President Donald Trump and challenger Joe Biden focused their presidential battle on the wildfire-scorched West Coast Monday, with Trump again blaming poor forest management for the apocalyptic destruction while Biden declared the fires and recent extreme weather underscore an urgent need to address climate change.
The dueling events marked a stark moment on the campaign trail, where the two candidates’ dramatically contrasting outlooks on climate change —and the impact it has had on the record-setting fires ravaging California, Oregon and Washington state —were front-and-center.
Biden lashed at Trump, saying the moment requires “leadership, not scapegoating” and that “it’s clear we are not safe in Donald Trump’s America.”
“This is another crisis, another crisis he won’t take responsibility for,” Biden said. He said that if voters give “a climate denier” and “climate arsonist” another four years in the White House, “why would we be surprised that we have more of America ablaze?”
Trump, who was briefed during a stop near Sacramento before a campaign visit to Phoenix, has been mostly quiet as the catastrophe on the West Coast has unfolded over the past few weeks. He tweeted appreciation of firefighters and emergency responders on Friday, the first pubic comments he had made in weeks about the fires that’s killed dozens, burned millions of acres and forced thousands from their homes on the West Coast.
The president arrived at at Sacramento McClellan Airport to the powerful scent of smoke from the fires burning some 90 miles away.
Meeting with California Gov. Gavin Newsom, he again downplayed climate change as a factor in increased wildfires and said the world’s weather will get cooler, “just you watch.”
He contended anew that Democratic state leaders are to blame for failing to rake leaves and clear dead timber from forest floors. However, many of the blazes have roared through coastal chaparral and grasslands, not forest.
“When you have years of leaves, dried leaves on the ground, it just sets it up,” Trump said. “It’s really a fuel for a fire. So they have to do something about it.”
The disaster and new national attention on climate change could be creating another difficult moment for a president facing multiple challenges, including the coronavirus pandemic, joblessness and social unrest. Trump has repeatedly discounted the impact of climate change, walked away from a major international climate agreement and proudly rolled back environmental regulations.
University of Colorado fire scientist Jennifer Balch called Trump’s deflecting blame on forest managers “infuriating.”
“It’s often hard to know what Trump means,” Balch added. “If by forest management he means clear-cutting, that’s absolutely the wrong solution to this problem. … There’s no way we’re going to log our way out of this fire problem.”
Biden, who gave his climate speech in Delaware on Monday, released a $2 trillion plan in July to boost investment in clean energy and stop all climate-damaging emissions from U.S. power plants by 2035.
But as the wildfires rage, some climate activists have expressed frustration that Biden has not been more forceful on the issue. He has not embraced, for instance, some of the most progressive elements of the Green New Deal.
To that end, Biden in his address did not wade into political and policy disagreements among Democrats, progressive activists and even some Republicans who acknowledge the climate crisis. As he has before, Biden sought to frame his energy proposals as an immediate necessity and a long-term economic boon focusing more on new jobs and a cleaner economy that would offset any initial costs. For example, pushing the U.S. energy sector to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 would mean corresponding expansion in jobs in the solar energy sector.
“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and hurricanes,” Biden said. “But if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common and more devastating and more deadly.”
Trump was visiting McClellan Park, a former U.S. Air Force Base about 10 miles outside of Sacramento that is used by firefighters as a staging area for large aircraft used in combating blazes. Most of the largest firefighting aircraft have not been utilized in recent days due to heavy smoke limiting visibility.
Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, will return to her home state on Tuesday to meet with emergency service personnel to be briefed on the state’s wildfires.
In 2015, Trump stated bluntly: “I’m not a believer in global warming, I’m not a believer in man-made global warming.” After the publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded climate change would hurt the economy, Trump said he read it but didn’t believe it. In September 2019, he falsely slammed the Green New Deal as an effort that would lead to “No more cows. No more planes … no more people, right?”
Climate scientists say rising heat and worsening droughts in California consistent with climate change have expanded what had been the state’s autumn wildfire season to year-round, sparking bigger, deadlier and more frequent fires.
All five of the state’s largest fires in history have raged in the past three years, as well as the deadliest fire, a 2018 blaze that killed 85 people when it swept through the town of Paradise on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.
An analysis out in August from Stanford climate and wildfire researcher Michael Goss and others found that a nearly 2-degree (1 Celsius) rise in autumn temperatures and 30 percent drop in rainfall has more than doubled the number of autumn days with extreme fire weather over the past 40 years. Confronting the worsening conditions of climate change, and the still more dangerous conditions to come, has “critical relevance for ongoing efforts to manage wildfire risks in California and other regions,” the researchers wrote.
All five of the state’s hottest days on record have struck since 2014, overlapping one of the state’s worst droughts on record.