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Sparks

Biden Had His Climate Moment and He Used It to Talk About Paris

Who thought that was a good idea?

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

In an altogether distressing debate in which climate was far from a main focus, the two candidates did have one notable exchange regarding the Paris Agreement. The 2015 treaty united most countries around the world in setting a goal to limit global warming to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius, with 1.5 degrees as the ultimate target.

After Trump initially dodged a question about whether he would take action to slow the climate crisis, he then briefly noted “I want absolutely immaculate clean water and I want absolutely clean air. And we had it. We had H2O.”

While it is true that there was H2O during Trump’s presidency, Biden responded by criticizing Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement. “I immediately [re]joined, because if we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius, at any one point, there’s no way back,” Biden said. “The only existential threat to humanity is climate change. And he didn’t do a damn thing about it.”

But according to a poll conducted last November by Heatmap, only 35% of Americans say they are at least “somewhat familiar” with the Paris Agreement at all, perhaps making it an odd choice to anchor the debate’s one exchange around climate. By contrast, the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature piece of climate legislation, didn’t come up once. (Not that they’re that familiar with the IRA, either.) Solar, wind, carbon emissions — all terms that resonate with Americans, none of which were mentioned.

Of his decisions to leave the Paris Agreement in 2017, Trump claimed, “The Paris Accord was going to cost us $1 trillion,” while it would cost China, Russia, and India “nothing.”

The $1 trillion number actually appears to be a discount on Trump’s previously cited estimate. In his Rose Garden address announcing his decision to exit the agreement, he said that by 2040, compliance would entail a cost to the economy that would approach “$3 trillion in lost GDP and 6.5 million industrial jobs,” citing a study conducted by NERA Economic Consulting.

According to the fact-checking website PolitiFact, the study’s authors were explicit that these projections are highly uncertain and do not take into account all the job gains and GDP growth that could be associated with the energy transition. PolitiFact also said NERA put forth a news release (which now appears to be unavailable online) stating that "the Trump administration selectively used results" from its study, and that “NERA’s study was not a cost-benefit analysis of the Paris Agreement, nor does it purport to be one.”

When Trump said that China, Russia, and India would not have financial commitments under the Paris Agreement, he was perhaps referencing the obligation (which the Paris Agreement reaffirmed) for wealthier nations like the U.S. to direct hundreds of billions of dollars to poorer nations to both aid their transition to clean energy and help them adapt to the impacts of climate change. It’s true that there’s controversy around whether China or India, which have giant (but still developing) economies, should either provide this funding or receive this funding. Russia, which joined the agreement in 2019, hasn’t really been a part of this conversation though.

In response to Trump’s defense of his decision to exit the agreement, Biden countered, “We were the only ones of consequence who were not members of the Paris Accord. How can we do anything if the United States can't get its pollution under control?” He said the U.S. had made significant progress on climate, and while it felt like a moment to, I don’t know, note the job growth from the administration’s investment in cleantech manufacturing (in predominantly red states), Biden instead cited the formation of the Climate Corps, a nice but thus-far modest fellowship program that puts young Americans to work fighting the climate crisis. Most of the public likely hasn’t heard of it, and Biden has been mostly quiet about it of late.

The exchange ended when Biden said, “We're moving in directions that are going to significantly change the elemental cause of pollution. But the idea that [Trump] claims that he has the biggest heart up here and is really concerned about pollution, and about climate, I've not seen any indication of that.”

And just like that, it was onto prescription drugs, who is better at golf, and Trump’s weight. You know, the usual debate stuff.

Katie Brigham profile image

Katie Brigham

Katie is a staff writer for Heatmap covering climate tech. Based out of the Bay Area, she formerly worked as a reporter and producer for CNBC.com.

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