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What to watch for during tonight’s VP debate

The stakes are high for climate, civil rights, and our democracy

by Vanessa Butterworth

October 7, 2020

In the chaos of COVID and deep rippling effects of decades of racial and income inequality, the stakes have never been higher for democracy, civil rights, and the climate.

Typically, vice presidential debates are the very definition of low impact, meaning that regardless of what happens or how the candidates perform, it doesn’t always affect the outcome of the race. Only half of the number of people who watched the presidential debate watched the vice presidential debate in 2016.

This debate is different and here’s why.

In the chaos of COVID and deep rippling effects of decades of racial and income inequality, the stakes have never been higher for democracy, civil rights, and the climate. And, with Kamala Harris, the first Black and Asian American woman on the presidential ticket for either major party, and Mike Pence, a religious zealot who denies that climate change is real and that gay rights are human rights, it’s going to be an all-out fight.

Harris and Pence don’t agree on much and are so far apart on climate.

What Mike Pence has to say on climate

Mike Pence’s steadfast dedication to fundamentalist Christian supremacist beliefs would bring the country back to the Stone Age. He’s part of an administration that’s hoping to stoke fear and divide us so that we don’t join together to demand the proven solutions our families need. On the climate front, he’s called global warming a myth, vehemently attacked the Paris climate agreement, straight up refused to implement the Clean Power Plan in Indiana during Obama’s presidential tenure, voted against limiting federal greenhouse gas emission rules twice, voted against tax credits for renewable energy incentives, used the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster to call for more offshore drilling, and has advocated for more fossil fuel infrastructure development. Pence also has deep ties to the fossil fuel industry. The Koch Brothers Network has given him $300,000 throughout his career.

Pence will no doubt center his climate rhetoric in economic terms and claim that addressing the climate crisis would kill American jobs, but we know he’s dead wrong.

We can’t talk about the economy without understanding just how much the climate crisis is going to cost this country and everyone who lives here. We can’t talk about jobs without mentioning the incredible opportunity to put millions of people back to work by investing in clean energy. A bold economic renewal plan — one that confronts COVID, racial inequality, and the climate crisis as products of the same broken system — would actually create nearly 16 million new jobs and sustain them over the next decade. And we can’t talk about COVID-19’s economic impact without acknowledging the deadly fires and smoke putting millions of people on the West Coast at greater risk of catching the virus.

But, we know Pence won’t make these connections. It’s up to Harris to show that she understands the full stakes of the climate crisis and that we cannot separate climate action from social, economic, and racial justice. Harris has a critical opportunity to motivate millions of young voters who want to put climate champions in office.

What Senator Kamala Harris has to say on climate

Harris has shown she understands that climate denial is not a victimless crime and that the climate crisis is an existential threat.

Harris finished with a “B+” (77/100) on the Greenpeace #Climate2020 presidential scorecard when she was running for the top spot. She had especially strong marks on polluter accountability and her climate prowess was actually slightly ahead of Biden who is currently at a steady “B+” (75.5/100).

If we zoom in, we can also see her work to advance climate action. She has introduced or co-sponsored many environmental and climate policies, signed the NoKXL Pledge and No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, supported a novel idea for a new global “managed decline” treaty to manage the worldwide phaseout of fossil fuel production, and supported efforts to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for their role in the climate crisis by filing a brief in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to hold Big Oil responsible for blocking action in Congress on climate change.

Both Harris and Biden alike will need to increase ambition particularly on fossil fuel supply, environmental justice, and just transition policies, but Harris’s advocacy of a global treaty to achieve a “cooperative managed decline of fossil fuel production” shows that she’s moving in the right direction. She plans to propose a meeting of major global emitters in early 2021, focusing on climate change and the global economy. The meeting will focus on renewed commitments to fossil-fuel subsidy phase-out and the first-ever global negotiation of the cooperatively managed decline of fossil fuel production.

This is all in stark contrast to what’s happening with the current administration. Trump’s policies are a raging dumpster fire.

What’s at stake for 2020 and beyond?

Communities across the United States are reeling from the compounding crises of climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic while the Trump administration is playing games with their health, safety, and prosperity.

Trump received the best care in the world when he was diagnosed with COVID-19 (the fact that he contracted COVID-19 while having access to all the best possible resources is a whole other level of offensive absurdity) then turned around and said “screw you” to the rest of America by announcing via Twitter that he has instructed Republicans in Congress to delay a long-discussed stimulus package until after the election.

More than 200,000 Americans have died and more than 40 million are out of work as a result of the Trump administration’s failed COVID-19 response. The decision to postpone a stimulus that would help working families across the country will no doubt lead to more suffering. It’s unconscionable that to do anything other than fast-track the HEROES Act, which would provide critical relief but has been stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate for months.

Instead of taking immediate action to prevent further suffering, Trump, Pence, and their cabinet are bending over backward to bail out fossil fuel CEOs, deny people stimulus support, and reject the climate crisis at its core.

The next administration must take transformative action from day one to advance a Green New Deal and end the era of fossil fuels — it’ll be up to Senator Harris to keep pushing for solutions that tackle social, environmental, and economic injustice at their roots.

Tonight, we hope to see her make the most of this opportunity to shut down Pence’s climate denial once and for all.

See you on Twitter!

Vanessa Butterworth

By Vanessa Butterworth

Vanessa currently works as the Senior Digital Strategist at Greenpeace and sits on the Rising Tide North America organizing team. Outside of paid work, she organizes with frontline groups against police brutality, gentrification, and environmental racism. Over the past ten years, she's worked on campaign, mobilization, direct action, and movement strategy across the US and Canada. She's originally from Mississauga of the New Credit Territory as known as Caledon, Ontario, but now lives in Oakland, California on Ohlone Territory.

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