One hour and 20 minutes into Thursday night's high-stakes presidential debate, the moderator, NBC's Kristen Welker, asked President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden an unprecedented question.
How, she asked, would the candidates remedy the oil and gas industry's disproportionately harmful impacts on communities of color?
President Donald Trump's response: "They're employed heavily and they're making more money than they've ever made."
Former Vice President Joe Biden's response: "It doesn't matter how much you're paying them. It's how you keep them safe."
In 2012, climate change didn't surface at all in the presidential debates. In 2016, it did, but barely. That the candidates faced substantial questions over the issue in this election cycle was remarkable and, many in the climate change community would say, long overdue. That Trump and Biden faced a question on a debate stage concerning the more nuanced, complex issues of climate change and race suggests how far the conversation has evolved in eight years.
The candidates' discussion on climate change Thursday revealed, again, the significant gulf between a president who has spent the last four years rolling back climate regulations, placating the fossil fuel industry and mocking the climate threat, and a candidate who has called climate change "an existential crisis" and developed a plan to tackle the problem—though one that climate progressives say still falls short.
"This debate was historic: the first-ever general election Presidential debate with climate change as a pre-defined topic and the first debate where climate change was framed out of the gate by the moderator in terms of jobs, the economy, and what the candidates' plans were—not if the existential crisis even exists," said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, in a statement.
In the debate, the last before Election Day, Trump and Biden fielded questions about a range of topics, most prominently the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, though the biggest question lingering in viewers' minds may have been whether Trump would adhere to the debate rules and focus on issues and policy.
Late into the hour-and-a-half debate, Welker asked the candidates how they would tackle climate change, while also supporting job growth.
Trump began by reprising what has been his stock response to questions about climate change, citing the "Trillion Trees Program"—in the previous debate he erroneously referred to the program as a plan to plant a "billion" trees—and adding, "I do love the environment."
He went on to say,"We have the lowest number in carbon emissions," an apparent reference to emissions falling during the Covid-19 pandemic, and seemed pleased with his mastery of the term, taunting Biden about whether he was familiar with the concept.
"I'm not sure he knows what it means," Trump said.
The Trillion Trees Program has been broadly embraced by Republicans and some Democrats, but scientists have said the plan is inadequate for addressing climate change, that it will only put a tiny dent in emissions and is a distraction from a necessary shift away from fossil fuels.
Emissions dropped during the pandemic, but are now on the rise again, continuing an upward trend that has continued since the beginning of the Trump presidency. The most recent full-year figures from the Environmental Protection Agency, for 2018, show that fossil fuel emissions drove a 3 percent rise in overall greenhouse gas emissions in that time period.
As he has throughout his bid for the presidency, Biden emphasized a shift to renewable energy, saying his $2 trillion clean economy jobs program would create more than 18 million jobs.
"The oil industry pollutes," Biden said. "It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.... I'd stop giving federal subsidies to the oil and gas industry."
Trump, sensing an opportunity to appeal to voters in battleground states with strong fossil fuels ties, pounced on the comment.
"That's the biggest statement," Trump said, turning to look directly into the camera. "Will you remember that Texas? Will you remember that Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?"
Trump also reiterated a trope of the fossil fuel industry, calling a shift to renewables a "pipe dream" and saying that wind turbines kill "all the birds." In a muddled response, he misleadingly suggested that the construction of wind turbines "is more than anything that we are talking about with natural gas."
Biden responded, "Find me a scientist who says that."
Trump also attacked Biden's climate plan, falsely saying it would cost $100 trillion.
"They want to take buildings down because they want to take bigger windows and make them smaller windows," Trump said, referring to the proposal. "Little tiny, small windows and many other things."
The proposal says nothing about shrinking windows.
Trump also attacked Biden on his statements on fracking and natural gas, falsely accusing the Democratic candidate of supporting a ban on fracking and changing his position to court voters in Pennsylvania, a natural gas-intensive and critical swing state, won narrowly by Trump in 2016.
Biden corrected Trump, saying he would only ban new oil and gas permitting on public lands, but supports fracking elsewhere as necessary while the country transitions to a clean energy economy—a position that has been criticized by some climate advocates in the progressive wing of the party.
Biden framed addressing climate change as an ethical matter and part of a broader shift to rejoining global peers
"We have a moral obligation to deal with it," he said. "We don't have much time."
"We're going to choose science over fiction. We're going to choose hope over fear," Biden said, saying that he'd advance an economy "motivated" by clean energy. "We can grow this economy," Biden said. "What's on the ballot here is the character of our country."
Environmental activists largely applauded Biden's performance, even as many vowed to push him to take bolder steps.
"We are committed to holding a Biden administration accountable to stop fracking and protect our communities," said 350 Action North America Director Tamara Toles O'Laughlin Black. "Indigenous, and communities of color continue to bear the brunt of Donald Trump and his fossil fuel lies. It's time for a just transition for workers across the industry. The planet can't take four more years of Trump's deadly mismanagement and plain incompetence."