During the first debate between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden in early October, it was hard not to notice the lack of emphasis placed on climate change. Sure, Trump incomprehensibly claimed to be “planting trees,” but moderator Chris Wallace phrased our planet’s rapidly deteriorating climate conditions as theory, rather than scientific fact; hearing him ask Trump whether he “believed” in climate change underscored the frustration that many have long felt over U.S. leaders’ failure to act on our climate emergency.
Debate performance aside, the issue of climate change is at the top of many Americans’ minds as we head into the last few weeks before the 2020 election. The number of Americans who see climate change as a crisis is steadily growing, with about 8 in 10 poll respondents agreeing that it is fueled by human activity. If Trump wins again in November, we could be looking at four more years of his administration rolling back environmental protections and undermining the U.S.’s ability to help address climate change on a global scale.
If Biden comes away from Election Day victorious, there’s no question that climate policy would benefit; he has proposed plans to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, invest in green energy and infrastructure, and—most ambitiously—make the U.S. economy carbon neutral by 2050. Biden’s environmental policy doesn’t go far enough for everyone—despite Trump’s jeers at the first debate, he has not signed on to support the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2019—but there’s little question of whose presidency would do more to slow the effects of climate change.
To name a few more examples: Where Trump has repealed Obama-era emissions regulations, Biden plans to set aside $2 trillion to reach his goal of zero emissions within 30 years. Trump has reduced regulatory barriers to oil, natural gas, and coal development, while Biden argues that with affordable renewable energy alternatives, coal is no longer in demand. And while neither candidate has said he will ban fracking, Biden will eliminate offshore drilling and block oil development on protected lands.
One aspect of climate change that is infrequently discussed is the outsized effect it’s already having on marginalized populations—environmental racism is very real. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who serves as the Climate Policy Director at the Roosevelt Institute and helped Ocasio-Cortez develop the Green New Deal, explains that part of curbing its impact involves centering climate discussions around individuals’ personal sense of agency.
“We’re in a moment that I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime, and there’s this feeling that we can figure out something different [on climate change],” she says. “As a Black woman, for so much of my life, I got told that this is just the way it is, that the immense amount of suffering you see people in your community going through…‘That’s just the economy. That’s just the way things work. It has to be like this.’ And now we’re realizing that’s that’s not true, that these climate events are the result of deliberate choices and systems that we have built. Now we’re in a place where we have to reduce them, and we have a chance to actually ask, What do we want to do? I find that people find that reenergizing.”
It’s difficult to gauge just how strongly a potential Biden administration would prioritize climate change, but there have already been promising signs that the former vice president would garner support from leading climate activists; Greta Thunberg endorsed Biden in October, and Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash serves as an advisor to Biden’s climate task force.
Teen and twentysomething activists like Thunberg and Prakash have led some of the most relevant and incisive climate protests in modern history, and their willingness to back Biden and lend their expertise in helping his campaign address the increasingly dire heat of climate change head-on speaks volumes about the role that climate can play in this election.
“This really has become a climate election,” says Maggie Thomas, the political director of environmental nonprofit Evergreen Action, who has served as climate policy advisor to Senator Elizabeth Warren and deputy climate director to Governor Jay Inslee. “I think we’re seeing robust discussion around what is the right set of national climate policies that we need in order to ensure that we have a livable future.”
Electing Biden for president won’t fix all our climate woes; after all, global temperatures have already risen disproportionately over the past several decades, and evidence was presented to world leaders at the 2019 U.N. General Assembly that we have less than a decade left to prevent irreversible climate change. That said, it’s by no means too late to prevent further damage to our planet—this moment is crucial for those willing to do the work, and part of that work involves mobilizing voters around climate-change issues in the 2020 election.
Thomas stresses the importance of urgency in intracommunity conversations around climate change before the election. “One thing that Governor Inslee would always say on the campaign trail is, ‘If it’s not job one, it won’t get done’. That really applies to the next administration and the next Congress, because we have a huge task ahead of us,” Thomas says. “We need to completely transition our energy system and our economy—from a fossil-fuel-based economy to an economy that’s powered by clean energy—and if it is not a focus and priority of the next president, and of his administration and Congress, we’re not going to be able to achieve it.”