President Donald Trump has no plan to prevent the catastrophic social, economic, and national security consequences of climate change. But his campaign is still trying to make climate policy the centerpiece of its final campaign push, in the hopes that it might push him over the edge to victory next week.
Since Thursday night’s presidential debate, Trump and the Republican National Committee have launched an aggressive media blitz surrounding Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s climate change policies. The effort stems from a conversation Biden and Trump had on the debate stage, in which Biden said he planned to transition away from the fossil fuel industry.
The exchange saw Trump question Biden about his position on fossil fuels, and Biden say he would “transition” to a clean energy economy. You can read the full transcript below, or watch it on YouTube here.
Trump: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
Biden: “Yes. I would transition.”
Trump: “That is a big statement.”
Biden: “That is a big statement.”
Trump: “Why would you do that?”
Biden: “Because the oil industry pollutes, significantly. … Because it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time, over time. And I’d stop giving to the oil industry, I’d stop giving them federal subsidies.”
Trump: “Basically, what he is saying is he’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma?”
Biden: “He takes everything out of context. But the point is, we have to move toward a net zero emissions. The first place to do that by the year 2035 is in energy production. By 2050: Totally.”
It’s not the most artfully worded explanation on Biden’s part. But it’s also not anything we haven’t heard before. The $2 trillion climate plan Biden released back in July specifically called for a 100 percent carbon neutral economy by 2050—an impossible outcome to achieve without significantly (if not entirely) transitioning away from fossil fuels.
Biden has maintained that his plan will allow room for fossil fuels so long as carbon capture technology improves, but he’s also acknowledged that the industry would still have to significantly shift. Biden’s plan also promises a “just transition” for fossil fuel-supported workers and communities. (What did everyone think he wanted to transition away from? Bees?)
Nevertheless, the Trump campaign has been marketing Biden’s remarks as salacious and revealing gaffes, attempting to stoke outrage in oil-heavy swing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
“Last night, Joe Biden issued a crystal-clear threat to 19 million Americans with his promise to eliminate the oil industry,” Republican National Committee spokesman Steve Guest told the New York Times on Friday. RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel said Biden’s comments show he secretly wants to ban fracking despite saying he doesn’t. “Joe Biden is saying whatever it takes, and he’s lying to the American people,” she said on Fox News Sunday. Trump has since made similar claims about Biden at his rallies, and the campaign has even launched a paid television advertisement about it in Pennsylvania.
Trump is, in other words, attempting an all-out assault on Biden’s climate plan. And so far, it seems to be having the desired effect in the news media.
Majority of news articles adopt Trump’s pro-oil framing of debate
The vast majority of news stories published about Biden’s climate plan since Thursday’s presidential debate have adopted the Trump campaign’s framing of the conflict. They focus solely on Trump’s attacks on Biden’s climate plan, and ignore the fact that Trump doesn’t have a climate plan at all.
HEATED analyzed 30 news articles about the debate’s climate policy exchange, and found that while they all discussed the economic consequences of climate policy, only five discussed the cost of doing nothing.
The news outlets that discussed the cost of inaction included The New York Times, the Guardian, and CNBC. The ones that ignored it included Politico, The Hill, and the Associated Press. (My spreadsheet is here, feel free to check my work).
It’s obviously not an exhaustive search. But it’s enough to raise concern that voters might not be getting a balanced look at presidential climate policy at a crucial point in the election.
With just eight days until the polls close, it seems the main thing voters are learning is how much solving climate change could cost the oil industry, rather than how much ignoring it could cost everyone else.
Trump’s climate policy (nothing) will cost far more than most think
With that in mind, let’s look at some of the research about the cost of doing nothing. Because Trump has made it pretty clear he has no plan to slow planetary warming. And scientists have made it even clearer that this will have devastating economic consequences.
The cost of doing nothing on climate change could be similar, if not much worse, than the current pandemic, according to a study published over the summer by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
“In a high-emissions scenario where little is done to curb planet-heating gases, global mortality rates will be raised by 73 deaths per 100,000 people by the end of the century,” the Guardian reported. “This nearly matches the current death toll from all infectious diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV/Aids, malaria, dengue and yellow fever.”
“The economic cost of these deaths is set to be severe, costing the world 3.2% of global economic output by the end of the century if emissions are not tamed,” the report added. “Each ton of planet-warming carbon dioxide emitted will cost $36.60 in damage in this high-emissions world, the researchers calculated.”
Another study published this summer in the journal Climatic Change estimated that that the ultimate cost of climate change could be $100,000 per ton of carbon—”a thousand times higher than the $100 or less routinely calculated for the cost to our generation.”
Of course, different studies have different estimates. The Brookings Institute, for example, modeled out the potential economic consequences of climate change in the United States, and found annual GDP loss could be anywhere from between 6.7 and 14.3 percent under a scenario of unchecked warming.
Though the specific economic impacts differ depending on the study, the broad consensus is that ignoring climate change will cost the U.S. a lot of money and a lot of lives.
Any climate policy reporting that doesn’t take this into account is fundamentally unbalanced, and favors the Trump administration’s climate denial.
Biden could do better at making the case for his climate policy
Stories sometimes lack information. (This story almost certainly does). It happens, and it happens for a lot of reasons—one of which is that reporting is hard. Many reporters working under tight time constraints, for example, can only write up what they’re given from their sources. And the fact is, Biden and his campaign don’t routinely give reporters much information on the potential cost of Trump’s climate inaction. Usually, they’re far more focused on giving out information about the potential benefits of Biden’s climate actions.
Biden tends to prefer a more positive, politically palatable framing to climate change. But with eight days to go until Election Day, he might do well to embrace the negative. He does this every now and then; in an interview with Pod Save America this weekend, for example, Biden called climate change “the number one issue facing humanity, [and] the number one issue for me.” He added that climate change “is going to actually bake this planet” if left unchecked. “This is not hyperbole. It’s real,” he said. “And we have a moral obligation.”
But if Biden could emphasize the fiscal obligation of climate change alongside the moral, it might result in a better news cycle for his campaign. After all, if Trump can get 25+ major news stories about how Biden’s climate plan is going to destroy the oil industry, Biden should be able to get 50+ more about how Trump’s climate plan is going to cause a 10 percent GDP loss every year. Biden is the only one with the ball; he shouldn’t be playing defense, especially this late in the game. Sports analogy! I’m sorry. I told you this was hard.
Eight more days. See you all tomorrow.
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Stay hydrated, eat plants (I like bananas), do push-ups, and have a great day!