For decades, the climate crisis has been relegated to a sidebar item in presidential elections. Despite a worsening crisis, climate change received little discussion in debates, rallies, or candidates’ TV ads.
In 2020, that all changed.
The climate crisis went from side stage to center stage during the 2020 presidential election campaign, receiving unprecedented attention from voters, candidates, and the media. 2020 will be remembered as a climate election. Climate’s breakout into the national conversation reflects reality — climate change is central to our nation’s challenges. But it also poses a great opportunity to rebuild our economy and put millions of American back to work in the transition to 100% clean energy. After four years of a climate-denying, fossil fuel-boosting federal administration, more Americans than ever are calling for the government to deliver on bold climate action.
The story is clear.
- The Democratic primary quickly coalesced around climate as a pivotal issue, with voters ranking climate action as a top priority and candidates sparring over their plans on the debate stage–including the first-ever televised climate town halls.
- Biden’s climate platform unified the Democratic Party around a bold Standards-Investments-Justice agenda that would set the country on track for net-zero emissions by 2050
- The real-life impacts of the climate crisis shaped the election as raging wildfires, widespread heatwaves, and an unprecedented hurricane season made clear the dangers of inaction
- There were substantive questions on climate in every general election debate. A historic first. Mounting pressure from voters and climate activists broke nearly 20 years of climate silence on the debate stage.
- The candidates closing messages present two very different visions for America’s energy future. In the last days of the campaign, Biden’s ads center climate and his bold plan for action. Trump is making a last minute pitch for coal, oil, and natural gas.
Climate policy has been at the forefront of this election. Vice President Joe Biden campaigned on a historic climate plan built on a framework of clean energy standards, bold public investments, and environmental justice. He made it clear that, under a Biden Administration, jumpstarting a clean economy would be central to economic recovery. His $2 trillion Standards-Investment-Justice based climate plan has earned the support of two-thirds of registered voters. As we await the results of the election, support for bold climate action has never been higher.
Climate Policy Was a Central Issue in the Democratic Primary
At the beginning of the race:
- 75% of Democrats listed climate change as a top priority.
- This includes concern about climate from key parts of the Democratic coalition including suburban women, young voters, Hispanics and African Americans.
The Democratic primary also featured the most substantive and comprehensive climate discussions to date.
- Early in the presidential primary, candidates began releasing climate plans built on a shared framework of clean energy standards, public investments, and environmental justice. This was due in large part to the influence of Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign, which collaborated with stakeholders across the climate movement to produce plans with unprecedented levels of detailed focus and ambition on climate policy.
- Widespread public pressure from the climate movement, especially the Sunrise Movement, worked to ensure climate was sufficiently covered in the primary debates. CNN held the first ever climate-specific series of presidential town halls.
This marks the first time in history that climate ever has been a motivating issue for the base of a major American political party.
Biden Unified the Democratic Party Around a Standards-Investments-Justice Agenda
After winning the Democratic nomination, Joe Biden released the most ambitious climate plan ever supported by a major party nominee and one of the most ambitious economic agendas since the New Deal. His Build Back Better plan, informed by union leaders, climate activists, and elements from the Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders plans, centers clean energy job creation in his economic recovery agenda. Voters recognize the transformative and necessary nature of Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan by an overwhelming margin, with 66% of voters in favor of the plan. The plan laid out a framework of standards, investments, and justice to tackle the climate crisis.
- Clean Energy Standards: Biden’s plan would help avert climate change’s worst consequences. It tackles decarbonization with a force shown by no other American leader by setting clean energy standards for transportation, buildings, and our electricity sector. In the final presidential debate, Biden took an unprecedented stand in asserting the importance of these standards, reiterating that the “the point is, we have to move toward a net-zero emissions. The first place to do that by the year 2035 is in energy production.” The 2035 target, which mirrors Inslee’s Climate Mission Agenda, would kick off an American energy revolution, ensuring a livable planet for generations to come.
- Investments: Biden’s $2 trillion plan is miles ahead of any past general election candidate — dwarfing the renewable energy stimulus Biden helped implement in 2009 by a factor of 20. Such a massive investment would reinvigorate the post-COVID economy, create millions of good-paying jobs, and secure American industry’s leadership in the burgeoning clean power sector. In rolling out the plan, Biden declared, “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’” This approach created a stark contrast to President Trump’s handling of the economic crisis, given his decision to allow 600,000 clean energy jobs to die this year while favoring fossil fuel CEOs.
- Environmental Justice: Biden’s plan includes an ambitious commitment to environmental justice, mobilizing young voters of color more powerfully than any other single issue. After a summer marked by historic uprisings for racial justice, communities of color are continuing to assert the connections between racism and the climate crisis. Biden’s plan recognizes the impact of historical and present wrongs on disadvantaged communities by dedicating 40% of all federal green investments in his plan towards their advancement, enshrining equity and justice at the heart of his vision for a new clean energy economy.
The Real-Life Impacts of Climate Change Shaped the Election
This year the deadly effects of our fossil fuel economy became apparent to more Americans than ever, in large part due to an escalating cascade of climate disasters. This year’s hurricane season has produced a record-tying 27 named storms, and Louisiana alone has been battered by five successive major storms. Its most recent, Hurricane Zeta, triggered a blackout affecting 2 million households across Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas. 2020 is also on track to be the hottest year on record, and after record-breaking September temperatures, heatwaves will persist through the fall in parts of northern California and Oregon, stretching into Nevada, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. And Black, Brown, and low-income communities faced dramatically higher death rates from COVID-19 because they are on the frontlines of air pollution from fossil fuel facilities.
This year also saw a record-breaking wildfire season. Millions of Americans on the West Coast were subjected to red skies, worsening air quality, property damage, and loss of life. The vast majority of the American public understood that these wildfires were fueled by man-made climate change. Voters overwhelmingly agreed that wildfires have become more frequent (79%) and more extreme (81%), including 81% of independents and 83% of those who supported both President Obama and Trump.
As the wildfires burned, Vice President Biden delivered the first major presidential campaign speech connecting extreme weather to climate change. He acknowledged the gravity of the climate crisis and the fear it inspires, while emphasizing the opportunity to transition to a clean energy future and create millions of good-paying jobs. “We have a choice. We can invest in our infrastructure to make it stronger and more resilient, improving the health of Americans and creating millions of good paying jobs while at the same time tackling the root causes of climate change.”
Climate Was a Focal Point of the Presidential Debates
2020 marked the first time that the climate crisis was featured in every single general election debate, following a virtual climate blackout in 2016 and nearly every debate for the past twenty years.
Climate change was not originally on Chris Wallace’s list of announced debate topics. But in a year so clearly defined by the climate crisis, the omission was unacceptable: 71 House members, 37 senators, 45 progressive and climate groups, and hundreds of thousands of grassroots voices responded by pushing Wallace to break the silence on climate change. At the time, this prompted the most substantive discussion of the climate crisis in a general election debate. In response, Trump was the quietest he’d been all night and only offered further climate denial, while Vice President Biden made a forceful case for bold action: “We spend billions of dollars now — billions of dollars — on floods, hurricanes, rising seas. We’re in real trouble… That didn’t happen before, [and it’s] because of global warming.”
During the Vice Presidential debate, Kamala Harris reaffirmed the Biden/Harris administration’s commitment to decarbonize the power sector by 2035 and create millions of good-paying jobs in the process. In contrast, Vice President Pence offered inadequate solutions for the millions of people who’ve suffered from wildfires this year and insulted the frontline communities in Puerto Rico and the Gulf who’ve experienced worsening hurricanes year after year by denying their experiences.
The climate election culminated during the third debate with the first-ever question about environmental justice in a presidential debate. Trump justified the dangers industrial pollution poses to nearby communities, saying residents in fenceline neighborhoods “are employed heavily and they are making a lot of money, more money than they’ve ever made.” Biden responded with empathy for families dealing with air and water pollution. He stressed that for “those front-line communities, it doesn’t matter what you’re paying them. It matters how you keep them safe.”
Climate Defines the Candidates Contrasting Closing Messages
For the first time in history, climate change and the energy transition have been a major closing message for both presidential candidates. Their focus on climate issues continues to demonstrate the extent to which this election was defined by the climate crisis:
- Biden ran the first general election climate TV ad in 12 years, highlighting how climate change will harm Michigan farmers, in early October.
- Biden’s closing message centered on his plans to tackle climate change. In ads dealing with wildfires and climate denialism, his campaign advanced one of the election’s starkest contrasts: a Biden administration would confront the climate crisis where the Trump presidency has downplayed and worsened it. Biden’s final push marked the first time that climate has been used as a persuasion issue in a general election.
- In the final days before November 3rd, the Trump campaign embraced the widely unpopular fossil fuel industry. 55% of Republicans and 68% of independents support a clean power transition, and Americans have broadly rejected Trump’s climate denial. Coming out against climate action is a losing argument, and the spotlight cast on climate policy in 2020 makes clear where each candidate stands.
Record numbers of voters, including 83% of Democrats and 56% of Independents, consistently rank government action on climate as a top priority. In fact, 65% of all Americans support the federal government taking bold action on climate change. And voters continually give President Trump his worst ratings on his handling of climate and environmental issues. Trump spent the last days of the campaign leaning in on his worst issue and Biden’s most popular, unifying issue.
We will look back on 2020 as the climate election; at every step of the way, it has been defined by the threats and opportunities posed by the climate crisis. The American public has been given a choice between two futures: upholding the inequitable fossil fuel economy of our past on a rapidly warming planet, or an all out national mobilization to create millions of good paying union jobs and empower disadvantaged communities. Regardless of the 2020 election’s results, it’s clear that no election in American history has granted climate this level of attention.