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For weeks, President Donald Trump was largely silent on the wildfires that have charred more than 3.3 million acres in California, triggered Oregon officials to prepare for a potential “mass fatality incident,” and created apocalyptic orange skies and clouds raining ash that have drifted across cities throughout the West Coast.
But on Monday, Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden both addressed the fires, from opposite coasts, and in so doing, highlighted the chasm between the two on the issue.
In California, Trump refused to acknowledged the effects the climate crisis is having on the state’s forest fires and instead continued to highlight the need for better forest management to clear dead trees that can serve as fuel for the fires. When Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency warned of the dangers of ignoring science and putting “our head in the sand and thinking that it’s all about vegetation management,” Trump responded by telling Crowfoot: “It’ll start getting cooler. You just watch.”
“I wish science agreed with you,” Crowfoot told him.
“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump said.
Earlier, in Delaware, Biden slammed the President for his repeated climate denial and said the nation couldn’t afford a second term of Trump not making serious efforts to address the issue.
“The West is literally on fire and he blames the people whose homes and communities are burning,” Biden said. “He says, quote, ‘You’ve gotta clean your floors, you gotta clean your forest.’ ”
“Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly,” he added.
As the nation shifted its attention to those scenes of devastation last week, Trump tweeted about the fires for the first time in weeks on Friday night, thanking the more than 28,000 firefighters and first responders fighting the blazes. During his Monday visit to McClellan Park, California, he met with California Gov. Gavin Newsom as well as local and federal fire and emergency officials in a part of the country that has contended with record-breaking temperatures and soaring levels of air pollution.
Over the Labor Day weekend, the agency that monitors air quality in Southern California recorded the highest level of ozone pollution in nearly 30 years. On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported that four cities on the West Coast — Portland, Oregon; Los Angeles; San Francisco and Seattle — ranked among the 10 most polluted cities in the world because of the fires.
The confluence of events led Newsom to declare Friday that the debate over climate change is over: “We are in the midst of a climate emergency. We are in the midst of a climate crisis. We are experiencing weather conditions the likes of which we’ve never experienced in our lifetime,” a visibly agitated Newsom said Friday after surveying burned areas of the North Complex fire. “This is a climate damn emergency. This is real. And it’s happening — this is the perfect storm. It is happening in unprecedented ways year in, year out.”
In respectful tones during Monday’s briefing, Newsom directly addressed his disagreement with the President on the climate crisis, while noting that he values their working relationship.
“We obviously feel very strongly that the hots are getting hotter, the dries are getting drier. When we are having heat domes, the likes of which we have never seen in our history; the hottest August ever in the history of this state; the ferocity of these fires; the drought five-plus years; losing 163 million trees to that drought — something’s happened to the plumbing of the world,” Newsom told Trump.
“We come from a perspective, humbly, where we submit the science in and observed evidence is self-evident — that climate change is real and that is exacerbating this,” the California governor said. “Please respect, and I know you do, the difference of opinion out here as it relates to this fundamental issue on the issue of climate change.”
“Absolutely,” the President replied.
But Trump’s dismissive comments about the climate crisis during the other exchange about its effect on the fires was in keeping with his recent remarks on the topic during other natural disasters. During an emergency operations briefing in Lake Charles, Louisiana, late last month, Trump shrugged off a question about whether storms like Hurricane Laura were becoming more frequent because of climate change: “Who knows,” he said, adding that he’d been told the area’s biggest storm was in the 1800s. “There’s no way of really understanding that or knowing that.”
Ignoring the fact that human activity has led to the warming of the planet, creating record droughts and the dry, hot conditions that often serve as catalysts for forest fires, Trump said as recently as August that he’d told California officials “to clean your floors; you’ve got to clean your forests,” suggesting that leaves and broken trees were responsible for the fires. Newsom reminded Trump that 57% of the land in California is federal forestland.
“I spoke to the folks in Oregon, Washington they’re really — they’ve never had anything like this,” Trump said during a campaign rally in Nevada Saturday night. “But you know it is about forest management. Please remember the words — very simple — forest management. Please remember. It’s about forest management. And other things, but forest management,” a claim he repeated Sunday night at his first indoor rally in nearly three months.
When Trump arrived in California on Monday and was asked on the tarmac what role climate change was playing the fires, he said he believed it was “more of a management situation.” He said his views were informed by speaking with the heads of “forest nations” in Europe, Austria and Finland: “They’re in forests and they don’t have problems like this.”
Scientists have rejected the notion that negligent forest management is the central cause of many of the recent fires, but Newsom has tried to work collaboratively with the Trump administration on forest management. (Newsom has said forest management is “an issue” but not “the issue” causing the explosive wildfires that the state has experienced in recent years).
In his opening remarks during Monday’s briefing with Trump, Newsom acknowledged that over the past almost “1,000 plus years” that California “not done justice on our forest management. I don’t think anyone disputes that,” he told Trump.
He touted what he called a “first of its type” agreement that California and the Trump administration recently brokered to double the state’s vegetation and forest management with federal assistance.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti scoffed at the President’s “forest management” explanation for the fires during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union” Sunday.
“He’s going to come out here and probably tell us, ‘I’m going to send you rakes, instead of more help.’ We need actual help, material help, not based on our party affiliation or how we voted,” Garcetti said. “This is not about just forest management or raking — anybody who lives here in California is insulted by that, quite frankly. And he keeps perpetrating this lie.”
Garcetti also suggested the President responds more quickly to natural disasters in red states than in blue states.
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“I wish that we would get as much attention, not based on an electoral map, but just purely on being Americans and the need for leadership to be from the White House for all of America,” Garcetti said, “whether it’s twin hurricanes on the Gulf Coast or fires here on the West Coast.”
The White House has defended the President’s response to the Western wildfires, noting that last month Trump approved an emergency declaration for California and has approved some three dozen fire management grants for other western states, which the White House said provide a 75% federal cost share for the mitigation, management and control of fires.
A White House spokesman said Trump supports a “locally-executed, state-managed, and federally supported emergency response.”
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro also rejected Garcetti’s assertion that the speed of the federal response has been affected by whether state residents live in red or blue states: “That’s offensive,” Navarro told Tapper on Sunday, citing the Trump administration’s aid to blue states during the pandemic as evidence.
“If you look at what President Trump did, for example, for the city and state of New York, it was an incredible transfer of resources up there, ships, PPE. Everything that New York wanted, they got,” Navarro said. “So, please, Mr. Garcetti, take care of Los Angeles better than you are doing.”
The political fight over the fires is likely to only heat up this week as it permeates the presidential race.
The policy gulf between Biden and Trump on the climate crisis is one of the most striking contrasts of the campaign — one that surely will come up in the presidential debates that begin later this month. Anger about Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, a landmark agreement to reduce emissions of planet-warming gases, has been a galvanizing force for young progressive voters who oppose the President.
Ballots have already gone out or are on their way to voters in some states, and the contrast between the two candidates in the midst of this climate crisis may be yet another reason some voters cast their ballots early.