As wildfires rav­age West, Bi­den avoids cli­mate fo­cus

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - FRONT PAGE - By Joe Garo­foli

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.”

Gabrielle Lurie / The Chron­i­cle

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.

Scott Straz­zante / The Chron­i­cle

In wild­fire smoke­fil­tered light, Paulo San­tos (left) and Thomas Sprat­ley visit the Marin Head­lands.

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