As the United States lunges into debate season ahead of its presidential election on 3nd November, International Affairs writer John Hunter discusses the sea change of American thought and public opinion on the issue of climate change. 

It was during a heatwave when the lightning struck. This triggered the latest burning of California State which, since starting on the 17th August, has scorched over three million acres of land, burned thousands of structures, and claimed over twenty lives. 

Both contributing factors worked hand-in-hand to create the extreme conditions needed to allow the fire to start and spread rapidly. The historic heatwave that dried out much of the state, with Death Valley recording a historic temperature of 54.4°C, made vegetation susceptible to fire. The ‘dry lightning’ – striking with little to no rain accompanying it – is rare in California and acted as the matches that began the infernos. And while it’s easy to fixate on the extraordinary factors that sparked the flames, it’s important not to forget the underlying issue that set the stage for the blaze: the ongoing effects of climate change. 

If you had said ten months ago, as California reeled from another series of devastating wildfires and Australia continued to burn into the new year and beyond, that climate change wouldn’t be one of the defining issues of the upcoming US presidential election, you wouldn’t have been believed. Even as the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in China, the world was transfixed by images of the Australian countryside or areas in California being reduced to ash and it seemed like the issue had grown in priority for many voters. 

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

On the 21st February, as Covid-19 cases began to emerge in the United States and the first deaths were reported, a poll conducted by Climate Nexus, between the 6th and 9th February, was released. What the results showed was that while there is still scepticism, climate change had become a major issue for most of the voters surveyed. 67% of respondents to the question “How worried are you about climate change?” were either ‘very worried’ (34%) or ‘somewhat worried’ (33%);70% believed that the federal government should be doing either ‘much more’ (45%) or ‘somewhat more’ (25%); and 70% believed that climate change is having a ‘large effect’ (44%) or ‘some effect’ (26%) on extreme weather events in the United States. 

But with the rise of Covid-19, the issue of climate change went from potential election issue to a distant memory. On the 13th August a more recent poll, conducted by the Pew Research Center, was published. It showed that of the 11,001 participants, “Fewer than half say climate change (42%)” will be important in their decision. US citizens instead think the economy, health care, Supreme Court appointments, the Coronavirus outbreak and violent crime are most important. 

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

With this in mind, it is no surprise that the two major party candidates are reflecting the lack of climate urgency from American citizens in their campaigning. 

Biden has made serious pledges to address climate change if elected; initiatives to make the US a 100% clean economy, producing net-zero emissions by 2050 while also promising to recommit the US to the Paris Climate Agreement. However, his campaign’s main strategy is to attack Trump’s failure to address the Covid-19 crisis, as well as his divisive politics. 

Trump on the other hand has shown his lack of concern for climate change by pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, which the US will formally be exiting on the 4th November. His re-election campaign is mainly focused on the economy, jobs, tough foreign policy and immigration, continuing his “America First” strategy which helped him secure the White House in 2016.

With the debates taking place on the 29th September and the 15th and 22nd October respectively, the election draws near. Whatever the outcome, right now California still burns, and will continue to burn as the wildfire season progresses. While the eyes of the world are firmly fixed on the devastating effects of Covid-19, and rightly so, it is important to be conscious of, and to address the devastating effects climate change is having and will continue to have in the future.

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