VP Debate Climate Discussion is Long Overdue
Chris Wallace took an important step in asking multiple climate questions during the first Presidential debate. Tonight, we’ll learn if the 12-year streak of climate silence in Vice Presidential debates will also come to an end. The 2008 VP debate hosted by the late Gwen Ifill remains the only one with a climate question asked in the past 20 years. There were zero questions on climate or energy policy in the 2004, 2012, or 2016 Vice Presidential debates. Given that either Vice President Pence or Senator Harris could be one heartbeat away from the presidency, it would be irresponsible to ignore the climate crisis.
Why the Climate Discussion Must be an Environmental Justice Discussion
Environmental justice has never been addressed during a general election debate. This discussion is long overdue, and it’s a critical part of the ongoing national conversation on racial inequity in America. For years, communities of color have been hit first and worst by the climate crisis. 1 out of every 1,000 African Americans have died from COVID-19 and environmental racism has heavily contributed to this shameful statistic. Vice President Mike Pence helmed the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force while simultaneously rolling back important environmental protections for communities of color. In contrast, Senator Kamala Harris has a strong record of fighting for clean air, clean water and climate justice.
Senator Harris’ s Record:
- Harris authored the Water Justice Act to invest hundreds of billions of dollars in clean water infrastructure.
- Harris wrote the Climate Equity Act to ensure federal climate policies support disadvantaged and frontline communities.
- Harris has a record of taking Big Oil and other polluters to court for the damages they have caused.
- The Biden/Harris climate plan invests 40% of federal green investments into vulnerable communities.
Vice President Pence’s Record:
- As Governor of Indiana, Pence refused requests for help with a lead crisis in mostly-Black East Chicago, but immediately fixed lead contamination in a nearby 97% white community that same year.
- Pence’s family gas station company leaked toxic chemicals into soil, streams and wells across the Midwest, leaving the public to pay over $21 million to clean up their contamination.
- The Trump/Pence administration reversed over 100 environmental regulations responsible for ensuring clean air and water.
Local Climate Impacts Make it Impossible to Ignore
This is also the only 2020 general election debate in the Western United States. It will take place under the backdrop of smoky skies and the worst wildfire season in Utah’s history, which has cost the state up to $36 million so far. These climate impacts will only continue to worsen over the next 20 years, as average annual temperatures in Salt Lake City are projected to increase by 1.6 to 4.3 degrees. Utah residents, and millions more across the Western United States, deserve for climate to be a central issue.
Not far from the debate hall, the impact of environmental injustice is clear. One recent study in Salt Lake City also found that “schools with predominantly minority students were disproportionately exposed to worse air quality.” This disparity is true nationwide and has proven deadly in the midst of an uncontrolled respiratory pandemic. That is why a specific focus on environmental justice would more concretely address local and national concerns than a vague discussion on the merits of climate change.
During Wednesday’s debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Senator Kamala Harris, moderator Susan Page should end the streak of climate silence in Vice Presidential debates and ask substantive questions on the candidates’ positions on the climate crisis. She would benefit by starting with environmental justice. The discussion is long overdue and offers the clearest opportunity to distinguish differences between the candidates’ records. Environmental justice connects to the most high profile issues of this election: the summer’s racial justice protests, the wildfires ravaging the West, and the pandemic. Everyone can relate to the need for clean air and clean water and the public deserves to know where Mike Pence and Kamala Harris stand on the issue. A specific focus on environmental justice would be relevant to both the Salt Lake City community and many communities across the country.