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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Gongloff: Care about environment? Biden clear choice

By Mark Gongloff
Published: May 6, 2024, 6:01am

If you were shopping for toaster ovens and your choice was between one that posed a 1 percent chance of setting your house on fire and a competing one that would not only 100 percent set your house on fire but proudly guaranteed it right on the box, then you would probably go with the 1 percent model.

U.S. voters face a similar choice this November when it comes to which presidential candidate will set the climate on fire. But they don’t seem to realize how much of a no-brainer that choice truly is.

President Joe Biden may not have a spotless climate record, but he has done more to ensure a livable environment for future generations than any of his predecessors. Donald Trump, on the other hand, not only has history’s worst climate record, but he has announced, loudly and often, that his second term would be far worse.

Voters haven’t received the message, according to poll after poll. The latest is from CBS News, which found that 49 percent of Americans have heard little or nothing about what Biden has done for the climate. More alarmingly, most Americans think neither Biden’s second-term policies nor Trump’s would make any difference to the climate. That is dangerous nonsense.

The list of what Biden has already done is long and substantial, and it goes beyond the Inflation Reduction Act, easily the biggest climate bill in history. He also passed a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Chips and Science Act, both with significant investments in the renewable-energy transition. He rejoined the Paris accord to limit long-term warming to 2 degrees Celsius, tightened emissions standards for power plants and cars and limited oil and gas drilling and liquefied natural gas exports. To name just a few things.

Biden has frustrated environmentalists at times with compromises such as approving the Willow drilling project in Alaska and pulling some regulatory punches on emissions and corporate disclosures. But he has done these things mostly in the name of getting reelected — which may sound cynical, until you consider the person who will be elected if Biden is not.

During his first term, Trump ditched the Paris accord and loosened regulatory fetters on the fossil-fuel and other polluting industries at the worst possible moment, just as the global concentration of atmospheric carbon was reaching dangerous levels. And Trump’s advisers are vowing to wreck progress even more aggressively in a second term.

So the whole planet needs Biden to do a much better job of communicating the stark contrast between him and Trump. The first step will be overcoming the mistaken sense among his voting base that he has failed them with his compromises.

“The key voters that put Biden in office in the first place — young people, people of color, women in the suburbs — were very concerned about climate,” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, told me in an interview. “Some of these same demographics think he’s done nothing or worse because of the Willow decision.”

The trick is that Biden may also need to win swing voters, most of whom don’t care as much about the environment and may fear (incorrectly) that there’s a trade-off between fighting global warming and growing the economy. That’s one reason Biden and his advisers spend so much time trumpeting the jobs the IRA and other climate actions create.

The good news is that the politics of this issue have shifted drastically in recent years. Most Americans now think global warming is real and human-made and support Biden’s policies when they hear about them.

But we can’t wait for the battleship of public opinion to complete its U-turn. We don’t have another four years to waste.

Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change.