As wildfires rage, US voters still divided on climate
A charred vehicle is seen in the parking lot of the burned Oak Park Motel after the passage of the Santiam Fire in Gates, Oregon, on September 10, 2020. California firefighters battled the state's largest ever inferno on September 10, as tens of thousands of people fled blazes up and down the US West Coast and officials warned the death toll could shoot up in coming days. At least eight people have been confirmed dead in the past 24 hours across California, Oregon and Washington, but officials say some areas are still impossible to reach, meaning the number is likely to rise.

As wildfires rage, US voters still divided on climate

Issam Ahmed (Agence France-Presse) - September 13, 2020 - 8:38am

WASHINGTON, United States — Wildfires are burning out of control in the western United States, cities are choking on toxic air, and Hurricane Laura battered the Gulf Coast just weeks ago.

So why isn't the threat of global warming dominating the election contest between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden?

Climate change has in fact risen near the top of Democrat voters' concerns since surveys first began two decades ago, but remains anchored to the bottom of Republicans' priorities, meaning that the candidates don't need to spend much time sparring over the issue.

Talking about it helps Biden connect with his party -- but this year green issues have been partly crowded out by the Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, as well as racial justice protests, experts say.

Jon Krosnick, a professor of political science at Stanford University, told AFP that while the absolute number of people concerned by climate change was at its highest ever, it remained only one of several concerns.

"If he talks only about climate, he's hurting himself because he has to talk about other issues," he told AFP.

Trump, a famous climate-denier, has been silent on the issue.

There is little point in him using the issue to try to appeal to California, the state worst-hit by the fires, because it is so solidly Democratic.

If Biden has to weigh how much time he spends on climate change against other issues, and balance how an aggressive green agenda might turn off swing state voters in places like the Midwest, other Democratic lawmakers are more willing to go on the offense.

"It is just a fact that the Trump administration has the worst environmental record in history," New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who is among the most green lawmakers in Congress, told AFP.

"The Trump administration stands with the special interests at the expense of everyone else," he continued, citing the president's withdrawal from the Paris agreement and axing of numerous environmental and wildlife regulations.  

Democrats greener than ever

One group of voters who are particularly charged by climate issues is the left of the Democratic party, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Among Democrats who call themselves liberal, it is now the second most highly ranked issue, while it's the eighth for moderate Democrats, according to Yale's latest survey published in April.

That's why every Democratic candidate in the primaries had to make a climate pitch during the party's primaries and vowed to re-enter the Paris accord.

Indeed, the Biden campaign's goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 would have been considered a radical idea when he himself was vice president, just five years ago.

Paul Bledsoe, a lecturer at the Center for Environmental Policy at American University, said it was notable that when Biden invokes the climate, he does so through the lens of economic opportunity in the form of a Green New Deal.

"When I think about climate change, the word I think of is 'jobs'" Biden said in July.

"So these issues have sort of merged, I think, in the public consciousness," said Bledsoe, who worked on former president Bill Clinton's climate task force.

Republicans unmoved

As for Republicans, it's not that they don't care about the environment -- it's that climate change in particular has become a wedge issue, a result of their increasing hostility to collective action and the influence of fossil fuel donors, say experts.

When Americans first became conscious of environmentalism in the late 1960s, it was a non-partisan cause -- indeed, it was under President Richard Nixon that the Environmental Protection Agency was created.

Basic goals like having clean air and clean water can still resonate today.

That's why, for example, Trump this week announced a decade-long ban on oil drilling off the Gulf Coast, a U-turn that surprised energy executives.

This was an objective shared by Republicans and Democrats in Florida, who feared the possible impact of oil spills on the state's tourism industry.

Francis Rooney, a Republican Congressman from Florida who is one of the few lawmakers from his party to proudly call himself an environmentalist and to back a carbon tax, said of Trump: "His environmental track record is not good at all."

"I have spoken with him about offshore drilling in Florida a lot, and I will say at least he gets that, he's decided that if he wants to win Florida, he needs to clearly oppose offshore drilling," he told AFP.

Rooney, who will stand down at the end of this term, said he was frustrated his party was no longer interested in environmental stewardship and said younger generations of conservatives were being turned off.

"I'm worried that we're going to lose. We're going to lose because we don't have a broad enough voting base," he said. 

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: January 8, 2021 - 9:20am

Monitor updates on the 2020 presidential race in the United States.

January 8, 2021 - 9:20am

US President Donald Trump appeals for "healing and reconciliation" following unprecedented scenes of violence at the US Capitol, pledging a smooth transition of power to President-elect Joe Biden.

In a video message aiming to calm tensions after his supporters stormed the US Capitol as Biden's election victory was being certified by lawmakers Wednesday, Trump voiced outrage at the clashes that left one woman shot dead at the seat of US government. — AFP

January 7, 2021 - 11:52am

US Senate rejects first objection to Democrat Joe Biden's certification after unrest.

January 7, 2021 - 9:14am

US Senate reconvenes to certify Democratic President-elect Joe Biden Biden win after mobs invaded Capitol.

December 20, 2020 - 12:17pm

US President-elect Joe Biden tells Mexico's president Saturday he was committed to addressing the root causes of poor Latino migrants crossing the border into America.

Outgoing President Donald Trump made tightening the southern frontier against what he called the free and dangerous flow of people entering the US from Mexico and Central America a key pillar of his US-centric policy on immigration, including his fitful plan to build a border wall.

Biden spoke with President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and emphasized "the need to reinvigorate US-Mexico cooperation to ensure safe and orderly migration," the Biden transition team says in a statement. — AFP

November 10, 2020 - 10:22am

President Donald Trump, who is refusing to concede election defeat, injected new volatility Monday by firing his defense secretary, while President-elect Joe Biden made good on a promise to focus on leading the country out of the COVID-19 crisis.

With construction already starting in central Washington for the January 20 inauguration ceremony, an awkward and potentially chaotic transition period is underway.

Trump, in a move unprecedented for a US president, insists that the November 3 election was stolen from him. — AFP

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