Biden vs. Trump on climate: Will environmental policy be addressed in the debate?

Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential nominee, right, and U.S. President Donald Trump speak during the U.S. presidential debate at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., on Oct. 22, 2020. (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE)

(WASHINGTON) — As extreme weather events impact Americans across the country, will climate change get the attention it demands on the presidential debate stage?

Marking the first presidential debate of the 2024 general election, President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump are set to take the stage Thursday night in a studio at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters. The candidates will reconvene for a second debate in September, hosted by ABC News.

Topics surrounding climate change, including the federal response to extreme weather events, are among the numerous matters that divide Biden and Trump’s campaigns, according to environmental experts.

“Perhaps nowhere is the contrast between these two candidates sharper, or of greater public significance, than on their approach to the climate crisis,” Manish Bapna, president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) Action Fund, told ABC News, adding, “The American people need to understand that choice.”

With less than a five-month countdown to Election Day, and recent projections from 538 placing the candidates at a near-tie among polled voters, the presidential debates could be make-or-break events for Biden or Trump.

“Americans deserve to know what the next president will do both to reduce the severity of the climate crisis and to protect them from the impacts that are already inevitable,” Ben Edgerly Walsh, climate and energy program director with Vermont Public Interest Research Group, told ABC News.

“Whether you live in Phoenix, Arizona, Palm Beach, Florida or Montpelier, Vermont, or anywhere else in this country, the climate crisis is going to impact you,” Walsh continued.

Nearly nine out of 10 Americans (87%) have faced at least one extreme weather event in the past five years, including extreme heat waves, severe winter storms, major drought, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes or major flooding, according to a 2023 survey from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

Among the Americans who have experienced extreme weather events, three-quarters of those polled believe climate change has been at least partially responsible, according to the survey.

“People care about having access to drinking water and being able to turn their power on,” Alys Campaigne, a climate initiative leader with the Southern Environmental Law Center, told ABC News, emphasizing how the effects of climate catastrophes do not adhere to political party lines.

“They care about supporting leaders who can fix the problems,” she said.

Throughout his time in office, Trump repeatedly denounced climate change as a “hoax” while “reversing, revoking or rolling back” more than 100 environmental rules and actions established by the Obama administration, according to analysis published by the New York Times in 2021.

In November 2020, Trump formally withdrew the U.S. from the United Nations’ Paris Climate Accord, an internationally agreed-upon effort to mitigate climate change and ensure that global temperatures do not increase more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

Over a year later, President Biden officially reentered the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement on his first day in office.

If Trump were to be elected for another term, Bapna worries that Trump’s reported close ties with fossil fuel company leaders would “gut” federal climate action.

The Washington Post reported last month that Trump, during a meeting at Mar-a-Lago, asked oil executives to raise $1 billion for his campaign, with the promise of “scrapping” Biden-enacted policies on electric vehicles and wind energy.

On May 13, during a rally in Wildwood, New Jersey, Trump promised he would halt offshore wind energy projects “on day one” if elected.

“I’m going to write it out in an executive order. It’s going to end on day one,” Trump said, claiming that wind turbines “kill” whales.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has denied these claims, reporting there are no known links between large whale deaths and ongoing offshore wind activities.

“Both candidates should address the fact that climate change is not just a scientific topic, but it is something that is felt by everyday Americans,” Dr. Jeremy Porter, head of climate implications research with First Street Foundation, told ABC News.

“We did see a cut to climate-related funding under the last Trump administration, so it is not unlikely to see the same under the new administration simply based on past practices,” Porter said.

Ahead of the election, several former Trump administration officials and conservative activists have released a “Presidential Transition Project” titled Project 2025 that lists proposals for the new administration if Trump were to take office.

Among the proposals are sweeping cuts to climate initiatives, saying the next administration will “stop the war on oil and natural gas.”

Trump has said his motivation behind withdrawing from climate initiatives and pushing for continued reliance on oil and gas is driven by economic needs.

“As President, I will set a national goal of ensuring that America has the No. 1 lowest cost of energy of any industrial country anywhere on Earth,” Trump said on his campaign website. “We will not only match China we will be cheaper than China by a lot. And more energy will mean lower inflation that will mean more jobs.”

Ending subsidies for electric vehicles, withdrawing the country from initiatives for sustainable food production, preventing federal regulators from considering the economic impact of carbon emissions and abolishing the Energy Department’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and Loan Programs Office, are listed in Project 2025.

The Biden-Harris administration, meanwhile, has channeled substantial funding toward climate action during their term, experts say, namely through the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

The legislation offers funding, programs and incentives to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy, according to the EPA, noting the Act offers, “new access to clean energy tax credits with an emphasis on reaching disadvantaged populations and communities with environmental justice concerns.”

In April 2024, the Biden-Harris administration announced $20 billion in awards to expand access to clean energy and climate solutions and lower energy costs for communities across the nation.

Despite taking steps toward a clean-energy future, during Biden’s tenure the U.S. has continued to produce and export the most crude oil out of any country, at any time, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Crude oil production averaged 12.9 million barrels per day in 2023, breaking the previous U.S. and global record of 12.3 million, set in 2019, according to the agency.

Biden’s approval rating on environmental issues was 46% in a Gallup poll conducted in March, higher than his ratings on other issues but still below a majority approval.

The Trump and Biden campaigns did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.

“Climate action should not — and cannot — become a victim of politicking,” Dr. M. Sanjayan, CEO of nonprofit Conservation International, said, noting how the U.S. has a “long and storied history of bipartisan environmental leadership” seen in the creation of the national parks system and Clean Water and Clean Air Acts.

“Climate change affects all of us, and it’s going to take all of us to ensure that our planet remains habitable for generations to come,” Sanjayan said.

The first presidential debate of the general election Thursday — which is slated much earlier in this presidential election cycle than usual — offers both Biden and Trump a chance to change or reinforce voters’ perceptions.

As the candidates take their debate podiums to address the nation, Sanjayan hopes climate stability is regarded as a priority.

“Both parties need to move policy forward, that’s the real conversation,” Sanjayan said. “The public wants a stable climate.”

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