climate change

Biden’s Climate Messaging Skirts an Inconvenient Truth

Bear with me. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With wildfires tearing up the West Coast and hurricanes exhausting the English alphabet back East, Donald Trump and Joe Biden delivered diametrically opposed messages about climate change on Monday.

During a visit to Northern California, the president emphatically denied the role of climate change in facilitating more frequent and widespread wildfires. Ignoring the scientific consensus that the Anthropocene’s higher temperatures and drier soil lay the kindling for such conflagrations, Trump insisted that poor forest management and exploding trees were the sole authors of our present disaster (he actually is not wrong that these were contributing factors).

Meanwhile, back in Wilmington, Delaware, Biden decried his rival as a climate arsonist. The bulk of the Democratic nominee’s remarks were admirably reality-based. Biden’s climate rhetoric and policies reflect a greater appreciation of the crisis’s severity than we’ve heard from any previous major-party candidate (which is saying less than it should but more than nothing). In one passage, however, Biden massaged the inconvenient truth:

Donald Trump warns that integration is threatening our suburbs. It’s ridiculous, but 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. Hurricanes are imperiling suburban life along our coast. We have four more years of Trump’s climate denial, how many suburbs will be burned in wildfires? How many suburban neighborhoods will have been flooded out? How many suburbs will have been blown away in superstorms? If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more America ablaze? If we give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised when more of America is underwater?

Biden prefaced these remarks by allowing that Trump’s climate denial “may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes.” But the plain implication of his closing lines is that Trump’s reelection will have a direct impact on the prevalence of wildfires and floods over the next four years — and that it is still possible to prevent “more of America” from going “ablaze” or “underwater.”

Alas, neither of these things is true, though it’s hard to blame the Democratic nominee for suggesting otherwise. Climate change operates on a timescale antithetical to electoral politics. Some of Biden’s adaptive interventions could mitigate natural disasters in the here and now. But absent the advent of some miraculous negative-emissions technology, the carbon we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere will ensure that the climate gets worse before it gets better (perhaps a few centuries from now). What we do have the power to change through emissions reductions is how bad things will get in the coming decades.

Of course, the Democratic nominee is not going to campaign on the message “A better climate isn’t possible, but a slower rate of ecological decline probably is, depending on what policies China and India decide to implement.” And although climatic conditions will inevitably grow more adverse in the coming years, it does not necessarily follow that the living standard of the median American will need to decline. Embracing Malthusian austerity was one of the more politically counterproductive (and classist) decisions American environmentalism ever took. Biden’s insistence that tackling climate change can mean “good-paying union jobs,” “modernized water and transportation systems,” better health outcomes, and a cleaner environment — which is to say, greater and more broadly dispersed prosperity — is right on both the politics and merits.

This said, there are some policy areas in which an aversion to acknowledging inevitable warming impedes necessary reform. Chief among these is the necessity of relocating a significant number of existing U.S. communities while discouraging both new construction and rebuilding in areas too vulnerable to sea-level rise to survive the world to come. According to a 2017 report from the Atlantic Council, “no matter how much humans decrease carbon emissions” from this point forward, 414 towns, villages, and cities across the U.S. will be flooded beyond habitability by 2100, judging by (relatively conservative) NASA estimates. This implies, at a minimum, the displacement of more than 4.3 million people. Seventeen U.S. communities are already pursuing climate-induced relocations, almost all of which have yet to receive sufficient federal funding to enact such transitions. Although Biden talks a great deal about increasing the resiliency of existing communities in his policy proposals, his plans largely elide the fact that some communities cannot be saved in their current form.

Both the wildfires in the West and the impending reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) lend some urgency to this issue. As currently constituted, the NFIP effectively subsidizes development in climate-insecure coastal areas. A motley coalition of environmentalists and private insurance companies have been pushing to overhaul the program, so as to discourage further development (and rebuilding) in places that will become ever-more prone to flooding as warming progresses. But a similarly diverse range of constituencies — including highly sympathetic ones, such as disaster victims and low-income households that can scarcely afford to pay unsubsidized insurance rates — is arrayed against such reform.

Meanwhile, as Emily Atkin wrote for The New Republic three years ago, federal and local policies that abet development in high-risk wildfire zones pose similarly thorny questions of how to balance easing the trauma of those victimized by disaster and minimizing the number of people who are thus traumatized in the future:

Sixty percent of new homes built in the U.S. since 1990 have been constructed in areas that adjacent to fire-prone public lands, and this is forecasted to continue, according to an analysis by Montana-based Headwaters Economics. Kelly Pohl, a researcher at Headwaters, says now’s the time to pressure developers to halt this trend — or, at least, to start using smart land-use strategies to reduce risk. taxpayers across the country do subsidize decisions to build in wildfire-prone areas. The U.S. Forest Service increasingly spends more of its budget on firefighting — from 13 percent in 1995 to 50 percent in 2015, according to Curbed. According to a Headwaters analysis, wildfire protection and suppression annually costs the government approximately $3 billion, which is equal to half of President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for the entire Environmental Protection Agency.

Telling U.S. voters that the environment imposes limits on what they can attain — or keep — will never be easy. But with sufficient public investment, we can bring communities to higher ground without condemning them to dissolution, as Sweden recently demonstrated:

Although not on the coast, the town of Kiruna in Sweden shows that, when risks are high, forward thinking and long-term planning can make large-scale relocation possible. Kiruna is at risk of ground collapse due to mining. Over a 20-year period, more than 18,000 residents will be relocated to a new city centre 3km away. The layout of the new city centre has been designed to be more sustainable, energy efficient and have better options for cultural activities and socialising. Local residents were engaged and helped identifying 21 heritage buildings they want relocated to the new area.

Ironically then, the most plausible way for Biden to actually reduce the prevalence of home-destroying floods and fires in the near future would be to acknowledge that “more of America” will soon be ablaze and underwater, no matter who wins in November.

Biden’s Climate Messaging Skirts an Inconvenient Truth