Until late Sept. 2020, no one had asked a candidate at a presidential debate about climate change for 12 years.
Fox News journalist Chris Wallace ended the streak last week with surprise climate questions during the first debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden. But the often-ignored topic returned in the vice-presidential debate, too. On Wednesday night, USA Today journalist Susan Page allotted some 10 minutes to a topic that, year after year, is growing in salience as the planet continually warms.
Yet the questions were rudimentary or unproductive, having not progressed much beyond assessing repeatedly proven, evidence-based science. They didn’t lead to substantive solutions for slashing heat-trapping carbon emissions. Instead, the queries still belabored why climate change is happening and if Vice President Mike Pence believes climate change is impacting extreme events like wildfires and hurricanes. (It is.)
Page began by asking Pence, “Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that manmade climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly, and have made hurricanes wetter, slower, and more damaging?”
A question about belief in a deeply researched scientific discipline goes nowhere. Science is not based on belief. It follows the evidence. Physicians don’t believe cigarette smoking causes cancer. Instead, decades of irrefutable evidence proves it does. Similarly, oceanographers, fire researchers, glaciologists, atmospheric scientists, geologists, and paleoclimatologists don’t believe humans are warming the planet. Rather, the overwhelming evidence proves it. Scientists are beholden to the evidence, not hope or belief. (The planet is reacting to the highest levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in , but more likely . For decades, how much the climate would warm as humanity continually pumped CO2 into the atmosphere.)
As Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University tweeted during the debate: “By continuing to present it as a ‘belief,’ the media is feeding the explicitly-promoted narrative that climate change is a false, earth-worshipping religion that must be rejected by all true believers. Promoted by whom, you ask? Anyone who wants us to reject climate solutions.” (Hayhoe gave examples of Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham labeling climate change a “religion.”)
Pence ultimately provided an answer that has become routine, and predictable, from Republicans. “Now with regard to climate change, the climate is changing,” Pence said. “But the issue is, what’s the cause and what do we do about it?”
For an answer, Pence might refer to the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment, the latest edition of which the federal government released in 2018. It concluded that “Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities.”
An erroneous climate-contrarian argument is that foundational climate science (like why Earth is rapidly warming) is still debated among scientists. It isn’t. By the late 1990s, there was already an overwhelming consensus, , that human carbon emissions were warming the planet. (Though even in 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius had the fundamental relationship between rising CO2 and a changing climate.) Researchers have analyzed nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed studies on climate change, and “just a handful” denied the climate consensus.
Of course, you can find a handful of scientists or pundits that will reject any evidence about anything, and get TV appearances doing so. But that’s not how science works. “True scientists debate in the halls of science [meaning peer-reviewed research], not Fox News or the Wall Street Journal [op-eds], and true scientists honor evidence,” Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, told Mashable last year.
Later in the interview, Page asked Pence if he believed in the seriousness of climate change. (“Vice President Pence, do you believe that climate change poses an existential threat?”) Pence avoided answering the question, again noted “the climate is changing,” and went on to talk about taxes.
For the record, climate change is the dominant factor driving a multitude of problematic global changes. For example:
- The Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica, one of the largest glaciers on Earth, has destabilized. It’s retreating by around half a mile each year and has the potential to raise sea levels by many feet this century.
- Arctic sea ice is in dramatic, rapid decline.
- Wildfires in the Western U.S. nearly doubled between 1984 and 2015.
- Powerful storms are growing wetter, meaning more flooding and deluges.
- Heatwaves are growing more extreme and breaking records.
The rest of the climate debate didn’t move the needle much on climate policy. It devolved into back and forths about the Green New Deal (a visionary framework to create a renewable energy infrastructure in the U.S., which is different than Joe Biden’s climate plan) and fracking. Page asked Senator Kamala Harris what would be the “stance of a Biden Harris Administration toward the Green New Deal?” But voters didn’t get a substantive debate (or much of anything) about how a Biden presidency would put the U.S., and globe, on a trajectory that can limit the worst consequences of climate change.
This isn’t surprising. Climate change has essentially been off the national debate stage for over a decade. So the national, televised dialogue is primitive. The transportation sector is the of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., but there were no questions or talk about building out a critical electric vehicle infrastructure. There was no dialogue about how to get all 50 states to adopt renewable energy (perhaps with a nationwide clean energy standard). There were no questions about the role of nuclear energy in producing carbon-free energy in the coming decades (nuclear-generated of the nation’s energy in 2018).
What’s more, a lack of fact-checking left millions of voters with completely wrong or deceptive ideas about climate change, too. When asked about wildfires, Pence said that “forest management has to be front and center” in dealing with the rise in California’s fires. In reality, fire scientists know that both a century of forest fire suppression and a heating climate is both dominant factors in driving the surge in Western wildfires over the past few decades. Ignoring climate change won’t help, especially because the planet will unavoidably keep warming through much of this century.
Pence also noted, “There are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago.” Yes, but that’s not the point. Climate scientists don’t expect more hurricanes overall. They do, however, expect hurricanes , meaning higher wind speeds and more damaging and dangerous storms.
Pence declared during the debate that “President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.” But Page didn’t push back on both Trump’s, and the administration’s, efforts to ignore, denounce, and belittle science. Just a few weeks ago, Trump said “I don’t think science knows, actually,” in reference to how a warming climate impacts forests (A warming climate has a big impact on wildfires.) The Trump administration’s EPA has publicly fostered misinformation about climate science. And the president said he doesn’t “believe” the 2018 National Climate Assessment, a landmark climate report produced by his own scientists.
At the very least, however, voters almost certainly came away from the debate appreciating that the Democratic ticket cares about climate change and actually has a climate plan, but Republicans are still stuck on why it’s happening. Yet in a world that’s relentlessly warming, the public would benefit from more than an elementary (and error-filled) chat about climate change. After all, carbon levels in the atmosphere are still going up, even amid a historic pandemic. What we’re doing to the planet isn’t just abnormal. It’s extreme even compared to the planet’s geologic past.
“What’s important to recognize is the changes humanity is driving at present are commensurate with the most significant events in the history of life on this planet,” Matthew Long, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Techskylight last year.