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Climate change made a surprise appearance at the presidential debate

Last night, in the bottom of a dumpster fire, something surprising happened. The moderator Chris Wallace, at the tail end of the first presidential debate, said, “I’d like to talk about climate change.”

Despite the fact that the West Coast is engulfed in flames, we’ve already had so many named storms this season that we’ve blown through the English alphabet and are now on to the Greek, tornadoes are becoming more common outside of tornado alley (and are also on fire), and starving birds are literally falling from the sky, until last night there hadn’t been a single question about climate change from a presidential debate moderator since 2008. There was no mention of climate on Chris Wallace’s list of question topics, and no one expected the issue to come up.

“They have danced around this central issue for so long I confess I never thought I’d hear those two words uttered in a presidential debate,” Char Miller, director of the Environmental Analysis Program and W.M. Keck professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, tells Mic. “That may tell us something grim — that only when balancing on the precipice will we finally face up to the world’s greatest challenge. A bit late, that.”

Unfortunately, the conversation had here on the precipice, like much of the debate, was exceedingly stupid. Trump — who has called climate change a Chinese hoax and pointed to the weather sometimes being cold as evidence — repeated his debunked claim that poor forest management is to blame for the wildfires destroying the West Coast. He offered a short anecdote about “forest cities” in Europe, saying, “I was with the head of a major country, it's a forest city. He said 'sir, we have trees that ignite much easier than California. There shouldn't be that problem.'"

“Forest cities,” to be clear, are not a thing, and the comment launched a seemingly endless stream of references to the forest moon of Endor on Twitter.

When Wallace pressed Trump to give a straight answer on his thoughts on climate science, asking, “Do you believe that human pollution — greenhouse gas emissions — contribute to the global warming of this planet?” the president did, at least, kind of sort of acknowledge reality. “I think a lot of things do,” he said. “But I think to an extent, yes.” It was perhaps the closest he’s come to accepting the science of climate change since 2009, when he signed an open letter to President Obama calling for climate action that read, “If we fail to act now, it is scientifically irrefutable that there will be catastrophic and irreversible consequences for humanity and our planet.”

While most of Trump’s responses were muddled by a sort of rabid rage, it was clear that at least part of his resistance to environmental regulations comes down to money. The president has long seemed to believe that green energy is a costly, economy-killing ambition, in stark contrast to Biden, who believes a pivot to a green future would create jobs. On Tuesday Trump again falsely claimed that the Green New Deal would cost $100 trillion, and defended his rollback of Obama’s Clean Power Plan "because it was driving energy prices through the sky."

When asked about his decision to gut fuel efficiency standards, widely considered to be a crucial tool in the climate change fight, he cited the high price of cars: "The car has gotten so expensive because they've got computers all over the place." He didn’t say it directly, but seemed to be implying that if more people bought new cars, even without fuel regulations, they would still be better for the environment than the older models millions of Americans are driving today.

For his part, Biden faced the difficult task of debating someone who doesn’t really believe in the reality of the thing they’re debating. He has laid out an ambitious $2 trillion climate plan that would address everything from jobs to social justice, and he tried to sell the idea in the precious few minutes he had. “We can get to net zero in terms of energy production by 2035,” Biden said. “Not only not costing people jobs, creating jobs. Creating millions of good-paying jobs.” The thinking is consistent with comments Biden made when he unveiled his plan in July. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax,’” he said at the time. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’”

“Biden’s plan's emphasis on renewables — funding for renewable energy, for example, and the jobs that that sector are already creating — is essential,” Miller says. “This and his other proposals are substantially smarter and precisely counter to the president’s rush to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, mine toxic minerals near the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area, and clearcut carbon-sequestering old growth on the Tongass National Forest — each of which will release tons of greenhouse gases that will accelerate the damaging impact of climate change.”

Biden also tried to reiterate a point he and others have made in the past — that in the long run the cost of doing nothing to fight climate change will be exponentially higher than investing in a green future now. "Look how much we're paying now to deal with the hurricanes,” he said, before mentioning one of Trump’s alleged ideas for weakening them. “By the way, [Trump] has an answer for hurricanes — he said maybe we should drop a nuclear weapon on them.”

The climate situation is so dire that a new study published just this week found a quarter of Americans don’t want to have children due, at least in part, to climate change concerns. While the short few minutes devoted to climate change in the absolute shitshow that was last night’s debate didn’t have a whole lot of substantive discussion on policy, the fact it was brought up at all — for the first time in over a decade — is at least something.