In Donald Trump’s world – laid bare during Thursday night’s final presidential debate with his Democratic rival Joe Biden in Nashville – fossil fuels are “very clean”, the US has the best air and water despite his administration’s extensive regulatory rollbacks, and the country can fix climate change by planting trees.
But according to the harsh realities being laid out by climate scientists, Trump’s world does not exist.
Humanity has just eight years to figure out how to get climate change under control before the future starts to look drastically worse – multiple-degree temperature increases, global sea-level rise, and increasingly disastrous wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts. Doing so will mean that unless there is a technological miracle, humans will at some point have to stop burning oil, gas and coal.
“We’re told by all the leading scientists in the world we don’t have much time,” Biden said. “We’re going to pass the point of no return within the next eight to 10 years. Four more years of this man … will put us in a position where we’ll be in real trouble,” the former vice-president said.
Much of the media coverage of the exchange – which as usual didn’t come until the end of the debate as time was running out – will probably focus on Trump’s attacks on Biden. He called his plan job-killing, argued it would cost $100tn and not $6tn, and accused Biden of flip-flopping on fracking. The drilling method has fueled a natural gas boom in swing states such as Pennsylvania, which both candidates see as critically important to winning the election. At one point, Biden dared Trump to publish evidence of him ever saying he would end fracking, and Trump promised he would.
Stories might quote Trump, who has denied the human-made climate crisis in a variety of strange ways, telling Biden “I know more about wind than you,” despite previously wrongly claiming wind power causes cancer.
“They want to take buildings down because they want to make bigger windows into smaller windows. As far as they’re concerned if you had no window it would be a lovely thing,” Trump accused in another tangent. “This is the craziest plan that anyone has ever seen. It wasn’t done by smart people. Frankly, I don’t know how it could be good politically.”
But perhaps the most interesting point was when the candidates were asked what they would do for people – often people of color – who are living next to polluting gasoline refineries and petrochemical plants.
Trump pressed Biden: “Would you close down the oil industry?”
And Biden, who might typically steer clear of such a politically controversial question, said he would.
“I would transition from the oil industry, yes,” Biden said.
“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” he added. “It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
Trump shot back that Biden “is saying is he would destroy the oil industry”.
“Would you remember that Texas? Would you remember that Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?”
The moment was notable, including because it was the opposite of what he said about natural gas. He would not commit to any kind of end to the second half of the industry which has a fast-growing role in causing climate change.
“We need other industries to transition to get to ultimately a complete zero-emissions,” Biden said. “What I will do with fracking over time is to make sure we will capture the emissions from the fracking, capture the emissions from gas. We can do that by investing money.”
Speaking to reporters after the debate, Biden insisted the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t “be gone” until 2050.
“We’re not getting rid of fossil fuels. We’re getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we’re not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time,” Biden said.
Those kinds of statements illuminate why American environmental advocates have quietly worried whether Biden will do enough on climate, even as they have endorsed him and backed his plan.
While Biden is pitching large-scale spending to both help the economy recover and put people to work in green jobs, some fear climate could get lost among his priorities or that the political roadblocks to working with Congress and getting climate efforts past a conservative supreme court would prove too difficult.
A Trump win could be devastating to both US and global climate action, but a Biden win is not assured to significantly address the challenge either.