presidential debate 2020

Wreck on the Green Highway

Last Tuesday night, I couldn't take my eyes off Chris Wallace's haplessly bad moderating, Joe Biden's timidity, and Donald Trump's Tasmanian Devil routine during the first presidential debate.


But, lo and behold, three quarters of an hour into what TV commentators later openly called a "fiasco" or a "sh*tshow," something happened that hadn't happened in a presidential debate for 12 years.

Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News —yes, that Fox News — abruptly changed the evening's topics and tone by asking President Trump about climate change, a topic that wasn't even supposed to be on the evening's agenda:

Wallace: The forest fires in the West are raging now. They have burned millions of acres. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. When state officials there blamed the fires on climate change. Mr. President, you said, I don't think the science knows. Over your four years, you have pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama Environmental records, what do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?

Trump: I want crystal clean water and air. I want beautiful clean air. We have now the lowest carbon… If you look at our numbers right now, we are doing phenomenally. But I haven't destroyed our businesses. Our businesses aren't put out of commission. If you look at the Paris Accord, it was a disaster from our standpoint. And people are actually very happy about what's going on because our businesses are doing well. As far as the fires are concerned, you need forest management. In addition to everything else, the forest floors are loaded up with trees, dead trees that are years old and they're like tinder and leaves and everything else. You drop a cigarette in there the whole forest burns down. You've got to have forest management.

So Wallace pinned Trump down, sort of, on whether he's a climate denier:

Wallace:What do you believe about the science of climate change, sir?

Trump: I believe that we have to do everything we can to have immaculate air, immaculate water, and do whatever else we can that's good. We're planting a billion trees, the Billion Tree Project and it's very exciting for a lot of people.

Wallace: 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. I think to an extent, yes, but I also think we have to do better management of our forest. Every year I get the call. California's burning, California's burning. If that was cleaned, if that were, if you had forest management, good forest management, you wouldn't be getting those calls. In Europe, they live they're forest cities. They call forest cities. They maintain their forest. They manage their forest. I was with the head of a major country, it's a forest city. He said, "Sir, we have trees that are far more, they ignite much easier than California. There shouldn't be that problem." I spoke with the Governor about it. I'm getting along very well with the governor. But I said, "At some point you can't every year have hundreds of thousands of acres of land just burned to the ground." That's burning down because of a lack of management.

You may recall that President Trump had referred to this as raking the forest floor. Yup, he did. A few minutes later, Wallace gave a chance to Biden:

Wallace:All right, Vice President Biden. I'd like you to respond to the president's climate change record but I also want to ask you about a concern. You propose $2 trillion in green jobs. You talk about new limits, not abolishing, but new limits on fracking. Ending the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2035 and zero net admission of greenhouse gases by 2050. The president says a lot of these things would tank the economy and cost millions of jobs.

Biden: He's absolutely wrong, number one. Number two, if in fact, during our administration in the Recovery Act, I was in charge able to bring down the cost of renewable energy to cheaper than or as cheap as coal and gas and oil. Nobody's going to build another coal fired plant in America. No one's going to build another oil fire plant in America. They're going to move to renewable energy. Number one, number two, we're going to make sure that we are able to take the federal fleet and turn it into a fleet that's run on their electric vehicles. Making sure that we can do that, we're going to put 500,000 charging stations in all of the highways that we're going to be building in the future. We're going to build a economy that in fact is going to provide for the ability of us to take 4 million buildings and make sure that they in fact are weatherized in a way that in fact will they'll emit significantly less gas and oil ..."

They spoke, and argued, over climate and environment for several more minutes, making it the most extensive presidential candidates' environmental think-fest in history. It devolved, with Trump attempting to link Biden to the "radical," "socialist" Green New Deal proposal he now says will cost $100 trillion, a hallucinatory sum that would make Doctor Evil blush.

For his part, Biden says he does not endorse all of the sweeping Green New Deal goals.

Let's add to the mix President Trump's announcement late Thursday night that he and the First Lady have tested positive for COVID-19 and its potentially immense implications for those in all levels of government.

We've got your science denial right here, Mr. President.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences.

Most of us are trying to forget Tuesday night's debate debacle. But one interaction is worth revisiting.

air pollution at Louisiana wood pellet mills
Wild Center/Flickr

British company agrees to pay $3.2 million for air pollution at Louisiana wood pellet mills

The company that runs Britain’s biggest power station has agreed to pay $3.2 million to settle air pollution claims against two of its wood pellet mills in northeast Louisiana.
Sunrise in the woods

Get our Good News newsletter

Get the best positive, solutions-oriented stories we've seen on the intersection of our health and environment, FREE every Tuesday in your inbox. Subscribe here today. Keep the change tomorrow.

New study suggests coal ash pollution more widespread than previously thought

The study found large amounts of coal ash in the sediment, or sand, of five recreational lakes across North Carolina. All of these lakes are near former or currently operational Duke Energy coal plants.
recycling trees and poop to make compost
GP Witteveen/Flickr

US cities are recycling trees and poop to make compost

Wood and biosolids from water treatment plants can be used to improve the soil—and keep remaining trees healthy.
Earth’s ice melt & land lost to sea
Vern/Flickr

Memories of the end of the Last Ice Age, from those who were there

As Earth’s ice melts once more, heed these ancient tales of land lost to the sea.
‘Backed into a corner’: Duncan’s First Nation sues Alberta for cumulative impacts of industry
Suncor Energy / Flickr

‘Backed into a corner’: Duncan’s First Nation sues Alberta for cumulative impacts of industry

Lawsuit follows in the footsteps of B.C. Supreme Court’s precedent-setting Blueberry River decision, which could have profound impacts for oil and gas industry
Can sweetgrass sequester carbon?
Jamie/Flickr

Can sweetgrass sequester carbon? Piikani Nation plans to find out

Studying the carbon capturing capabilities of sweetgrass is just one part of a larger vision for adapting to climate change in southern Alberta.

From our Newsroom
Chemical recycling grows  along with concerns of its impacts

Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

Industry says chemical recycling could solve the plastic waste crisis, but environmental advocates and some lawmakers are skeptical.

Failure of the universities: The culture gap is now near lethal

Universities are failing us

Our educational systems are failing to prepare people for existential environmental threats

Shell's new petrochemical complex in southwestern Pennsylvania

The Titans of Plastic

Pennsylvania becomes the newest sacrifice zone for America’s plastic addiction.

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Ruth Greenspan Bell: Wealth and the climate dilemma

Developing countries that increase their fossil fuel production are at a crossroads: securing their own long-term well-being or earning revenue to finance programs to support immediate economic growth.

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Solving the climate crisis will help both ‘sacrifice zones’ and ‘cute’ puffins

Curbing pollution for families in Chicago calms the climatic conditions that drive fish away from puffins half a continent away.

puffin tern recovery climate change

Good news: A good year for puffins and terns, despite climate change

A visit to a remote Maine island finds puffins and terns rebounding despite climate change

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.