The New York Times - USA (2020-10-16)

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A16 FRIDAY, OCTOBER 16, 2020


The presidential election is just weeks away, and climate change has broken
through as a defining issue for Americans this year, even amid a historic pan-
demic and deep economic uncertainty weighing upon the nation.
Two-thirds of Americans say the government isn’t doing enough to reduce the
effects of global warming, according to a June survey from the Pew Research
Center, and the two presidential candidates’ approaches couldn’t be further apart.
President Trump has often dismissed global warming as a hoax; his rival, Joseph
R. Biden Jr., calls climate change an “emergency” that requires rapidly overhaul-
ing the nation’s energy system.
Their differences raise profound questions about the government’s role in
shaping the United States economy and America’s place on the world stage.
Here’s a guide to major climate questions in the election.


This is the most common question asked
of any politician who proposes to fight
climate change: How much will it cost?
But there is another equally important
question: How much will it cost to not
fight climate change? It makes no sense to
look only at the cost of action and ignore
the cost of inaction, climate experts point
Rising temperatures, after all, carry
their own price, including deadlier heat
waves, crop failures, more destructive
wildfires and higher sea levels. The fed-
eral government’s National Climate As-
sessment warns that even moderate
warming could cost the American econ-
omy hundreds of billions of dollars each
year by century’s end.
Many economists argue that imposing a
price on carbon-dioxide emissions, either
directly (by taxing fossil fuels) or indi-
rectly (by promoting cleaner energy), can
be worth the cost. Others warn that it’s
difficult to put a dollar figure on all the
risks involved, but that climate action
should be thought of as insurance against
future catastrophe.
Mr. Trump has consistently downplayed
the dangers of global warming and has
focused instead on the immediate costs of
climate policies. His administration has
rolled back emissions rules on cars and
power plants to ease burdens on industry,
while developing calculations that suggest
climate change won’t harm the economy
much (a view the government’s own sci-
entists have rejected).
Mr. Biden, for his part, says the United
States needs to zero out greenhouse-gas
emissions by 2050 to help avoid the worst
consequences of warming and has pro-
posed spending $2 trillion over four years
as a starting point. He has focused on the
health and economic benefits — cleaner
air, the creation of new industries — but
has faced pressure to ease the blow for
industries reliant on fossil fuels.


There is broad scientific consensus on
what the world must do to halt global
warming: Stop burning fossil fuels like
coal, natural gas and oil.
Emissions in the United States have
been declining in recent years, largely
because utilities have been retiring old
coal plants in favor of cleaner and cheaper
natural gas, wind and solar. Still, last year
the country derived 80 percent of its total
energy from fossil fuels, an unsustainable
level if the worst consequences of warm-
ing are to be avoided.
Mr. Trump has long vowed to protect
the fossil fuel industry in the name of
preserving jobs and enhancing America’s
“energy dominance.” His administration
tried hard to rescue the coal industry
(though that effort has largely failed) and
has opened new public lands in places like
Alaska for oil and gas development.
In a Trump second term, some clean
technologies like renewable energy and
electric cars would most likely still ex-
pand, though mainly because they keep
getting cheaper and states like California
are promoting them. Mr. Trump’s Envi-
ronmental Protection Agency is, however,
expected to challenge efforts like Califor-
nia’s proposal to phase out sales of gaso-
line cars by 2035.

Mr. Biden envisions a much faster shift
away from fossil fuels, saying that new
cars should eventually be required to run
on electricity instead of gasoline and that
emissions from power plants should be
zeroed out by 2035. Mr. Trump has sought
to turn this into a campaign issue by
claiming Mr. Biden would ban fracking, a
technique for extracting oil and natural
gas, even though Mr. Biden has said he
would not. Mr. Biden has vowed to end
new drilling permits on federal lands and


As countries have awakened to the haz-
ards of climate change, they have slowly
started curbing their greenhouse gas
emissions in recent years. Some energy
giants, like BP, now expect global demand
for oil to plateau in the decades ahead.
But scientists warn that governments
aren’t acting nearly fast enough to avoid
severe global warming. And every year of
delay makes the problem harder to solve.
The clock is ticking. Global tempera-
tures have already risen 1 degree Celsius
from preindustrial times. For that increase
to stay well below 2 degrees Celsius, the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change says that global carbon dioxide
emissions need to get down to zero by
around midcentury. Blowing past that
limit, the panel warned, could bring about
a world of worsening food and water
shortages, collapsing polar ice sheets, and
a mass die-off of coral reefs.
Getting emissions all the way down to
zero would entail a staggeringly rapid
transformation of the world economy.
In the United States, climate activists
have rallied around the Green New Deal,
which envisions getting the United States
to net zero emissions as quickly as possi-
ble in order to give less-wealthy nations
more time to make their own transitions.
Mr. Biden has called the Green New Deal
a “crucial framework” but has distanced
himself from its particulars, instead aim-
ing to zero out America’s emissions by
Doing so would require doubling or
tripling the pace at which clean electricity
sources like wind or solar get installed,
one recent study found, all while slashing
pollution from cars, trucks, buildings,
industry and agriculture.
Mr. Trump hasn’t committed to any
climate targets. One analysis by Wood
Mackenzie, an energy research firm, sug-
gested that another four years of delay
would “dramatically reduce the possibil-
ity” of the nation meeting the 2050 goal for
eliminating carbon emissions.


Governments routinely steer industries,
the economy and society toward various
goals. Cigarettes are taxed to deter smok-
ing. Roads are built with public money,
which encourages driving.
When it comes to climate change, some
economists advocate simply taxing fossil
fuels in proportion to the damage they
cause to health and to the climate. The
idea is that these carbon taxes would be a
relatively light-handed government inter-
vention that gives private companies
incentive to reduce their emissions.
Mr. Biden has mostly steered away from

carbon taxes, reflecting a widening view
on the left that they are politically treach-
erous and work too slowly.
Instead, his campaign has called for
new regulations and spending that would
accelerate wind, solar, and electric vehicle
deployment while investing in nascent
technologies like hydrogen (a clean-burn-
ing fuel that can be produced from gas or
renewables), carbon capture (trapping
carbon dioxide from industrial polluters
before it escapes into the atmosphere and
warms the planet) or advanced nuclear
These proposals are far more ag-
gressive and ambitious than anything
pursued by the Obama administration —
which, at the time, was criticized by Re-
publicans for picking winners and losers.
None of this means that Mr. Trump
shies away from picking favorite indus-
tries, of course.
His administration has pursued policies
to encourage oil, gas and coal production
while reducing pollution regulations, help-
ing to give those industries a leg up over
cleaner rivals. The administration has also
overseen new tax credits and regulatory
changes to promote low-emissions tech-
nologies like carbon capture or advanced
nuclear, though that hasn’t been a central


For the most part, the United States reacts
to disasters after they strike, rather than
spending money ahead of time to reduce
risks or even move people out of harm’s
way. When floods or hurricanes destroy
homes, governments spend billions to
rebuild in place.
But that’s an untenable long-term strat-
egy. Climate change threatens to make
wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other
disasters more destructive, putting ever
more people at risk.
During the Trump administration, the
government has taken several steps to try
to prepare for disasters ahead. The De-
partment of Housing and Urban Develop-
ment is handing out $16 billion to help
states defend against future floods and
storms. The Federal Emergency Manage-
ment Agency has sought and received
funding to pay for large-scale relocation
away from risky areas. More con-
tentiously, the Army Corps of Engineers
has pressed cities to evict homeowners
from flood zones in exchange for aid.
But experts say the administration is
hobbled by its unwillingness to explicitly
recognize the climate threat. In 2017, Mr.
Trump rescinded a policy that required
agencies to consider sea-level rise when
building infrastructure. In 2018, FEMA
stripped the words “climate change” from
its strategic plan.
Mr. Biden has called for more sweeping
adaptation measures, proposing, for in-
stance, that all new federal funding to
rebuild roads, bridges or water infrastruc-
ture must consider climate change.
But there are huge challenges. Past
efforts to limit coastal development or set
stricter building codes have often faced
serious blowback. And the idea of retreat-
ing from areas that can’t be defended,
which experts warn will become more
important as disasters worsen, is a politi-
cal minefield.


This has been a year — and an election —
where racial and economic inequality has
leapt to the forefront of the national con-
Climate change is an essential part of
that dialogue, because its effects are pro-
foundly unequal. Recently, researchers
have shown how Black and Hispanic
neighborhoods suffer worse heat today
than other parts of town, a legacy of racist
housing policies. Hotter days threaten to
widen the racial achievement gap in
schools. Fossil fuel pollution often poses
the greatest health hazard to low-income
Solutions can be unequal, too. Subsidies
for rooftop solar panels or electric cars
often flow to wealthier households. Pro-

grams to help people move from flood-
prone areas have historically focused on
richer neighborhoods.
Mr. Biden says he would make inequal-
ity a core part of his climate plan by, for
instance, prioritizing low-income commu-
nities for clean energy funding. Mr. Trump
has said very little on the subject, al-
though his E.P.A. has highlighted its clean-
ups of Superfund sites as a form of envi-
ronmental justice.


Alongside climate change, the world faces
a biodiversity crisis.
Last year, a United Nations report
warned that as many as one million
species could face the risk of extinction in
the decades ahead as a result of farming,
logging, poaching and overfishing as well
as rising temperatures. The report called
on countries to dramatically scale up their
conservation efforts.
Debates over the purpose of America’s
public lands stretch back more than a
century. How much should be used for
mining, logging, recreation? How much
kept wild? The candidates have markedly
different visions of how far to tip the
scales in either direction.
The Trump administration has relaxed
protections for wildlife and endangered
species, often arguing that they impede
industrial activities or job creation in
drilling or logging. And he has opened
formerly protected lands in places like
Utah to energy and mining exploration.
This year, however, President Trump also
signed the Great Outdoors Act, a biparti-
san bill to put hundreds of millions of
dollars into conservation and national
park programs, a policy sought by envi-
Mr. Biden would go further: He has
endorsed a call by conservationists to
protect 30 percent of America’s lands and
waters by 2030 as a way of aiding bio-
diversity and slowing extinction rates.
(Today, about 12 percent of land and 26
percent of waters are protected.) Achiev-
ing that goal may prove complicated in
practice, as it could entail restricting in-
dustry and other activities in large parts
of the country.


The United States can’t solve climate
change alone. After all, the country is
responsible only for about 14 percent of
global emissions.
So one of the big questions in the elec-
tion is how the United States should use
its influence to shape policies abroad.
In 2017, President Trump said he would
withdraw the United States from the Paris
climate deal, an international agreement
based on peer pressure: Countries set
voluntary targets to reduce their emis-
sions, then urge each other to do more. Mr.
Trump argued that the deal would shackle
the United States and that other countries
were unlikely to do their part.
The United States is set to formally
leave the Paris agreement on Nov. 4, one
day after the presidential election.
Since Mr. Trump announced America’s
withdrawal, some governments have
continued taking action. Europe has
scaled up its climate policies, and China
recently pledged to become carbon-neu-
tral by 2060, though it remains unclear
how the country might do so.
The question is whether the world could
make even faster progress with the United
States engaged.
Mr. Biden argues the answer is yes. He
has pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement
and “use every tool of American foreign
policy to push the rest of the world to raise
their ambitions.”
There is plenty of debate over how
much leverage the United States actually
has to persuade other countries to act
more forcefully on climate change. But at
the core is a fundamental split in how each
candidate views the role of the United
States on the global stage.




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