Climate change hits 2020 race as US west coast burns
Jacob Greber

Washington | Joe Biden is determined to succeed where Malcolm Turnbull, Bill Shorten, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Jeremy Corbyn and a host of others have stumbled: win by promising dramatic climate change action.

Emboldened by apocalyptic scenes across America’s west coast – where almost 100 fires across a dozen states are ablaze – and a progressive Democrat base demanding action, Mr Biden on Monday (Tuesday AEST) blasted Donald Trump as a “climate arsonist” and warned another four years of his administration would see even more dramatic events unfold.

A firefighter monitors a firing operation to contain the Bear fire in Oroville, California. Bloomberg

Portraying Mr Trump as a climate-science luddite, Mr Biden emphasised the real-world impacts on ordinary households of increased fires and hurricanes rather than tightly framing the issue as an environmental concern.

“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused the record fires, record floods, and record hurricanes,” Mr Biden said. “But if he gets a second term, these hellish events will become more common, more devastating, and more deadly.”

Referencing Mr Trump’s recent campaign warnings that a Biden presidency would risk America’s suburbs by spurring access for poor people, the former vice president asked; “You know what’s actually threatening our suburbs?”

“Wildfires are burning the suburbs in the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighbourhoods in the Midwest. And hurricanes are imperilling suburban life along our coasts.”

Mr Biden blamed the surge in costs from natural disasters to climate change denial by Mr Trump. AP

“If we have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires? How many suburbs will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in super-storms?”

Mr Biden’s speech coincided with Mr Trump landing in California’s state capital, Sacramento, where the air was hazy with wood smoke and the President deflected questions about whether he accepted the cause of the ongoing disaster was related to climate change.

Instead Mr Trump blamed forest management. “When you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up… they have to do something about it.”

Trump blamed, in part, dry leaves. Bloomberg

Speaking at a joint-event, California Governor Gavin Newsom acknowledged the role of forest management, but noted that 50 per cent of the state’s forest land belong to the federal government.

He then pressed the President on his attitude to climate change.

“We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier,” Mr Newsom told Mr Trump sitting just several feet away with his arms crossed.

“When we’re having heat domes the likes of which we’ve never seen in our history; the hottest August ever…; the ferocity of these fires; the drought five-plus years; losing 1.63 million trees to that drought – something has happened to the plumbing of world.”

“And we come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science is in… climate change is real and that is exacerbating this.”

“Please respect, and I know you do, the difference of opinion here as it relates to this fundamental issue on climate change.”

The sun rises though smoke over charred foothills above Arcadia, California on Monday local time. The Orange Country Register

The western wildfires – which have killed at least 35 people with many more feared dead – and renewed hurricane activity have thrown the 2020 campaign spotlight onto an issue that has long bedevilled political parties of all stripes around the world, including in Australia.

Cities in California, Oregon and Washington state have been blanketed for days in thick smoke, raising health fears and causing eerie orange skies that would be familiar to Australians from last summer’s catastrophic fires.

Mr Biden is betting that the images will galvanise support even as the risks grow to his candidacy from being seen to be recklessly beholden to left-wing green activists.

While California – where anger over climage change policy is at its strongest – is expected to reliably vote for Mr Biden, polls show the race is neck-and-neck in states such as Pennsylvania, where oil and gas workers who would normally support the Democrats are concerned about any moves to ban fracking.

To deal with that tension, Mr Biden is casting the climate issue in human terms.

“This year alone, nearly 5 million acres have burned across 10 states — more acres than the entire state of Connecticut,” he said on Tuesday. “And it’s only September. California’s wildfire season typically runs through October.”

“Think of the view from the ground, in the smouldering ashes.

“Loved ones lost, along with the photos and keepsakes of their memory. Spouses and kids praying each night that their firefighting husband, wife, father, and mother will come home. Entire communities destroyed.”

“We have to act as a nation. It shouldn’t be so bad that millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking if doomsday is here.”

Mr Biden noted that the fires are not the only “troubling” markers, with a rise in hurricanes and storms causing “record damage after record damage to people’s homes and livelihoods” across the midwest and Gulf Coast.

“We need a president who respects science, who understands that the damage from climate change is already here, and, unless we take urgent action, will soon be more catastrophic.

“A president who recognises, understands, and cares that Americans are dying.

Which makes President Trump’s climate denialism — his disdain of science and facts — all the more unconscionable.

“Once again, he fails the most basic duty to this nation.”

“And from the pandemic, the economic freefall, the racial unrest, and the ravages of climate change, it’s clear that we are not safe in Donald Trump’s America.”

Mr Biden has promised as president to deliver a $US2 trillion infrastructure program with a focus on renewable electricity.

Jacob Greber writes about American politics, economics and business from our Washington bureau. He was previously our economics correspondent based in Canberra. Connect with Jacob on Twitter. Email Jacob at jgreber@afr.com

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