Climate Champ vs. Climate Chump: Six Debate Questions for the Candidates

Climate Champ vs. Climate Chump: Six Debate Questions for the Candidates
Donald Trump stands at left and Joseph Biden at right behind lecterns on a stage with a blue backdrop
Donald Trump and Joe Biden face off during the 2020 U.S. presidential debate held at Belmont University in Nashville. (Chip Somodevilla/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ahead of Thursday’s debate between President Joe Biden and ex-president Donald Trump, here’s what I’d like to ask the candidates.

More than 7 in 10 adults plan to watch President Joe Biden debate Donald Trump on Thursday, the first televised debate ever between two candidates who have already served as president.

That means CNN anchors Jake Tapper and Dana Bash will go beyond campaign rhetoric and delve into each man’s record in office to help draw out the contrasts between two starkly different contenders.

Perhaps nowhere is the contrast sharper, or of greater public significance, than on the candidates’ approach to the climate crisis. This election is a contest between a climate champ and a climate chump.

Biden took the strongest climate action in U.S. history, working from day one of his presidency to enact strategic measures to slash carbon pollution, strengthen the economy, cut costs for our families, and make the country more energy secure. He’s promised to build on those gains in a second term.

Trump, who called climate change a hoax, has said that wind turbines cause cancer, urged drivers to burn more gasoline, and slammed climate progress into reverse. He’s pledged to do the same in a second term that would be grounded in naked corruption: offering the oil and gas industry a free hand to dismantle climate and clean energy action in exchange for a billion dollars in campaign cash.

Presidential elections are about the future—not just for powerful corporations but for all of the nation’s people. Few issues will more thoroughly shape that future, for all of us, than the global climate crisis and the U.S. response to it.

The next four years are critical. What the next president does (or fails to do), between now and the end of this decade, will go a long way toward determining whether the worst consequences of climate change are averted.

Here, then, are six questions that might be put to the candidates about the existential challenge of our time—why they acted, or failed to act, as president, and what more they would do in a second term—with a brief background on why each question matters.

Q. Both of you, as president, saw the climate crisis inflict rising costs and mounting dangers on communities across the nation. You responded in completely different ways. Do you believe, as president, you have a moral obligation to act today to protect the nation against widening climate hazards and harm tomorrow?

Why it matters to voters: We’re watching a runaway train of climate disasters careen across an American landscape that’s increasingly imperiled. We see it in newspaper headlines, television stories, and out of our kitchen windows.

Just this past week, dangerous heat waves across much of the country put some 100 million Americans at risk—in June.

Each of the past 12 months was the hottest such month since global recordkeeping began, just as last year was the hottest on record, with this year on track to be as hot, if not hotter

The vast majority of the country wants our government to act. That’s why 73 percent of U.S. adults favor policies that support Biden’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030.

Trump rolled back climate progress as part of the worst White House assault in history on the environment and public health. He’s pledged a rerun of that sorry show in a second term, putting his personal interests first and leaving future generations to pay the price.

Q. What did you do in your first term as president to help cut U.S. fossil fuel emissions, and what would you do, in a second term, to build on those gains?

Why it matters to voters: The candidates’ respective records on climate action differ as starkly as their positions would imply.

As president, Biden took the strongest climate action in U.S. history. He signed into law the nation’s largest climate and clean energy investment ever—$370 billion in incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act. He put in place new standards to reduce climate pollution from our nation’s largest sources: methane emissions from oil and gas operations and carbon pollution from cars, trucks, and dirty power plants. 

Taken together and done right, these measures have positioned the country to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 42 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. That’s well on the way toward Biden’s goal of slashing that pollution 50 to 52 percent by then. 

Biden needs a second term to finish what he’s begun. That includes: finalizing new rules to cut carbon pollution from existing gas-fired power plants; making sure climate and clean energy incentives are effectively implemented; and putting into place policies to help clean up energy-intensive industries like steel, aluminum, and cement.

Trump, for his part, weakened or repealed more than 100 protections for the environment and public health. That included fuel economy and greenhouse gas emissions standards. Had Biden not reversed those actions, Trump’s rollbacks would have increased greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide—roughly a third of annual U.S. emissions—by 2035. 

Trump has promised that, in a second term, he would repeal the rules Biden has put in place to clean up cars, trucks, power plants, and oil and gas operations.

Q. What have the climate policies you’ve put in place meant for the economy?

Why it matters to voters: The climate and clean energy incentives in the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act are driving a manufacturing renaissance in the heartland, with clean energy at its core. Every member of Trump’s party, in both houses of Congress, voted against the climate and clean energy law.

Since Biden signed the bill into law, corporations have announced more than $124 billion in investments to build or expand factories to make solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, advanced batteries, and the like. 

It’s creating more than 106,000 jobs in red states and blue, further strengthening a clean energy jobs corps that’s 3.3 million strong

More than 80 percent of this investment is going to disadvantaged counties where wages, employment, and college graduation rates are below the national average. The vast majority—78 percent—is going to majority-Republican congressional districts. 

The clean energy manufacturing boom is strengthening the supply chain for the building blocks of a modern economy. And it’s making the country more energy secure by reducing U.S. reliance on the fossil fuels that enrich belligerent petro-states like Russia.

Trump, by contrast, has promised to do the bidding of Big Oil billionaires and roll back this progress, leaving the next generation to pay the price.

Indeed, Trump’s party has repeatedly tried to gut these successful incentives. That would set back U.S. workers and industry in the global clean energy effort that drew a record $1.8 trillion in worldwide investment in the last year alone.

Q. How are the climate and clean energy incentives impacting consumers’ wallets?

Why it matters to voters: Consumers have been big winners. The climate and clean energy incentives will save American families up to $38 billion on electricity bills by 2030.

Among the consumer benefits are reduced prices on heat pumps, which can save the average household $500 a year on utility bills. The initiatives also cut the cost of making homes more energy efficient, such as installing rooftop solar panels or power storage batteries. And they make electric vehicles, new and used, more affordable for low-income and middle-income drivers, saving drivers money on the lifetime costs of owning their vehicles and reducing their reliance on oil.

Trump’s party has tried nearly three dozen times to gut these popular incentives. That would hurt consumers across the board and leave the country more vulnerable to global oil shocks we can neither control nor predict.

Q. What’s the impact of your climate agenda on public health?

Why it matters to voters: Nearly $820 billion a year in health-related costs are related to burning fossil fuels. The harm to public health comes directly and immediately—from the toxic chemicals, smog, and small particles adrift in the air that we breathe—and longer term, from the health impacts of climate change.

Heat-related deaths in the United States have been increasing, rising last year to 2,302, with hospital visits from extreme heat averaging 67,000 a year. Warming weather expands the geographical range of ticks and mosquitoes that carry disease. Wildfires, storms, and floods cause injury, illness, and death.

Biden understands that pollution from dirty energy sources puts our health at risk, and he’s taking action against it. That’s one reason he’s confronting the climate crisis. And it’s why he worked with Congress to strengthen the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. 

Biden also worked with Congress to replace the lead service lines that contaminate public drinking water nationwide. And he announced the first-ever limits on toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” to further protect drinking water.

Trump rolled back essential environmental and public health protections and has promised more of the same in a second term.

Q. Last week, the United Nations reported that 80 percent of people worldwide want their governments to do more to confront the climate crisis. Even more—86 percent—want their countries to work with the rest of the world to develop global climate solutions. That’s an extraordinary global consensus; more than 73,000 people polled in the United States and 76 other countries. How would you respond?

Why it matters to voters: China, the United States, India, and the 27 countries of the European Union are, respectively, the world’s four largest emitters of the pollution that’s driving the climate crisis, accounting for more than half of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the course of history, the United States has been the world’s largest carbon polluter, responsible for 25 percent of cumulative global emissions.

The United States played an important role in helping to rally all 198 countries around an agreement during global climate talks last December to transition away from coal, oil, and gas more rapidly.

All nations also agreed to triple renewable power and double the pace of energy efficiency gains, both by 2030. And they agreed to wind down the absurd taxpayer subsidies—some $1.3 trillion each year—that prop up an oil and gas industry that banks $3.5 trillion in annual profits worldwide. 

The agreement was brokered under the auspices of the United Nations climate framework that produced the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement, which calls on the United States and other countries to spell out national climate goals that grow in ambition every five years.

The Biden administration is currently working on its own revised national climate targets, to be announced by the end of the year. The administration’s unprecedented climate progress has enabled the United States to help lead by example on the global stage.

As president, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement. He broke the U.S. promise to the rest of the world, undercut global momentum for climate progress, and turned the United States from a global climate leader that commanded respect into a feckless laggard isolated in the global climate arena.