As the final showdown between President Trump and Joe Biden on Thursday drew to a close, climate change — and what it means to tackle the monumental challenges the planet faces at this late hour — was front and centre.
Linking the climate crisis to job growth, Mr Biden stated he would “transition” away from the oil industry in the US.
Mr Trump, who presented no plan to voters for tackling climate change and has previously referred to the crisis as a “hoax”, quickly seized on the remark, seeing it as a statement to exploit in his favour in key election states.
“I would transition away from the oil industry, yes,” the former VP said on the debate stage as Mr Trump badgered him. “The oil industry pollutes, significantly. It has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”
Mr Biden’s plan is a $2 trillion investment in clean energy over four years, and getting the US to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century.
However the Democratic nominee’s proposal does not call for banning fossil fuels, which are driving global heating, and instead focuses on new technologies like carbon capture to pull emissions from the atmosphere.
The president appeared gleeful after the “transition” comment, calling it a “big statement”. He seemed to suggest that there would be political retribution from oil industry-heavy regions.
“Basically what he is saying is he is going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that Texas? Pennsylvania? Oklahoma? Ohio?” Mr Trump said.
In 2016, Trump won all four of those states. Pennsylvania has been a focus in 2020, the second-largest producer of natural gas in the US behind only Texas, and where the controversial drilling method of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has become an election flashpoint.
As Mr Biden has taken the lead in nationwide polls, the Democrats are also pushing resources into swing state Ohio and even looking at Texas as a slim possibility.
The president has repeatedly falsely claimed that Mr Biden would ban fracking, while touting his support for the sector (Mr Biden has said that he would ban new gas and oil permits, including for fracking, on federal lands. Fracking operations are largely on private lands).
But it’s unclear if fracking is the key to Pennsylvania anyway — a CBS/YouGov poll in August showed that 52 per cent of voters in the state oppose fracking as the health impacts become more apparent, as shown by various studies.
But Republicans see Mr Biden’s comments as potentially damaging to his election campaign.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, told Fox News: “Biden just lost Pennsylvania tonight”.
And Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, tweeted that Mr Biden “just killed paycheck earned by hardworking families in Texas”.
Democrats in oil industry states were also quick to oppose Mr Biden’s comments.. Rep. Kendra Horn, a Democrat in Oklahoma, wrote: “Doing what’s right for Oklahoma often means standing up to party leadership. Whether I’m fighting for our public schools or speaking out for our energy industry, I’ll always take a thoughtful, bipartisan approach that puts Oklahoma first.”
Post debate, Mr Biden told reporters that he would not “ban” fossil fuels or transition for “a long time”, AP reported.
And he was heralded by climate experts and allies, who have also called for a clean energy transition.
Pete Buttigieg, who was initially in the race to become the Democratic presidential nominee but has since joined the Biden campaign, told CNN on Friday that Mr Biden “stated a simple and important truth which is that America, in order to continue job growth and in order for there to be a future, needs to move to a renewable energy economy. There’s going to be more opportunity for workers in that renewable economy than ever.”
Jamie Henn, director of Fossil Free Media and co-founder of grassroots movement, 350.org, told The Independent: “Biden knocked it out of the park on climate. He spoke passionately about moving our country away from fossil fuels and combating environmental injustice.
“His personal story about growing up near oil refineries brought the issue down to earth, while his answer about replacing oil with renewables was his clearest statement yet about needing to end the era of fossil fuels. He clearly gets that climate is a winning issue.”
European oil giants, like Royal Dutch Shell and BP, are investing in solar and wind energy, minimising their financial risks if oil rigs go the way of coal-fired power plants in the West.
However, environmentalists say their major US equivalents are still plowing investment into fossil fuel production while talking up what often amounts to small efforts on climate change.
Scientists say there is around a decade to make meaningful cuts to emissions and bring climate change under control, or the planet will face even more severe impacts than we are already witnessing.
Two-thirds of Americans think the US government should do more on climate change, polling shows, and presidential debate moderator Kristen Welker asked both candidates how they would step up on the issue with millions of Americans already taking to the polls ahead of election day on 3 November.
Calling it an “existential crisis”, Mr Biden sounded the alarm for the world to address global warming, as Mr Trump took credit for pulling the US out of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the international agreement aimed at doing precisely that.
Mr Trump said his focus was saving American jobs, while taking credit for some of the “cleanest air and water the nation has seen in generations” — partly down to regulations passed in the Obama era.
AP contributed to this report