As California burns, Biden missing chance to focus on climate change


Joe Biden is passing up a chance to make fighting climate change the centerpiece of his campaign, environmentalists say, at time when wildfires have incinerated an unprecedented 3 million-plus acres in California, a record hurricane season is battering the Southeast and one of the worst windstorms ever to hit Iowa caused $4 billion in damage.

The reason he hasn’t, they say, is political.

Elevating climate change into a top priority doesn’t help the Democratic presidential nominee in states that are competitive in the November election — and those don’t include California or Oregon, a state where 40,000 people were under evacuation orders Friday because of wildfires. In some swing states, including Pennsylvania, where support for fracking is solid because thousands of jobs depend on it, going too green could damage Biden’s slim lead.

“It might be that he thinks potential swing voters might not want to see them come out too strong on climate change,” said Sean Hecht, co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA.

“It’s a bit puzzling because Biden has put together a plan that has a lot of good things in it, and a lot of good people worked on it,” Hecht said. “But it has not been a major kind of general campaign issue. It is surprising, because it is an issue that is attractive to a lot of young people.”

Stevie O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-run environmental organization with 460 chapters nationwide, called it “a missed opportunity for the Biden campaign. Young people are fed up with politics as usual and fed up with a lack of action on climate. They’re looking for the Democratic Party and Joe Biden to take the lead on this.”

While climate change is a huge issue to Californians who are experiencing its effects with every breath, it isn’t a top issue to most Americans. It was No. 11 when Pew Research asked Americans in August which topics would be “very important” when they cast their ballots. At the top was the economy, followed by health care, Supreme Court appointments and the coronavirus pandemic.

“The environment is a local issue. It’s always going to be a secondary issue,” said Dan Lee, a professor of political science at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

National candidates, Lee said, figure that while wildfires may be top of mind in California, they’re not in Iowa. Same goes for Californians and their concern, or lack thereof, for freak events in Iowa, where more than 8,000 homes were damaged and crops were leveled when a derecho — a line of fast-moving windstorms — ripped through the state in August.

Environmentalists counter that such events can no longer be considered one-offs — or, as Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday in an angry denunciation of “ideological BS” that denies the reality of climate change, California “is America, fast-forward.”

“Natural disasters tend to be local, but we’re seeing them pop up everywhere,” said Michael Gerrard,…

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