Raging fires, hurricanes and rising temperatures offer a dramatic backdrop to one of the sharpest policy contrasts of the 2020 presidential campaign: the issue of climate change. Voters looking for a clear choice between candidates Joe Biden and President Donald Trump need look no further.
Biden believes climate change is an existential threat to life and caused by human activity. He is proposing an ambitious platform of initiatives to counter it.
President Trump has called climate change an "expensive hoax," and has expressed deep skepticism about human contributions to global warming.
Biden is proposing a $2 trillion program to achieve clean energy production by 2035 and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
On the campaign trail and the debate stage, the former vice president argues that a clean energy economy would create millions of new jobs and stimulate millions of dollars in investment by private industry.
Biden would end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry while using public spending and tax subsidies for a transition to wind, solar and nuclear power, a shift to electric vehicles, climate resilient infrastructure and retrofitting of buildings for energy efficiency.
In the name of energy independence, job-protection and cost cutting, Trump has weakened or overturned many of the existing measures to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions blamed for climate change by most climate scientists.
A year ago, he formally notified the United Nations that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, under which some 200 countries have pledged to reduce greenhouse emissions. The withdrawal process will be completed on Wednesday.
Trump said the pact unfairly burdened the United States compared with other nations, Biden said he would readmit the United States to the treaty.
Fracking — a method to extract gas and oil by injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into subterranean rock fissures — is a key point of contention between the Biden and Trump campaigns.
The fracking industry is a large employer in a growing number of states, from traditional oil and gas producers such as Texas and Oklahoma, and from California to the swing state of Pennsylvania.
But the process can pollute groundwater and, unless strictly regulated, release potent greenhouse gases.
Biden has said he would not ban fracking. But he would not allow new extraction on public lands or subsidize fracking, and would reimpose stricter regulation on the release of greenhouse gases.
Trump opposes any ban on the process, and backs increased production of fossil fuels. He says deregulation helps ensure the United States doesn’t again have to rely on imported foreign fuels.
Among the many Obama Administration measures targeted by Trump was its signature climate change initiative, the Clean Power Plan, in which the federal Environmental Protection Agency set standards for states to lower power plant emissions of carbon dioxide and pollutants.
Trump replaced that plan with the narrower Affordable Clean Energy rule, which allows states significant flexibility in deciding how to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from power plants — and which, according to some administration critics, could allow emissions to rise.
The administration also has lowered vehicle fuel efficiency standards.
In the last year, Trump said he would open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to gas and oil exploration, open access to loggers and road building in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests with many endangered species. He also would broaden access and loosen regulations for mining and drilling on other public lands.
Climate change activists say such forests and tundras help store carbon that if released into the atmosphere would accelerate the process of global warming.
In January 2018, Trump took steps to expand new offshore oil and gas drilling from the Atlantic Ocean to the arctic. But in response to an outcry from some coastal states, Trump in September signed a 10-year moratorium that, starting in 2022, will bar drilling off the coasts of Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Biden supports a ban on new offshore drilling.
Trump says he supports clean air and water, however, and signed into law two pieces of legislation that would further conservation of natural areas, and invest $3 billion annually in the nation’s national park system and lands.
Early this year he announced the United States would join the World Economic Forum’s One Trillion Trees Initiative to plant, conserve and restore trees here and around the world.
In an Oct. 16 release from the executive branch’s council on environmental quality touting the trillion tree initiative, council chairman Mary Neumayr wrote, "Under President Trump’s leadership, our air quality is at its cleanest ever in recorded history, access to safe drinking water is improving, and our wildlife is thriving. In fact, the Trump Administration has recovered more endangered and threatened species than any previous administration in their first term."
While Trump’s campaign website does not list climate change initiatives or proposals for a second term, Biden offers a detailed wish list of executive orders, legislative proposals and collaborations.
Biden calls for infrastructure investment to reduce and withstand the effects of climate change such as flooding, intensifying storms, forest fires and heat.
He also backs investment in disadvantaged communities disproportionately impacted by pollution.
The Trump administration has weakened the ability of such communities to question or slow large building projects based on the impact of climate change.
Trump campaigned in 2016 as a defender of the beleaguered coal mining industry, although that sector has continued to decline as gas replaces coal as a favored energy source.
Trump has tried to tie Biden to the Green New Deal. The climate change proposal by a group of progressive legislators calls for a more rapid schedule for achieving net zero carbon emissions than Biden’s plan does.
Trump argues that his record on conservation and the environment is a good one, citing the two major pieces of legislation promoting conservation and funding for the national parks system that he signed into law. His Promises Kept campaign website’s Energy and the Environment page, however, heralded his moves to expand drilling and pipelines, and weaken regulatory oversight.
Neumayr wrote in one release that, "emissions of common air pollutants declined by 7% since 2017, and will continue to decline in the coming years. In 2019, the U.S. had the largest absolute decline of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions of any country in the world."
The decline reflects a shift away from coal powered electricity generation due to market factors including declining natural gas prices, according to energy experts.
Air quality trends also showed improvement extending into the early years of the Trump Administration, before his regulatory rollbacks took effect.
But there are signs those trends may be slowing.
According to an analysis of EPA data by The Associated Press published in a June 2019 story, more polluted air days were noted in the first two years of the Trump administration than in any of the four previous years.