Science Policy & Funding News

Forum Focuses on Climate and the 2020 U.S. Election

Former Trump environment official tries to defend the White House while others call for stronger action in the face of growing urgency.

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Mandy Gunasekara tried to defend the Trump administration’s record on climate change at a recent forum about the 2020 U.S. presidential election. That record includes a pledge to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, bolstering the fossil fuel industry, questioning climate science, and President Donald Trump calling climate change a hoax.

“I wouldn’t say the administration is of the denialist ilk. There is a clear recognition that there are some consensus elements around science,” claimed Gunasekara, former principal deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Air and Radiation under Trump.

“What this administration has done from the start [is] basically establish the premise that you do not have to choose between a growing energy industry, a growing economy, and environmental protection,” said Gunasekara, who spoke at the Society of Environmental Journalists’ conference in Fort Collins, Colo., on 11 October. She was part of a panel about environment and climate on the 2020 campaign trail.

“The results bear out in terms of clean air, clean water, [and] reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and that’s ultimately where it matters. We have leadership in this space, and it’s been borne out by the results,” said Gunasekara, founder and president of the Energy 45 Fund, which supports the White House energy policy.

Others, however, decried those results as well as the administration’s record on climate change and energy policy.

Heather McTeer Toney, former EPA regional administrator for the southeast region under former president Barack Obama, said that the Trump administration has rolled back dozens of environmental regulations and has spent the past several years “dividing us on a number of issues, including climate.”

Although Gunasekara said that climate change likely won’t be “the defining element of what swings the election one way or the other,” Toney said she thinks that climate change will become “the defining issue” of the presidential election.

Climate change is connected to many other issues, said Toney, national field director for Moms Clean Air Force, an environmental organization. “You cannot separate climate from homeland security. You cannot separate climate from health care” or from many other issues, she said.

Toney cautioned, though, that the issue of climate change has to “break through the noise” when it competes for news coverage with other big issues such as the impeachment inquiry.

The Year That Climate Change Matters

Guido Girgenti, a founding board member and communications adviser for the Sunrise Movement, agreed that climate change needs to remain a top tier issue among the public and in the presidential election.

“If this is not the year that climate change matters, we’re really in for a breakdown of the stable climate that human civilization has depended on. So there’s a lot riding on it mattering,” said Girgenti, whose group advocates for the Green New Deal, a proposal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, promote climate justice, and create jobs, among other goals.

Girgenti said that he is encouraged by the Democratic presidential candidates’ climate plans and many candidates’ support of the Green New Deal.

Joseph Pinion, founder and chair of the Conservative Color Coalition, spoke on behalf of Republicans who want to do something about climate change. He acknowledged that “there are individuals in my party who will have to be dragged kicking and screaming” to take action on climate change, but he also said that most young conservatives “believe that climate change is the real thing, believe that we need to take that issue seriously, and need to prioritize it.”

However, Pinion said that “the Green New Deal is literally the worst thing that’s ever happened to me as it pertains to getting people on the right to take climate change seriously.” He said that “tethering” the deal to a federal jobs program and other items doesn’t keep the issue focused on climate change, substantially increases the price tag, and disregards conservatives’ concerns.

To Pinion, all options for dealing with climate change need to be on the table, he said, including nuclear power.

“If we’re saying this is the issue, the issue,” he emphasized, “then why would we choose not to focus on it with a laser-like precision and also do it in a manner that brings the people along with you who are on the other side of the aisle? And we know that we need to have people on the other side of the aisle to get the job done.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Forum focuses on climate and the 2020 U.S. election, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO135969. Published on 22 October 2019.
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