As wildfires ravage West, Biden avoids climate focus
Joe Biden is passing up a chance to make fighting climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, environmentalists say, at time when wildfires have incinerated an unprecedented 3 millionplus acres in California, a record hurricane season is battering the Southeast and one of the worst windstorms ever to hit Iowa caused $4 billion in damage.
The reason he hasn’t, they say, is political. Elevating climate change into a top priority doesn’t help the Democratic presidential nominee in states that are competitive in the November election — and those don’t include California or Oregon, a state where 40,000 people were under evacuation orders Friday because of wildfires. In some swing states, including Pennsylvania, where support for fracking is solid because thousands of jobs depend on it, going too green could damage Biden’s slim lead.
“It might be that he thinks potential swing voters might not want to see them come out too strong on climate change,” said Sean Hecht, coexecutive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA.
“It’s a bit puzzling because Biden has put together a plan that has a lot of good things in it, and a lot of good people worked on it,” Hecht said. “But it has not been a major kind of general campaign issue. It is surprising, because it is an issue that is attractive to a lot of young people.”
Stevie O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-run environmental organization with 460 chapters nationwide, called it “a missed opportunity for the Biden campaign. Young people are fed up with politics as usual and fed up with a lack of action on climate. They’re looking for the Democratic Party and Joe Biden to take the lead on this.”
While climate change is a huge issue to Californians who are experiencing its effects with every breath, it isn’t a top issue to most Americans. It was No. 11 when Pew Research asked Americans in August which topics would be “very important” when they cast their ballots. At the top was the economy, followed by health care, Supreme Court appointments and the coronavirus pandemic.
“The environment is a local issue. It’s always going to be a secondary issue,” said Dan Lee, a professor of political science at the University of NevadaLas Vegas.
National candidates, Lee said, figure that while wildfires may be top of mind in California, they’re not in Iowa. Same goes for Californians and their concern, or lack thereof, for freak events in Iowa, where more than 8,000 homes were damaged and crops were leveled when a derecho — a line of fastmoving windstorms — ripped through the state in August.
Environmentalists counter that such events can no longer be considered oneoffs — or, as Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday in an angry denunciation of “ideological BS” that denies the reality of climate change, California “is America, fastforward.”
“Natural disasters tend to be local, but we’re seeing them pop up everywhere,” said Michael Gerrard, founder of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, where he is a law professor.
These events are forgotten “if you have a oneweek attention span. We’ve forgotten about the (derecho) in Iowa,” Gerrard said. “Maybe in two weeks, people outside of California will forget about the wildfires.”
That’s why some environmentalists are frustrated with Biden: They think he could drive home the point and gain more support.
Trump didn’t forget about what happened in Iowa. He visited the state, where he holds a slim lead, days after the disaster.
But the president, who famously called climate change “a hoax,” hadn’t mentioned the California wildfires in public for more than three weeks until Saturday night, when he told a campaign rally in Minden, Nev., that “it’s all about forest management.” It was a briefer version of a riff he embarked on during an Aug. 20 campaign appearance in Pennsylvania in which he said the state needed to do more to clear forest “debris” and fallen trees. He plans to visit Sacramento on Monday to be briefed on the wildfires.
“It’s hard to talk about something that you don’t believe in despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary,” said Lauren French, a spokeswoman for the environmental group Climate One.
Lee, the University of Nevada political scientist, said Republicans “don’t think climate change is an issue for them. They see it (bringing) more environmental regulations that will slow economic growth.”
On Saturday, Biden mentioned the role that climate change has played in the wildfires that are tearing up the West.
“The science is clear, and deadly signs like these are unmistakable — climate change poses an imminent, existential threat to our way of life,” Biden said in a statement. “We absolutely must act now to avoid a future defined by an unending barrage of tragedies like the one American families are enduring across the West today.”
Environmentalists wish he would do more of that. French and others say Biden does have a strong environmental plan that has widespread — if cautious — support across the Democratic Party.
“A lot of that fear about talking about climate change is based on conventional wisdom,” French said. “It’s time to change that conventional wisdom.”
Much of the support for Biden’s plan came this summer after a unity committee made up of his and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ supporters found common policy ground on a variety of issues, including the environment. The disparate group included mainstream liberals such as former Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, democratic socialist Rep. Alexandria OcasioCortez of New York, Sunrise Movement leader Varshini Prakash and Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb, a moderate who represents a Rust Belt region of western Pennsylvania.
Environmentalists and policy leaders say much of the climate plan, which Biden embraced and incorporated into his own proposals, could draw wide support if he pushed it harder — even in battleground states. Among its planks:
A call for U.S. to be fully powered by renewable energy by 2035, which is 15 years sooner than Biden suggested during the primaries. Unlike Sanders, however, Biden hasn’t disavowed fracking, a natural gasextraction process that is anathema to environmentalists because it releases large amounts of greenhouse gases and can contaminate groundwater. “I am not banning fracking,” Biden said at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh this month. A plan to spend nearly $2 trillion over four years on increasing renewable power and creating incentives to build more energyefficient buildings, homes and cars. Biden predicts this would create 10 million jobs in the clean energy sector, triple the current total. A focus on environmental justice — Biden is promising to crack down on industries whose pollution disproportionately affects communities of color.
“You can frame a lot of environmental policy as health policy,” said Hecht, the climate change institute director at UCLA. “If you frame it that way, you can attract more voters.”
Despite this summer’s highprofile disasters, some environmentalists remain skeptical that the issue will hold the public’s attention for long. Four years ago, moderators at the four presidential and vice presidential debates did not ask one question about climate change.
Mindful of that history, nearly six dozen Democratic House members, led by Orange County Rep. Mike Levin, asked the Commission on Presidential Debates this month to “break precedent and publicly call on the moderators to include climate change in the topics that will be addressed” during the three presidential debates, the first of which is scheduled for Sept. 29. Newsom also wants more frank conversation about climate change.
As he stood amid the smoke of the North Complex fires in Butte County, which killed at least 12 people when they exploded out of a partial containment zone last week, Newsom said Friday: “The debate is over around climate change. Just come to the state of California . ... This is a climate damn emergency. This is real. It is happening in unprecedented ways, year in, year out.”
He added, “What we’re experiencing here is coming to (communities) all across the United States of America.”
Lisa Trythall of Salt Lake City makes sandwiches for her children as they sit in their car in Sausalito during a road trip on Wednesday. Her son, Luke, looks around at the orange sky while he waits.
In wildfire smokefiltered light, Paulo Santos (left) and Thomas Spratley visit the Marin Headlands.