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Politics

Biden Has Already Lost the Climate Debate to Trump

The Republican Party isn’t pro-pollution, it’s just anti-anti-climate change.

Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

At 9 p.m. ET on June 27, Americans who haven’t already set their out-of-office responders or hit the road to beat summer weekend traffic or otherwise made plans more exciting than watching two old men insult each other might find themselves tuning into the first presidential debate.

It does not promise to be a particularly productive evening of television, however. Weekly Economist/YouGov polls conducted online since last April show that of the 49,000 voters who responded, just 3% of respondents voted for one candidate in 2020 and plan to vote for the other in 2024. (Of those swing voters, two-thirds have flipped to Trump.) The 2024 election is already so politically calcified that a night of persuasive television is unlikely to change additional minds, to say nothing of two hours of petty sniping. Although, the only thing more difficult than changing someone’s mind about Biden or Trump might be changing their mind about climate change — a similarly key facet of political identity, regardless of the facts.

Nothing has the potential to highlight both the spectacle and the farce of this whole election quite like a back-and-forth on the debate stage over Biden’s climate legacy. Trump has spent the past several months on the campaign trail hammering his opponent on everything from offshore wind to electric vehicles, dishwashers, and gas stoves. The bashing has little to do with the actual policies, but rather with the idea of climate policy itself.

The modern Republican Party has “managed to define almost all aspects of environmentalism — even just future concern for other people’s welfare — as not a virtue anymore but a sign of weakness,” Riley Dunlap, a professor emeritus of environmental sociology at Oklahoma State University, put it to me. Heatmap columnist Paul Waldman recently dubbed this kind of political positioning “anti-anti-climate change” — not in favor environmental degradation per se, but certainly against anyone trying to stop it. Trump is merely an exemplar of a greater shift on the right — traceable also to Wyoming Senator John Barrasso, Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, and on down to dozens of state attorneys general suing to roll back the Biden administration’s climate policies — moving “the conversation from the real problem onto the supposedly oppressive efforts to solve it.”

It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed, too, in my writing about how Republicans have evolved from the denial and skepticism strategies of the 1990s and early 2000s to today’s more underhanded tactics. Why bother getting hung up on the specifics of what is causing global warming or if it’s happening (especially when popular belief in the scientific consensus is at an all-time high) when you can focus on how the elites in Washington want to control how you drive, eat, invest, and cook, instead?

Jay Turner, a professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College and the author of The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, told me the politicization of climate change has been building for more than a decade. He traced the strategy back to around the 2010 midterms, when the populist, anti-government Tea Party movement — today mostly remembered for opposition to Obama-era federal healthcare reforms — also took aim at climate change. With the backing of the libertarian advocacy group Americans for Prosperity (funded by petrochemical billionaires Charles and David Koch), the movement helped kill the bipartisan cap-and-trade Waxman-Markey Bill, which up to that point had been the biggest climate bill ever to pass a chamber of Congress.

“A culture of freedom and abundance is something that is very American,” Turner told me. “The idea that we’re going to curb fossil fuels or are transitioning our economy because of an abstract environmental threat” runs counter to what many feel the flag stands for.

Republicans, especially those angling for a national audience, have found traction with voters exploiting this perceived threat. The general public isn’t terribly energy literate, so politicians “can kind of make up stuff like, ‘They’re going to make you use these terrible toilets, they’re gonna force you to get an electric car, they’re going to force you just start eating fake meat,’” Dunlap, the Oklahoma State professor, said. “The message is, ‘These people are out to get you, and we’re fighting for you.’”

This dialog presents a problem for Biden, who has not only enacted numerous climate policies, but who also now faces the daunting task of explaining to voters what all of them are. But by opening a second, substantively unrelated front in the climate conversation, Trump and other Republicans have wrenched the message away from liberal-coded ideas that are, in fact, popular across a broad spectrum of voters and toward more solid conservative ground.

“Most Republican voters still want clean air and clean water and a healthy climate,” is how David Pomerantz, the executive director of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utilities watchdog, put it to me. “But if they’re able to cast this messaging in ways that are anti-government, anti-elitist, and anti-somebody-telling-you-what-you-have-to-do, then they think that can be an effective strategy.”

It’s working. As Biden has paused approving construction permits for new liquefied natural gas export terminals (which is also a clean-air issue) and argued for diversifying American energy (an economic one), Republicans have doubled down on their anti-anti-climate bona fides. “I don’t know if this is an actual term anyone uses, but it might be more accurate to say they are ‘vice signaling’ because it’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re for the bad thing because it’s a way to own the libs,’” Pomerantz said. There is often a healthy amount of irony in these sorts of controversies, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ crusade against gas stoves that are used by less than 10% of Floridians, or a ban on lab-grown meat, which isn’t even available in the U.S.

The “obvious and boring” thing for Biden, his team, and others to do in the face of such bluster is “to just say the true thing over and over,” Pomerantz went on. But he also noted that climate advocates like EPI must make clear “not only when people are lying or purveying disinformation, but why.” If Trump hits Biden over energy or drilling, for example, the president could counter by raising Trump’s recent closed-door dealings with oil executives, in which he used fossil-fuel regulations intended to keep Americans healthy as a bargaining chip for soliciting campaign donations. But that kind of move is only possible after your opponent has set the pieces on the board — and if your opponent is disingenuous, as likely as not, you’ll have lost by the time you get started.

If there is any good news, it’s that the presidential debate itself won’t matter. Whatever Trump and Biden say about climate next month won’t change the minds of any of the few dozen people (OK fine, actually more like 63 million, based on the audience of their last matchup, in 2020) likely to tune in.

The bad news is that Biden has already lost the climate debate, even if Trump renews his distinction of setting “the tone for the worst presidential debate in living memory,” as he did the last time around. Because by arguing foolish premises, Biden legitimizes them. And he may have no other choice.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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