Record-setting wildfires in the western US forced their way into the presidential campaign on Monday, with Donald Trump and Joe Biden making competing remarks.
The historic fires in California, Oregon and Washington have killed at least 35, forced tens of thousands to evacuate and subjected millions to some of the worst air pollution in the world – yet the subject has been slow to penetrate mainstream politics, amid the Covid-19 pandemic and a national reckoning on racial injustice.
In a speech in his home town, Wilmington, Delaware, on a hot afternoon on the heels of the hemisphere’s hottest summer yet, Biden emphasized the wildfires’ connection to the human-made climate crisis and pitched his plan to invest in green infrastructure in order to create jobs and stimulate an economic recovery from the pandemic.
“All this year and right now. We stand with families who have lost everything. The firefighters. The first responders, risking everything to save others.
“… People are not just worried about raging fires. They’re worried about the air they breath, the damage to their lungs … this year alone nearly 5m acres have burned across 10 states. More acreage than the entire state of Connecticut.
“Fires are blazing so brightly, smoke reaching so far, Nasa satellites can see them one million miles in space. The cost of this year’s damage will again be astronomically high. But think of it from the view on the ground, in the smoldering ashes,” Biden said.
Biden aggressively attacked Trump’s “indifference” on climate change, calling him a “climate arsonist”.
“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires, how many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out, how many suburbs will have been blown away in superstorms?” Biden asked. “If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze…when more of America is under water?”
“We have a choice, he said. “We can invest in our infrastructure, make it stronger, more resilient, improving the health of Americans and creating millions of good-paying jobs while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change,” Biden said. “Or we can continue down the path Donald Trump has us on. The path of indifference, costing tens of billions of dollars to rebuild, where the human cost, the lives, the livelihoods the homes and the communities destroyed are immeasurable.”
The former vice-president said pointed to climate change widespread intensification of extreme weather, from the western fires to, Midwestern floods, droughts and windstorms and Gulf Coast hurricanes.
“With every bout of nature’s fury caused by our own inaction on climate change, more Americans see and feel the devastation. Whether they’re in big cities, small towns, coastlines or farm towns. It’s happening everywhere. It’s happening now. It affects us all.”
Biden repeatedly sought to portray the climate crisis as a nonpartisan issue, one of four crises confronting the US simultaneously, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, the economic downturn and emboldened white supremacy.
Trump, who has denied climate change exists and downplayed its impact, was due on the ground on Monday, to attend a briefing on the wildfires in California, then deliver remarks in a ceremony recognizing the California national guard.
The two men’s responses illustrate the importance of the November election in determining the trajectory of global climate action.
If Biden wins, the US will recommit to climate efforts, potentially encouraging deeper action from the rest of the world. The scale and speed of Biden’s response would depend largely on congressional politics and could be hampered by his hesitancy to call for a rapid end to the use of fossil fuels, but he has vowed that climate will be a top priority.
If Trump wins, he will continue to cheerlead fossil fuels, stripping environmental standards and helping the industry compete with clean energy.
Julien Emile-Geay, an associate professor of earth sciences at the University of Southern California, said: “Voters will soon have to choose between an administration invested into denying objective information – including, but not limited to, all the science it finds inconvenient – and a Democratic ticket that, for all its faults, at least acknowledges this reality.
“This is what political choice has turned to in 2020: a referendum on objective reality.”
In his speech, Biden said Trump “has no interest in meeting this moment. He’s already said he wanted to withhold aid to California, to punish the people of California. Because they didn’t vote for him. This is another crisis. Another crisis he won’t take responsibility for. The west is literally on fire.”
The conditions in the US are precisely those climate scientists and activists have warned about for years. On the west coast, dozens of fires are burning. On the Gulf coast, states are bracing for a possible second major hurricane this season, as Hurricane Sally heads for eastern Louisiana and the Florida panhandle.
“It’s clear that we’re not safe in Donald Trump’s America,” Biden said. “This is Donald Trump’s America. He’s in charge.”
Touting his proposed legislative program, he took further shots at the president.
“When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, he thinks hoax. When I think about climate change I think jobs. When Donald Trump thinks about renewable energy he sees windmills somehow as causing cancer. I see American manufacturing. When Donald Trump thinks about LED lightbulbs, he says they’re no good, they always make him look orange …”
Globally, most countries are likely to miss a 2020 deadline to advance their climate plans, the United Nations climate chief, Patricia Espinosa, told Climate Home News. That includes China – the biggest emitter of heat-trapping climate pollution.
A 2015 international agreement was meant to be the first step for countries to begin to significantly limit warming. But the world is far off track. Having warmed more than 1C since industrialization, it is now on a path toward 3C or higher.