The climate crisis and record wildfires in the western US forced their way into the presidential campaign on Monday, with Joe Biden calling Donald Trump a “climate arsonist” and Trump falsely claiming that the planet “will start getting cooler” and that the science is still uncertain.
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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.
“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?”
The former vice-president highlighted how the climate crisis is touching all Americans, from the western fires to midwestern floods, droughts and windstorms and Gulf coast hurricanes.
Trump meanwhile blamed the fires on poor forest management, spoke of “exploding” trees and disputed the science showing the world will only get hotter if fossil fuel and other climate emissions from human activity are not steeply curtailed.
During his visit to California, for a briefing on the wildfires and to bestow awards to California national guard members who helped rescue campers stranded by one of the strongest of dozens of infernos, Trump also questioned the usefulness of US climate action.
“When you get into climate change, well, is India going to change its ways? Is China going to change its ways? Is Russia going to change its ways?” he told reporters when he arrived in Sacramento. “We’re just a small speck. They make up a big preponderance of the pollution.”
The US is in fact the biggest historical emitter of climate pollution, although China is currently the top emitter.
In a later briefing, Trump interrupted an official, Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency, to argue the climate “will start getting cooler, you just watch”.
Crowfoot responded: “I wish science agreed with you.”
To which Trump retorted: “I don’t think science knows actually.”
Crowfoot later tweeted: “It won’t actually get cooler, Mr President,” alongside a temperature graphic.
Lacking forest management does exacerbate wildfires, but hot and dry conditions because of climate change are a major contributer.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, in the briefing with Trump acknowledged a need for better forest management but said “we come to the perspective, humbly … that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this”.
Trump, who has previously denied climate change exists and downplayed its impact.
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.
Related: Social media disinformation on US west coast blazes ‘spreading faster than fire’
“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.
Joan E Greve contributed reporting