By popular demand, climate change was added late to presidential debate agenda, confirming candidate divide

President Trump reacts as former Vice President Biden says unprecedented severe weather is caused by climate change during their debate in Cleveland. Credit: screenshot, MSNBC

President Donald Trump claimed Tuesday night he wants “immaculate” air and water but conceded he has rolled back automobile fuel economy standards, withdrawn from the 2015 global climate accord, and cut Obama-era plans to limit carbon emissions from power plants that cause climate change.

After years of calling climate change a hoax, Trump also conceded — perhaps for the first time on a national stage — that human activity is a factor “to an extent” in causing climate change blamed for extreme hurricanes, massive wildfires, sea-level rise routinely bringing floodwaters into Florida’s coastal cities, and loss of sea ice causing oceans to warm and ecosystems to fail.

Vice President Joe Biden said the nation should invest in sustainable sources of clean energy and put millions of people to work building the clean infrastructure of the future, in service of the climate and the American economy.

The two faced off in the presidential debate hosted in Cleveland, with climate change belatedly added to the list of topics announced Sept. 22 by the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News asked the president, “What do you believe about the science of climate change, sir?”

Trump: “I believe we have to do everything we can to have immaculate air, immaculate water and do whatever else we can that’s good.”

Wallace: “If you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back the Obama clean power plan which limited carbon emissions in power plants?”

Climate.gov, a branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reports rising climate temperature, rising greenhouse gases, and rising seas.

Trump: “Because it was driving energy prices through the sky.”

Wallace: “Why have you relaxed fuel economy standards that are going to create more pollution?”

Trump: “Well, not really. It’s much less expensive and a much safer car.”

Wallace: “Do you believe that human pollution, gas, greenhouse gas emissions, contributes to the global warming of this planet?”

Trump: “I think a lot of things do, but I think to an extent, yes. But I think we also need to do better management of our forests.” He said wildfires scorching the Pacific coast are caused by poor forest management, not by severe heat and drought caused by changes in the climate as scientists assert.

Trump spoke at length about California’s forestry practices but did not address pollution caused by oil-fired and coal-fired power plants or by air and ground transportation, which the Environmental Protection Agency cites as the largest sector for greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump repeatedly pivoted to the economy when questioned about climate change. He said the Paris climate accord was a “disaster” for the United States, that clean power is too expensive, and that cars that are less fuel-efficient could help the climate by being more affordable for people who drive cars that are even less fuel-efficient. He added that he supports use of electric cars, too.

“People are actually very happy about what’s going on, because our businesses are doing well,” he said.

Biden said his plan, unveiled this summer (not the “Green New Deal” proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but sharing some features) aims to create jobs in green industry, convert transportation to electric vehicles, limit but not halt fracking, stop using polluting fossil fuels (mainly oil and coal) to make electricity by 2035, and stop emitting greenhouse gases in this country by 2050.

Wallace asked Biden if his ambitious plan would be too expensive and damage the American economy.

Biden: “We’ve spent billions of dollars now, billions of dollars, on floods, hurricanes, rising seas. We’re in real trouble. They’re because of global warming.”

Trump made a face at that instant.

Biden continued: “We can get to net zero in terms of energy production by 2035, not by costing people jobs but by creating jobs, good-paying jobs … by having a new infrastructure that is in fact green.”

Climate Power 2020, a climate advocacy organization, issued a statement pointing out that the moderator belatedly added climate change questions to the agenda in response to demands from the public. Climate Power reported the subject was added after nearly 200,000 individuals, 71 members of Congress, 37 U.S. senators, and 45 climate organizations demanded it, as described in a Sept. 23 letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates.

Florida elected leaders in Congress who signed the letter calling for climate change to be addressed in presidential debates include former Florida governor and current Rep. Charlie Crist, Rep. Kathy Castor, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and representatives Val Demings, Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, Stephanie Murphy, Donna Shalala, and Darren Soto, all Democrats.

“Because of activism and pressure from everyday Americans, elected leaders, and advocates, Chris Wallace couldn’t ignore the climate emergency facing our country,” said Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, an independently run project created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club.

Lodes said voters are experiencing the effects of climate change and should understand how candidates intend to address it.

“What these 11 minutes [of the debate] showed is that Trump is continuing to deny science, ignore experts, and putting the country at risk due to his inaction and corruption,” Lodes stated. “[The debate segment] further proves why climate must be a centerpiece of every debate and why the American people are demanding to hear more about candidates’ plans to address climate change.”