Climate Debate: Fuzzy Details, Clear Policy Differences


The potential presidential candidates exchanged criticisms regarding climate change at Thursday’s debate. As with much of the debate, the specifics were difficult to comprehend, but the candidates’ environmental records are evident.

During the debate, former President Trump repeated his oft-stated claim that he achieved clean air and water during his presidency. “I want absolutely immaculate clean water and I want absolutely clean air — and we had it,” he asserted.

President Biden criticized Trump for his withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the 2015 climate accord involving almost 200 nations, arguing that the U.S. is essential for any global climate action. “How can we do anything if the United States can’t get under control?” he stated.

The reality of their records, however, is quite clear. Trump spent four years dismantling climate regulations and withdrawing the U.S. from international climate commitments. The CNN anchors posing questions to the candidates referred to climate change as a “crisis”; Trump has consistently refused to acknowledge the scientific consensus. Biden has placed climate at the forefront of his administration, most notably with the , a climate law that will provide subsidies for clean technologies to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars. His agencies have sought to implement new regulations to guide the country toward a cleaner energy future

A central point of contention in the brief, approximately five minutes, dedicated to climate change, was the nature of the Paris Agreement. Trump asserted that it costs the U.S. trillions while nations like India and China had no responsibilities. Biden’s response was intermittent, but he suggested that the U.S. needed to participate in this crucial element of climate diplomacy.  The truth is that the Paris Agreement is non-binding, and countries make voluntary commitments under it, meaning that it has no mandatory cost. 

Biden also alluded to his administration’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions by half from 2005 levels by 2030. While far from guaranteed, his administration’s stances have made this target attainable. However, achieving this goal will require future presidential administrations to continue implementing existing climate laws in good faith — not to mention for those laws to remain in effect in the first place. 

Neither candidate truly explained the climate stakes, but even a basic understanding of climate science allows one to make an educated guess.