Climate change largely missing from campaign as fires rage

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Noah Berger

A firefighter battles the Creek Fire as it threatens homes in the Cascadel Woods neighborhood of Madera County, Calif., on Monday, Sept. 7, 2020. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

WASHINGTON – Historic fires are raging across the western United States ahead of what scientists say is the typical peak of wildfire season. Hurricane Laura devastated parts of the Gulf Coast last month, while swaths of Iowa are recovering from a derecho that brought hurricane force winds to the Midwest.

The streak of disasters has left millions of Americans reeling. But it's barely had an impact on the campaign for the White House, in part because of the vulnerabilities it highlights for President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger, Joe Biden.

The president is already facing multiple challenges, including the pandemic, joblessness and social unrest, and can ill afford another one. When he talks about California, where fires have killed at least a dozen people and threatened thousands of homes, it's mostly to blast the state's Democratic leaders.

And for Biden, the spreading fires are a reminder to the party's progressive base that he doesn't embrace some of the most liberal elements of the Green New Deal, the grand plan for tackling climate change.

“The Biden campaign understands that a full embrace of an aggressive climate change agenda could create problems for them in Upper Midwest,” said Dan Schnur, who served as an adviser to former California Gov. Pete Wilson and Arizona Sen. John McCain. “Trump has shown no desire to talk about California beyond using it as a liberal punching bag to make his case to his conservative base.”

Still, climate activists say the moment underscores the need for Washington to support the Green New Deal, an ambitious — and likely costly — plan to wean the U.S. from fossil fuels and drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s no surprise that Trump isn’t talking about the fact that America is literally in flames on his watch — but why isn’t Biden?” said Rebecca Katz, a political strategist who has worked with Democratic congressional candidates supporting the measure. “For Democrats to not connect what’s happening on the West Coast to Trump’s failure on climate change is just political malpractice.”

The Biden campaign's response to the fires is especially notable since his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, represents California in the Senate. She was campaigning in Miami on Thursday, but her spokesperson, Sabrina Singh, said Biden and Harris “have been closely monitoring the wildfires raging across the state and highlighting the urgent need to address the threat of climate change.”