As the nation contends with wildfires that have killed at least 20 people and ravaged millions of acres of land, President Donald Trump and Joe Biden addressed the crisis on Monday in radically different terms: Biden emphasized the need for immediate action on climate change, and Trump continued to deny the legitimacy of climate science.
With 50 days to go until the election, the two candidates each molded core campaign messages around the wildfires. Trump summoned government officials to thank him and display the powers of his office, while Biden asserted that he is the candidate who believes in science, under the pressure of a pandemic and worsening climate change.
“It shouldn’t be so bad. Millions of Americans live in the shadow of an orange sky and are left asking, ‘Is doomsday here?’ I know this feeling of dread and anxiety extends beyond just the fires,” Biden said in an address to reporters, going on to talk about recent hurricanes, flash floods, and rising temperatures over the past decade.
“With every bout with nature’s fury, caused by our own inaction on climate change, more Americans see and feel the devastation in big cities, small towns, on coastlines and farmlands,” Biden said.
Biden, speaking outside the Delaware Museum of Natural History, had a clear message: Trump is "a climate arsonist" for not acting to curb greenhouse gas emissions, and these ongoing fires are the latest in a series of horrific natural disasters brought on by climate change in recent years.
In California, Trump took part in a roundtable with the state's fire and emergency officials, during which he defensively told government and natural resource officials that he didn’t agree with climate science.
While wildfires have spread and created apocalyptic conditions for Americans on the West Coast, Trump has focused on forest management as their cause. He has waved away concerns from climate scientists, government officials, and forest management officials about the impact of climate change on the number of large fires that have erupted in the states.
Trump’s view was on display during a roundtable in Sacramento on Monday with California and federal emergency management officials, during which Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of the California Natural Resource Agency, told the president that while they both agreed the state needed to work with the federal government on forest management, they couldn’t ignore climate change’s impact on forest fires.
“We want to work with you to recognize the changing climate and what it means to our forest and actually work together with that science,” Crowfoot told the president. “That science is going to be key because if we ignore that science and put our heads in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed together at protecting Californians.”
“It’ll start getting cooler,” the president quipped back. “You just watch.”
“I wish the science agreed with you,” Crowfoot told the president. Trump responded, "I don't think science knows."
Trump’s view on wildfires sidelining climate change has been consistent during his presidency. In 2018, he tweeted that there was “no reason” for California’s massive wildfires other than “poor” forest management and threatened to block federal funding if they didn’t change their plans.
He repeated those threats again at an August campaign rally in Pennsylvania, telling the crowd that maybe “we’re just going to have to make them pay for it because they don’t listen to us” after saying he had told the state, “You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forest.”
Trump, who called himself the “number one environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt” in Florida last week, has maintained his climate change denial throughout his term, highlighted by his decision to pull the US out of the international Paris agreement, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Biden’s climate plan emphasizes a $2 trillion investment in renewable energy industries over the course of four years, with an ultimate goal of the US moving to emissions-free energy production by 2035, and for 40% of the clean energy infrastructure to benefit underserved communities. He has also committed to rejoining the Paris agreement.
Ahead of a visit to Kissimmee, Florida, on Tuesday, Biden referred twice to the devastation Hurricane Maria brought to Puerto Rico and the incompetent federal response.
“The West is literally on fire, and he blames the people whose homes and communities are burning. He says, ‘You gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forests.’ This is the same president who threw paper towels to the people of Puerto Rico instead of truly helping them recover and rebuild,” Biden said.
The majority of Puerto Ricans who left the island after Hurricane Maria landed in Kissimmee and other parts of central Florida. More than 3,000 people died as a result of the natural disaster and the lack of emergency response on local and federal levels in the weeks that followed.
Biden also linked climate change on Monday to a core part of Trump’s reelection message — the idea that white suburbs, whose votes he needs, are under threat, based on racist tropes about integration and housing for people with low incomes.
"You know what is actually threatening our suburbs? Wildfires are burning the suburbs in the West. Floods are wiping out suburban neighborhoods in the Midwest," Biden said.