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The Election and Climate Change


Oct. 14, 2020 The New York Times 

The presidential election is just weeks away, and climate change has broken through as a defining issue for Americans this year, even amid a historic pandemic and deep economic uncertainty weighing upon the nation.

Two-thirds of Americans say the government isn’t doing enough to reduce the effects of global warming, according to a June survey from the Pew Research Center, and the two presidential candidates’ approaches couldn’t be further apart. President Trump has often dismissed global warming as a hoax; his rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr., calls climate change an “emergency” that requires rapidly overhauling the nation’s energy system.

Their differences raise profound questions about the government’s role in shaping the United States economy and America’s place on the world stage. Here’s a guide to major climate questions in the election.


1. What price is America ready to pay?

2. Are fossil fuels part of the future?

3. How quickly must things change?

4. Should governments put a thumb on the scale?

5. How can the U.S. adapt to worsening disasters?

6. Who is hurt the most by warming?

7. What about birds, bears and other animals?

8. Where should America stand on the world stage?


This is the most common question asked of any politician who proposes to fight climate change: How much will it cost?

But there is another equally important question: How much will it cost to not fight climate change? It makes no sense to look only at the cost of action and ignore the cost of inaction, climate experts point out.

Rising temperatures, after all, carry their own price, including deadlier heat waves, crop failures, more destructive wildfires and higher sea levels. The federal government’s National Climate Assessment warns that even moderate warming could cost the American economy hundreds of billions of dollars each year by century’s end.

Many economists argue that imposing a price on carbon-dioxide emissions, either directly (by taxing fossil fuels) or indirectly (by promoting cleaner energy), can be worth the cost. Others warn that it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on all the risks involved, but that climate action should be thought of as insurance against future catastrophe.

Mr. Trump has consistently downplayed the dangers of global warming and has focused instead on the immediate costs of climate policies. His administration has rolled back emissions rules on cars and power plants to ease burdens on industry, while developing calculations that suggest climate change won’t harm the economy much (a view the government’s own scientists have rejected).

Mr. Biden, for his part, says the United States needs to zero out greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 to help avoid the worst consequences of warming and has proposed spending $2 trillion over four years as a starting point. He has focused on the health and economic benefits — cleaner air, the creation of new industries — but has faced pressure to ease the blow for industries reliant on fossil fuels.


There is broad scientific consensus on what the world must do to halt global warming: Stop burning fossil fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.

Emissions in the United States have been declining in recent years, largely because utilities have been retiring old coal plants in favor of cleaner and cheaper natural gas, wind and solar. Still, last year the country derived 80 percent of its total energy from fossil fuels, an unsustainable level if the worst consequences of warming are to be avoided.

Mr. Trump has long vowed to protect the fossil fuel industry in the name of preserving jobs and enhancing America’s “energy dominance.” His administration tried hard to try to rescue the coal industry (though that effort has largely failed) and has opened new public lands in places like Alaska for oil and gas development.

In a Trump second term, some clean technologies like renewable energy and electric cars would likely still expand, though mainly because they keep getting cheaper and states like California are promoting them. Mr. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is, however, expected to challenge efforts like California’s proposal to phase out sales of gasoline cars by 2035.

Mr. Biden envisions a much faster shift away from fossil fuels, saying that new cars should eventually be required to run on electricity instead of gasoline and that emissions from power plants should be zeroed out by 2035. Mr. Trump has sought to turn this into a campaign issue by claiming Mr. Biden would ban fracking, a controversial technique for extracting oil and natural gas, even though Mr. Biden has said he would not. Mr. Biden has vowed to end new drilling permits on federal lands and waters.


As countries have awakened to the hazards of climate change, they have slowly started curbing their greenhouse gas emissions in recent years. Some energy giants, like BP, now expect global demand for oil to plateau in the decades ahead.

But scientists warn that governments aren’t acting nearly fast enough to avoid severe global warming. And every year of delay makes the problem harder to solve.

The clock is ticking. Global temperatures have already risen 1 degree Celsius from preindustrial times. For that increase to stay well below 2 degrees Celsius, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global carbon dioxide emissions need to get down to zero by around mid-century. Blowing past that limit, the panel warned, could bring about a world of worsening food and water shortages, collapsing polar ice sheets, and a mass die-off of coral reefs.

Getting emissions all the way down to zero would entail a staggeringly rapid transformation of the world economy.

In the United States, climate activists have rallied around the Green New Deal, which envisions getting the United States to net zero emissions as quickly as possible in order to give less-wealthy nations more time to make their own transitions. Mr. Biden has called the Green New Deal a “crucial framework” but has distanced himself from its particulars, instead aiming to zero out America’s emissions by 2050.

Doing so would require doubling or tripling the pace at which clean electricity sources like wind or solar get installed, one recent study found, all while slashing pollution from cars, trucks, buildings, industry and agriculture. Mr. Biden’s climate proposals would likely face hurdles in both Congress and the courts, and it remains to be seen how much he could actually accomplish if elected.

Mr. Trump hasn’t committed to any climate targets. One analysis by Wood Mackenzie, an energy research firm, suggested that another four years of delay would “dramatically reduce the possibility” of the nation meeting the 2050 goal for eliminating carbon emissions.


Governments routinely steer industries, the economy and society toward various goals. Cigarettes are taxed to deter smoking. Roads get built with public money, which encourages driving.

When it comes to climate change, some economists advocate simply taxing fossil fuels in proportion to the damage they cause to health and to the climate. The idea is that these carbon taxes would be a relatively light-handed government intervention that gives private companies incentive to reduce their emissions.

Mr. Biden has mostly steered away from carbon taxes, reflecting a widening view on the left that they are politically treacherous and work too slowly.

Instead, his campaign has called for new regulations and spending that would accelerate wind, solar, and electric vehicle deployment while investing in nascent technologies like hydrogen (a clean-burning fuel that can be produced from gas or renewables), carbon capture (trapping carbon dioxide from industrial polluters before it escapes into the atmosphere and warms the planet) or advanced nuclear power.

These proposals are far more aggressive and ambitious than anything pursued by the Obama administration — which, at the time, was criticized by Republicans for picking winners and losers.

None of this means that Mr. Trump shies away from picking favorite industries, of course.

His administration has pursued policies to encourage oil, gas and coal production while reducing pollution regulations, helping to give those industries a leg up over cleaner rivals. The administration has also overseen new tax credits and regulatory changes to promote low-emissions technologies like carbon capture or advanced nuclear, though that hasn’t been a central focus.


For the most part, the United States reacts to disasters after they strike, rather than spending money ahead of time to reduce risks or even move people out of harm’s way. When floods or hurricanes destroy homes, governments spend billions to rebuild in place.

But that’s an untenable long-term strategy. Climate change threatens to make wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other disasters more destructive, putting ever more people at risk.

During the Trump administration, the government has taken several steps to try to prepare for disasters ahead. The Department of Housing and Urban Development is handing out $16 billion to help states defend against future floods and storms. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has sought and received funding to pay for large-scale relocation away from risky areas. More contentiously, the Army Corps of Engineers has pressed cities to evict homeowners from flood zones in exchange for aid.

But experts say the administration is hobbled by its unwillingness to explicitly recognize the climate threat. In 2017, Mr. Trump rescinded a policy that required agencies to consider sea-level rise when building infrastructure. In 2018, FEMA stripped the words “climate change” from its strategic plan.

Mr. Biden has called for more sweeping adaptation measures, proposing, for instance, that all new federal funding to rebuild roads, bridges or water infrastructure must consider climate change.

But there are huge challenges. Past efforts to limit coastal development or set stricter building codes have often faced serious blowback. And the idea of retreating from areas that can’t be defended, which experts warn will become more important as disasters worsen, is a political minefield.


This has been a year — and an election — where racial and economic inequality has leapt to the forefront of the national conversation.

Climate change is an essential part of that dialogue, because its effects are profoundly unequal. Recently, researchers have shown how Black and Hispanic neighborhoods suffer worse heat today than other parts of town, a legacy of racist housing policies. Hotter days threaten to widen the racial achievement gap in schools. Fossil fuel pollution often poses the greatest health hazard to low-income communities.

Solutions can be unequal, too. Subsidies for rooftop solar panels or electric cars often flow to wealthier households. Programs to help people move from flood-prone areas have historically focused on richer neighborhoods.

Mr. Biden says he would make inequality a core part of his climate plan by, for instance, prioritizing low-income communities for clean energy funding. Mr. Trump has said very little on the subject, although his E.P.A. has highlighted its cleanups of Superfund sites as a form of environmental justice.


Alongside climate change, the world faces a biodiversity crisis.

Last year, a United Nations report warned that as many as one million species could face the risk of extinction in the decades ahead as a result of farming, logging, poaching and overfishing as well as rising temperatures. The report called on countries to dramatically scale up their conservation efforts.

Debates over the purpose of America’s public lands stretches back more than a century. How much should be used for mining, logging, recreation? How much kept wild? The candidates have markedly different visions of how far to tip the scales in either direction.

The Trump administration has relaxed protections for wildlife and endangered species, often arguing that they impede industrial activities or job creation in drilling or logging. And he has opened formerly protected lands in places like Utah to energy and mining exploration. This year, however, President Trump also signed the Great Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill to put hundreds of millions of dollars into conservation and national park programs, a policy sought by environmentalists.

Mr. Biden would go further: He has endorsed a call by conservationists to protect 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030 as a way of aiding biodiversity and slowing extinction rates. (Today, about 12 percent of land and 26 percent of waters are protected.) Achieving that goal may prove complicated in practice, as it could entail restricting industry and other activities in large parts of the country.


The United States can’t solve climate change alone. After all, the country is responsible only for about 14 percent of global emissions. So one of the big questions in the election is how the United States should use its influence to shape policies abroad.

In 2017, President Trump said he would withdraw the United States from the Paris climate deal, an international agreement based on peer pressure: Countries set voluntary targets to reduce their emissions, then urge each other to do more. Mr. Trump argued that the deal would shackle the United States and that other countries were unlikely to do their part.

The United States is set to formally leave the Paris agreement on Nov. 4, one day after the presidential election.

Since Mr. Trump announced America’s withdrawal, some governments have continued taking action. Europe has scaled up its climate policies, and China recently pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2060, though it remains unclear how the country might do so.

The question is whether the world could make even faster progress with the United States engaged.

Mr. Biden argues the answer is “yes.” He has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement and “use every tool of American foreign policy to push the rest of the world to raise their ambitions.”

There is plenty of debate over how much leverage the United States actually has to persuade other countries to act more forcefully on climate change. But at the core is a fundamental split in how each candidate views the role of the United States on the global stage.





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