How Biden Should Have Responded to Trump on Climate Change in the Debate

Millions watched the final Presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The last topic was climate change, with the question directed first to Trump, who said:

“…we have so many different programs, I do love the environment, but what I want is the cleanest crystal clear water, the cleanest air. We have the best lowest number in carbon emissions, which is a big standard that I noticed Obama goes with all the time, not Joe, I haven’t heard Joe use the term because I’m not sure he knows what it represents or means….”

Biden responded credibly about his ambitious two trillion dollar proposed program for clean renewable energy, electric vehicles, and new jobs. Yet, I wished he had responded more directly to Trump’s misinformation, taking the opportunity to educate the public. I would like to have heard something like:

“Mr. President, not only do I know very well what carbon emissions represent, it’s time to blow away the smoke on your continued climate confusion. Christine’s question was about climate change, a topic that now rates the highest concern with the American public, and indeed the world. It was not about clean air and water, which are very different environmental issues.

Over the last four years with your protection of fossil fuels, the world has witnessed worse wildfires, droughts, record rain, melting of the polar ice caps, and rising sea level just as scientists have predicted since Ronald Regan was President. By the way he and Margaret Thatcher, both conservatives, agreed on the urgency of the problem and began efforts to change global policy, but that was thwarted by various lobbying efforts. Now, people are rightfully concerned about the damage that will soon be too late to fix.

Clean air is vital. Dealing with visible and aerosol pollutants is very important. But your administration has undermined the EPA regulations responsible for the improvement in air and water quality that you cherish. Black smoke, from smoke stacks and car exhausts, does harm air quality. You have undermined that badly. Black smoke is largely carbon, which as you may recall from school, is an element.

But climate change is not about smog and visible air pollution caused by carbon. The main concern about global warming relates to carbon dioxide–CO2– a clear chemical compound, composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. CO2 is the byproduct of burning fossil fuels. For millions of years, the level of clear carbon dioxide has varied with the natural cycles of the ices ages, and has ranged from 180 to 280 parts per million. For the last two centuries of the industrial era, CO2 is climbing straight up like a rocket, and is now at 414 parts per million. As was predicted a century ago, the perfectly clear CO2 traps heat in the atmosphere, causing the planet to warm. Some experts believe we face extinction if this continues.

When scientists talk about “carbon emissions” it’s their shorthand for carbon dioxide emissions. Mr. President, perhaps you did not know what that means — or perhaps you were just blowing smoke.

You focus on investments. Nothing could be more important as an investment for future generations. Dealing with climate change is not only an economic opportunity, it is an existential and ethical imperative. When I am President, dealing with the challenge of climate change will be a top priority.”

Oceanographer specializing in rising sea level. He blogs at @johnenglander FB: