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Jun 28, 2024, 11:09am EDT
net zero

How Joe Biden lost the climate debate too

Brian Snyder/Reuters
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The News

Donald Trump and Joe Biden briefly traded barbs over climate in their presidential debate Thursday night — and the weak responses from both candidates handed Trump an unexpected advantage.

In response to a question from CNN moderator Dana Bash about whether the candidates would “take any action as president to slow the climate crisis,” Trump claimed that his administration “had the best environmental numbers ever” and that he wants “absolutely immaculate clean water” and “absolutely clean air.” Biden, in a shaky response, argued that Trump “hasn’t done a damn thing for the environment” and that “I passed the most extensive climate change legislation in history.” The exchange was typical of what has become the dynamic between the two contenders: Trump forceful and wrong, Biden garbled despite having plenty to brag about.

“The question got asked; the answers failed the future,” Bob Inglis, former Republican representative of South Carolina and executive director of the conservative climate communications group republicEn, told Semafor.

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Tim’s view

Biden’s muddled reference to the Inflation Reduction Act was a missed opportunity for him to press what should be one of his strongest arguments in swing districts: That he is overseeing the reindustrialization of the US, and is responsible for at least $200 billion in investment in job-creating industrial facilities, overwhelmingly in Republican-majority areas. Setting aside the fact that Trump’s assertions were inaccurate — his administration rolled back more than 100 pollution-related regulations — and that his narrow focus on air and water quality feels antiquated and misguided in the era of climate change, his framing is likely to be more resonant with more voters than Biden’s.

Biden does need to shore up support from young climate-focused voters, many of whom have been alienated by the administration’s handling of the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and its approval of oil and gas drilling projects in Alaska and elsewhere. But most of the people he needs to win over aren’t motivated by messaging about the climate crisis or the Paris Agreement. Research by the marketing firm Potential Energy has shown that crisis framing — Biden referred to climate change as “the only existential threat to humanity” — is polarizing and tends to push conservative voters into a defensive posture. Of all the framings that politicians might take around environmental policy, the most broadly popular across the political spectrum is to talk, as Trump did, about cutting pollution.

Recent polling suggests that pitching the IRA as an economic stimulus and manufacturing support bill, rather than a climate bill, would be more effective. A recent Economist survey concluded that “Biden-Trump swing voters are most likely to list inflation as their top issue, followed by ‘jobs and the economy’,” both of which are issues squarely addressed by the IRA. Americans are not grasping the connection between clean energy incentives and economic growth on their own. A Pew survey this week found that while a majority of adults favor having more clean energy, their support is declining, and that while 30% of Americans think having a solar farm in their community would benefit the local economy, more than half see no impact one way or the other. Yet support for renewables remains remarkably strong with young Republicans, who favor it over fossil fuels two-to-one.

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There is, in other words, a compelling argument to make that addressing climate change is a generational economic opportunity for the US. But Biden didn’t make that argument. He also didn’t deflect an accusation from Trump that the US has failed to profit from “the liquid gold right under our feet,” even though oil and gas production is at an all-time high and gasoline prices are moderate. A well-considered statement about tapping the full spread of US energy resources could go a long way toward preventing Trump from claiming the mantle of protector of rational energy policy.

The real missed opportunity of the evening was that neither candidate articulated a vision for the future US energy economy. Rising uncertainty about the outcome of the election is starting to freeze up the flow of climate capital, said Ann Anthony, CFO of the biofuel producer Oberon Fuels: “Tonight’s debate dodged critical questions. Many key financiers and partners are sitting on the sidelines until they have clearer guidance that directly improves the math on their investments. We need the direction we were promised — and we need it now.”

Biden did the hard work to get the Inflation Reduction Act passed. He can’t afford to miss any more chances to sell its benefits to voters.

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Room for Disagreement

Biden may not have articulated it clearly enough, but the two candidates represent significantly different paths forward for climate policy. If Trump wins and brings a Republican majority to Congress with him, it’s unlikely that much of the IRA would get significantly rolled back, given how much of its benefits are accruing in Republican districts. But there are plenty of other steps that conservative lobbyists are pushing, including an even further expansion of oil and gas drilling on federal land, scrapping emissions regulations on power plants, and cutting off support for Department of Energy programs that are crucial for scaling new climate tech.

“To say this a high-stakes election for the country and the world is an understatement,” said John Morton, managing director at the investment advisory firm Pollination and a former Biden climate official. “The contrast between the candidates on climate change couldn’t be sharper.”

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The View From The Supreme Court

Trump was handed another victory Friday, as the Supreme Court struck down the so-called “Chevron doctrine,” which gave executive agencies broad discretion in designing regulations. Scrapping Chevron will make it much easier for Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups to challenge environmental regulations. A strategy document circulated this week by Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) lays out next steps after Chevron, including that “each House Committee should scour Biden era regulatory actions and highlight any that should be considered for judicial review post-Chevron.”

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