership and rank and file.

Rising to the challenge of Earth's warming was cast by Democrats as a part of the solution to the three other crises. Biden's climate crisis plan, for example, calls for green infrastructure projects that would create millions of good-paying jobs and reduce harmful emissions from the transportation sector, e.g., electrification of public transit buses and building out electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Other economic recovery initiatives proposed by Biden, e.g., a Civilian Climate Corps, would work to improve the resilience of communities to the increasing frequency and intensity of climate-related weather events. Similar to the Work Progress Administration of the 1930s, the Corps would employ legions of workers for various projects like the restoration of wetlands.

From where I sat, Earth's warming was never acknowledged as either a problem or partial solution to the current recessionary spiral during the Republican convention. The Republican National Committee (RNC) did, however, make a statement about energy policy. Taking a cue from Trump, the short statement is an expression of alternative facts—

We support the development of all forms of energy that are marketable in a free economy without subsidies, including coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, and hydropower.

There's an unwarranted slap at solar and wind energy in the word marketable. It reflects the failure of Trump Republicans (Trumplicans) to recognize that solar and wind are not just marketable. They are currently out-competing coal and natural gas as the fastest-growing sources of new electric generation, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The RNC's brief statement also suggests that fossil and nuclear energy receive no federal subsidies when the opposite is true. According to a 2019 report by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the US government shelled out $649 billion in fossil fuel subsidies in 2015. The US defense budget that same year was $599 billion.

The RNC had nothing to say about climate. Trump, on the other hand, wields climate change in the form of the Green New Deal (GND) like a clubusing it to bludgeon and bloody Democrats to the applause of his loyalist corps:

And they're going to waste the money on the Green New Deal, the Green New Deal. You know what you get out of that? Nothing. Nothing except debt and death. (emphasis added)

Trump's use of the GND has little to do with climate change. It serves as the sine qua non of his claims that radical socialists have taken over the Democratic Party and that Biden is their puppet. Most of the Republican congressional candidates are following his lead on climate matters—with the possible exceptions of Senators Collins (R-ME) and Ernst (R-IA) who are finding the Trumplican line isn't playing well with their constituents.

It is not the first time that a Democrat has been accused of being a socialist. Franklin D. Roosevelt was charged with the claim on more than one occasion. The Democrat's brand of "socialism," however, is not overly scary to most Americans when 40 percent of renter households are facing eviction and lost income due to the collapse of the economy. What frightens many today is how they are going to feed their families when politicians in Washington can't put their differences aside long enough to pass another round of stimulus payments, and where they are going to live once the fires are put out.

It's being reported that Trump is spurning any special preparation for the debates. In 2016 his handlers prevailed upon him to participate in mock debates before the real ones were to come along. It appears now that he's informally preparing and telling his aides his ability to snap back at opponents comes naturally. He is, after all, a stable genius.

As Biden is ahead in the polls at the moment, he has more to lose than Trump in a head-to-head encounter. More than one strategist has urged the former Vice President not to get on the debate stage with the President.

They have their reasons. Biden's performances in the debates with his primary opponents were inconsistent. Moreover, there is Trump to consider.

Joe Lockhart, a prominent Democratic strategist and former White House spokesman for the Clinton administration, had this to say:

It's a fool's errand to enter the ring with someone who can't follow the rules or the truth...trying to debate someone incapable of telling the truth is an impossible contest to win.

The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), also counseled Biden to forgo the debates saying:

I wouldn't legitimize a conversation with him, nor a debate in terms of the presidency of the United States.

Although the risk is high, the former Vice President would have looked a bit cowardly had he heeded the advice of Lockhart and Pelosi and backed out of the exchange.

Biden is a practiced politician and expects Trump to try to bait him by saying awful things about his family—particularly his son Hunter for his ties to Chinese and Ukrainian companies. The former Vice President has publicly stated that he knows "how to handle bullies."

In a recent interview, Mr. Biden indicated he hoped to draw a contrast between him and the President by focusing on the facts—calling it the place where Trump "most uncomfortable."

I believe Biden is making a mistake in thinking the way to better Trump is by taking him into a detailed policy debate. Although it is true that Trump's grasp of actual facts, as opposed to alternative facts, seems limited, Lockhart and Pelosi are right. Trump will just try to lie his way out of it. No matter how many Pinocchios the Washington Post fact-checker gives him the next day, Biden will have lost the debate in the eyes of undecided voters.

It would be a mistake to approach the debate as if it were a trial by jury in which each side rationally and calmly presents the factual basis for a particular proposed policy. Biden needs to think of the coming debates the way Trump will—as reality TV, i.e., more Jerry Springer and less Supreme Court.

A man who has already told over 20,000 lies since becoming president is not going to be brought up short by engaging him in a fact-based discussion. Trump will not go there. Although Biden's debate strategy should not be entirely devoid of factual statements, they need to be presented as challenges to a stable genius.

Debate notes on climate change for Joe Biden

General things to remember:

  • Most voters have already made up their minds.
  • Many have already voted by absentee ballot.
  • Your goal is to convince the few independents and former Trump voters who are now feeling remorse.
  • The 2016 election showed us this a game of inchesa few thousand votes in the right places may well determine the outcome.
  • Statistical data is not your friend. Make your points by connecting them to real-world events, i.e., weather-related disasters and corporate actions.
  • It's the economy! Responding to climate change is the profitable thing to do.
  • He has no self-restraint, so let Trump's ego be your friend. The more he's challenged personallythe more outlandish will be his lies.
  • Let him rant. It's the moderator's job to keep him in line.
  • Call him "Donald." Based on his 2016 reaction to Hillary's use of his first name, it confuses him.
  • Have fun out there. Try not to remember that the future of the planet is riding on this.

Suggested responses to Trump's most frequent assertions:

Climate change is a hoax.

Is it a hoax that the events the world's scientists have been predicting are coming true? The past decade was the hottest on record. Warming oceans are causing increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes. The permanent loss of glacial ice is failing to replenish water supplies. Wildfires of biblical proportions are burning in the West and not because millions of acres of forest lands are not being raked. There are floods in some places and droughts in others?

Is this another instance of your knowing the dangers but wanting to keep America calm? You, of all people, should understand that we ignore science at our peril.

If it's such a hoax, then why are companies pledging to cut their emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases to zero within the next 20 to 30 years? Why are companies like Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple running now on green power sources like solar and wind?

The Green New Deal is a socialist plot to take over the country. It means no more hamburgers or airplanes.

  • The Green New Deal is a concept that integrates national energy and environmental policy for the first time in the nation's history.
  • It's about doing things more sustainably and offering consumers more and healthier choices.
  • No one is making people ask at fast-food counters for plant-based patties and other new plant-based products.
  • New plant-based products offer new market opportunities for American farmers—domestically and internationally.
  • Yes, there is a search going on for alternative fuels for airplanes and ships because of harmful emissions—but not just because of emissions.
  • The Defense Department understands the impact that climate change has on national security and is actively engaged in the search for fuel alternatives.
  • No alternative fuels will be used that put lives at risk.
  • No planes, trains, ships, or automobiles will be taken out of service before safe and economical substitutes are found and can be economically introduced.

The Green New Deal is about:

  • Environmental justice and not making communities of color and low incomes bear disproportionately more environmental, health, and safety burdens than wealthier white communities.
  • More efficient buildings will cut down the money families, corporations, and governments will spend on their utility bills.
  • Jobs in the 21st century. It is in the nature of progress that some jobs are lost, and new ones are created. Blacksmiths and harness makers were impacted by the automobile. Typewriter and office machinery companies, e.g., IBM, were negatively affected by the computer. Firemen on locomotives lost their jobs when diesel engines came on-line.
  • Despite all of your promises, the US coal industry is dying because of market forces—not because of any war on the sector by Democrats.
  • Understanding that progress can be unjust and making it more just by improving worker skills and helping communities whose prosperity was dependent on industries that are no longer profitable. It's consistent with your and Ivanka's "Find Something New" campaign.

You'll be controlled by socialists like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez.

  • No one controls me but the American people. It's what democracy is about.
  • Yes, I have reached out to Senator Sanders and Representative Ocasio-Cortez, just like I have to myriad others in putting together my climate change policy proposals, including labor, manufacturers, high tech companies, and universities.
  • My proposals are not just top-down government orders. There is some regulation involved to ensure the health and wellbeing of consumers, just as there are rules for petroleum products, medicines, and other things.
  • There are also proposals to encourage private industry to make and profit from the transition to cleaner and more efficient operating systems and new products.

I, Donald Trump, am making America energy independent.

  • Can the nation ever be energy independent relying on depletable resources or on the income derived from exporting our oil and gas to foreign countries?
  • The path to energy independence is through reliance on solar, wind, and other non-carbon-emitting technologies.  
  • America and almost every nation on Earth can be energy independent through the use of American clean energy and energy efficiency technologies. Such reliance will reduce the call for America's military to aid allies and defeat adversaries.
  • No, what you are doing is prematurely depleting America's natural resources and risking scarce water sources by renting out public lands to energy companies more interested in their bottom-lines than the welfare of American citizens.
  • No, what you are doing is pressuring the federal government to continue expending hundreds of billions of dollars on fossil fuel subsidies.
  • Real independence means that price wars between Saudi Arabia and Russia shouldn't send US oil companies into bankruptcy.

Deregulating the environment helps American industry to be competitive around the world.

  • Why are you pushing auto manufacturers to build less efficient vehicles than they have already planned to make when the rest of the world is looking for more efficient gas and electric-powered vehicles?
  • Your refusal to sign an international agreement to reduce the use of HFCs, a potent greenhouse gas, in air conditioning and refrigeration units is another example of making things harder for US companies. Many Republican and Democratic Senators and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, FreedomWorks, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have agreed that becoming a signatory to the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol is in the best interest of the nation and the environment and will create tens of thousands of jobs.
  • Because your administration thinks itself above the law, it has subjected markets to what they most abhorindecision because of lawsuits and judicial decisions remanding them back to the agencies to do things the right way.

Stock markets will crash because of your energy and environmental policies.

  • No, Donald, the opposite is true. Stock markets are being strengthened.
  • Solar energy stocks have been among the few gainers in the energy sector throughout the pandemic.
  • Mainstreet and Wall Street investors have been dumping oil company stocks in record numbers.
  • According to a just-released report by your administration, climate change threatens US financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds, and other financial institutions.

I hope these points will help you prepare for the upcoming debates with President Trump. They are only a fraction of the reasons why you'll be putting the nation on solid ground as president by implementing many of the proposals you have offered as a candidate.

I'm around, so feel free to call or email me if I can be of more assistance.

Joel Stronberg's picture

Thank Joel for the Post!

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Discussions

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Sep 14, 2020 11:26 am GMT

Really impressed (but not surprised!) with this piece, Joel-- well done. I genuinely hope that people inside the Biden camp are reading, or at the very least have come to the same conclusions as you. 

In particular:

Most voters have already made up their minds.

Your goal is to convince the few independents and former Trump voters who are now feeling remorse.

The 2016 election showed us this a game of inches—a few thousand votes in the right places may well determine the outcome.

is right on. As much as I would love to hear him backed into a corner to explain how wind power causes cancer or how TVs will turn off when the wind stops blowing in a gotcha moment against his greatest anti-science hits, Biden isn't looking to win over the people who are already climate voters-- it's about carving out new voters, highlighting to them how/why he can be the choice for them. 

T Conroy's picture
T Conroy on Sep 14, 2020 8:45 pm GMT

Hello Joel,

Once again a VERY LONG hit piece on the Trump administration's climate policies (or lack thereof).

If your goal is to rile people up and create partisan and uneducated clickbait, then congratulations. If your goal is to make real bi-partisan climate policy progress, then I'd give you an "F".

The Dem's don't actually want to adopt any aggressive climate policies, and I offer three examples:

1. They could trade "the wall" for preferred/more aggressive climate policies. Instead, just as today with their refusal to negotiate on additional CV-19 relief, the D's have refused for almost 4 years to negotiate on climate policies. Hint: the D's could cut down the hated "wall" upon taking office in the white House.  

2. I have seen no Dem proposals whatsoever to raise the Federal gasoline tax? Why not if climate change is truly the "existential issue of our lifetime?"

3. From your article: "Climate activists had appealed to Tom Perez, Chair of the National Democratic Committee, to dedicate at least one of the debates between the primary candidates for the nomination to climate matters. Perez's refusal to entertain the request threatened to unleash an unbridgeable rift between the Party's progressive and moderate wings."

The fact that neither party appears to want to take the lead (beyond yabber-yabber) on climate-impacting policies should point our criticism at both parties. Stirring up readers by attacking Pres. Trump and the R's because they are honest (and not misleading constituencies with no policy seriousness) is not advancing our attempts to reduce atmosperic carbon loading. I personally prefer the honesty over the cynicism - at least we know where the R's stand and what we need to do to advance.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Sep 16, 2020 4:48 pm GMT

You and are in agreement on at least three things. First, the article was very long by opinion-piece standards.

Second, the Democrats hardly have a sterling record when it comes to climate legislation. Indeed, they failed to pass substantive climate legislation the last time they controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. No idea if they will do so the next time they’re in charge. There’s a lot of internal bickering. So in this regard, a pox on both their houses.

Third, I’m in favor of raising the gasoline tax. At one time, Trump said he would consider it. In a normal election year, neither Rs nor Ds would pass a new tax. In a pandemic election year, well, you can guess how loud the “no’s” would be.

I’m not sure that real bipartisan climate policy progress is even possible these days, given what President Trump has said about science and warming over the past few days. He says the scientists are wrong. The time for questioning the basic warming conclusion is over. As to his saying it will get cooler-- not a terribly prescient opinion as fall becomes winter.

Warming isn't about today's weather report. It's a long-term global phenomenon, evidence of which is everywhere these days. He has no sound basis for his conclusion that the scientists are wrong--none.

Trump’s position means that the Republicans in Congress aren’t going to entertain a bill—beyond the Murkowski bill that will possibly get through Congress before the end of the year. It was held up over HFCs, a hugely potent gas. Some Republican senators are odds with the White House over the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Accord.

If the bill gets through Congress, we’ll see if Trump will sign it. This bill has been in the making for a decade, and it hardly does what needs to be done to deal with the climate crisis. It is a start, however.

In all honesty, I don’t why keep bringing up the Wall as a tradable commodity. Trump would never allow it. Even should he lose in November, there’s not enough Republican support in Congress to continue construction--realistically there's no trade to be done

As to the honesty of the Rs proposals, I have my doubts. Even if I didn’t, their proposals are not up to the task. If time were ever of the essence in these matters, it’s now.

Sure more research is important, and planting hundreds of millions of more trees would help to sequester carbon according to the scientists. There’s just so much more that needs to be accomplished—which is where I doubt the Rs in Congress are willing to go. I base that conclusion on their reaction to the House Minority’s effort to get the signature of more than just a few of his members on the proposed research and reforestation bills.

Finally, whatever else you might think, I appreciate your taking the time to read and respond to my articles. My purpose is to encourage dialogue. I’ll keep writing, and I hope you’ll reading and responding.

T Conroy's picture
T Conroy on Sep 17, 2020 9:50 pm GMT

Hello Joel, we have the same goals so I appreciate the dialogue. I will conclude from what you said above that we shouldn't place 100% of the blame for our progress (or lack of) on one person or party.

I'd like to focus on what is needed and how to get there:

1. Power generation portfolio's are managed at the state, not federal level. No state, nor national lab, nor utility has created a "flexible endpoint model" for utilities to get onto a pathway to a destination. We are currently headed down the "decarbonization" path like 3 blind mice, spending excessively (some of our storage choices will turn out to be a waste of money), having very harmful results (the CA debacle), and not really moving the ball forward. We need to push for utility/state flexible endpoint models. Where is EPRI, where are the labs, where are the utilities?

2. The cost in decarbonize U.S. electricity production will cost $3.4 to $4.2 trillion $ of CAPEX. This si 50% solar + wind, 50% "storage". At our current rate of wind, solar, and NatGas CAPEX ($35 billion in 2019), it will take us 100 years to get there. We need to increase our powergen equipment CAPEX spending by 3x to 6x to get there by 2035/2050. The CAPEX question is equivalently complex and difficult as is the "reliable portfolio composition" question. I regard the CAPEX challenge as equal in magnitude to the building of the transcontinental railroad, or the oroginal buildout of our U.S. electric system.

3. The utility financial-regulatory model that was established under FDR is broken, and is/will inhibit our ability to make progress towards no-carbon portfolios. We have generally ensured that utilities have no financial incentive to move us to a no-carbon profile - how does that make sense?  

Best regards, Tom

Gary Hilberg's picture
Gary Hilberg on Sep 18, 2020 5:20 pm GMT

Joel - I continue to hear this subsidy number for fossil fuels and your post prompted me to dig into it, the introduction to the IMF reports it as:

"This paper updates estimates of fossil fuel subsidies, defined as fuel consumption times the gap between existing and efficient prices (i.e., prices warranted by supply costs, environmental costs, and revenue considerations), for 191 countries."

Difficult to know what is in their calcs, big potential environmental costs, depreciation on investments... All things that most countries do not charge businesses, including renewable businesses for.  These are not direct subsidy payments like the renewable ITC/PTC's. 

It is this type of hype that causes many of us who are not anti-renewable, to be concerned about these discussions and distrustful of things like the Green New Deal which really has a math problem.  

I would suspect that an Presidential environment debate would be risky for both sides, if we removed all non-fact checked points, I suspect that there would be silence on both sides! 

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