with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Joe Biden walked a fine line on the Green New Deal during the first presidential debate – first touting the sweeping climate change plan embraced by liberal activists as a job creator and then disavowing it. 

Fox News host Chris Wallace put the former vice president on the spot about the plan that has earned rapturous support among some younger voters animated by the issue of rising global temperatures – a group Biden has struggled to recruit. Biden emphasized that he has his own plan for tackling climate change separate from the outline put forward last year by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.). 

I don't support the Green New Deal,” Biden said when pressed by Wallace. “I support the Biden plan I put forward." 

While Biden has managed in the past to praise the Green New Deal without fully endorsing it, his most recent comments in front of a live television audience have the potential to reopen old intraparty wounds. Sensing a weak spot, President Trump sought to turn the exchange into a wedge between Democratic Party’s liberals and moderates. 

“Oh, well, that's a big statement,” Trump responded, talking over Biden as he often did during Tuesday evening’s ugly and rancorous event. “That means you just lost the radical left.”

Biden has spent months reconciling the climate demands of his party’s liberal and moderate wings. 

Over the spring, Biden revamped his climate plan after it failed to impress young climate activists. The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which backed Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) during the primary, gave his initial proposal an “F.” 

Biden’s pivot to the left, unusual for a candidate who just locked down his party’s nomination, resulted in a more extensive plan that called for spending $2 trillion over four years to eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 through a set of mandates.

Aiming to own the issue during the debate, Biden vowed to rejoin the Paris climate accord and to pressure Brazil to stop the destruction of the Amazon. He promised transitioning to cleaner energy would be an economic boon and would creating “hard, hard, good jobs by making sure the environment is clean.”

While Biden’s plan is more aggressive than anything from any other major party candidate, the Green New Deal sought for more. That plan, which Biden’s eventual running mate Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) co-sponsored, called for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the entire U.S. economy within just 10 years. Ocasio-Cortez and Markey's nonbinding resolution set a goal, but didn’t specify how those emissions cuts would be achieved, and labor leaders said the timeline was too unrealistic. 

The original Green New Deal backers sought to tamp down any divisions after the debate. 

In a message retweeted by the president himself, Trump campaign spokesman Ken Farnaso said “the American people deserve an answer” about what Biden thinks about the Green New Deal.

Markey, who recently won a tough primary in Massachusetts in part by emphasizing his environmental record, responded by saying he and other progressives are still backing Biden despite his comments. 

“I support the Green New Deal and I'm voting for Vice President Joe Biden,” Markey said in a statement after the debate. “Donald Trump is wrong. The liberal left is with Joe Biden, and we will pass a Green New Deal.” 

On Twitter, Ocasio-Cortez wrote she worked with the Biden campaign on climate change to “set aside our differences & figure out an aggressive climate plan to address.” 

Earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez led with former secretary of state John F. Kerry a climate task force meant to unify the Biden and Sanders wings of the party. Their nine-person panel crafted, which included Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash, crafted an outline of a climate plan designed for broad appeal. 

Her climate group, which brought the idea of the Green New Deal to the fore in Washington by staging sit-in protests in Congress, echoed Biden's previous comments saying the slogan is “a framework, not one bill.”

Trump's own response to whether he believed in climate change was strained.

When pressed by Wallace, the president said that greenhouse gas emissions contributed to the warming of the planet “to an extent.”

“I think a lot of things do, but I think, to an extent, yes,” he said. 

The vast majority of climate scientists agree that the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities are the primary driver of the rise of global temperatures. Trump, by contrast, has suggested in the past that the notion that the Earth is warming is a hoax cooked up by the Chinese government.

Trump offered few specifics for achieving “crystal-clean water and air,” and wouldn’t say whether the wildfires scorching California were being made worse by rising temperatures.

He also defended rolling back Obama-era rules meant to curb emissions from automobiles and power plants.

On cars, the president said fuel-efficiency standards made only a “tiny difference” and said he supported “big incentives” for electric vehicles. 

In reality, his White House has proposed eliminating tax credits for purchasing electric cars.

Few were expecting any questions about climate change at all from Wallace.

His initial list of debate topics instead included coronavirus pandemic, the economy, election integrity, and “race and violence in our cities.” 

But the Fox News host found himself under pressure from Democratic politicians as well as his peers in the media to ask about an issue many of them see as an existential crisis, even in the midst of all the health, social and economic tumult of the year.

Without mentioning climate change, “any discussion on the economy, racial justice, public health, national security, democracy, or infrastructure would be incomplete," three dozen Democratic senators, led by Markey, wrote to the Commission of Presidential Debates demanding every debate include questions on climate change.

“Wallace clearly recognized that not asking about climate change would be a dereliction of journalistic duty, since wildfires, more intense storms and other climate change impacts are hurting average Americans and our economy already,” Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate advisor, said. 

Biden seemed pleased when the topic came up.

“You know, I'd like to talk about climate change,” Wallace said at one point, interrupting the bickering candidates.

"So would I," Biden said.

Power plays

A new economic relief package would provide aid to the Energy Department and homes facing energy shut-offs.

House Democrats unveiled a new $2.2 trillion economic relief package, sparking the most extensive engagement between Democrats and the Trump administration on the topic since negotiations broke down in August.

The new package contains several energy-related provisions, including a tripling of funding for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a program that assists families with energy bills and weatherization, from $1.5 billion to $4.5 billion. The bill would require states and utilities to prevent loss of essential services during the pandemic, E&E reports.

The package would also give the Energy Department $144.3 million for activities related to the pandemic, and it sets aside $50 million in funding for environmental justice grants to be awarded by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Senators introduced a bipartisan bill to combat the international wildlife trade and prevent the next pandemic.

Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) introduced a bill that would prohibit the import or export of live wildlife for human consumption or medicine and increase funding to combat illegal wildlife trafficking both in the United States and abroad. A companion bill was also introduced by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) in the House.

"From SARS to Ebola to COVID-19, the risk of disease transmission from wildlife to people is a persistent threat to global public health, and we know that commercial wildlife markets and the international wildlife trade significantly increase that risk,” Booker said in a statement.

The “Preventing Future Pandemics Act of 2020” would provide $435 million per year to the U.S. Agency for International Development and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to combat illegal wildlife trafficking. It also directs the United States to engage in global diplomacy toward ending the trafficking of live wildlife for human consumption around the world. 

Booker, Quigley and Upton were among 66 lawmakers who sent a letter earlier this year urging the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the World Organization for Animal Health to take aggressive actions to shut down live wildlife markets.

The novel coronavirus is thought to have originated in bats before jumping to humans. Scientists say that wildlife trafficking and the encroachment of humans into new habitats increases the risk of new zoonotic diseases emerging. 

Energy transitions

The United States is not on track to electrify vehicles fast enough to meet climate targets.

A new study published in Nature Climate Change found that 90 percent of America’s light-duty cars will need to be electric by 2050 if the transportation sector is to stay in line with climate mitigation targets set out in the Paris agreement, E&E News reports.

“That might mean requiring all of the nation’s new car sales to be electric as early as 2035, the state target established by California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) in an announcement last week,” E&E News writes.

The study estimated that if California’s target is adopted nationally, and current trends in car use and ownership continue, 350 million electric vehicles would crisscross America’s roads in 2050, using up the equivalent of 41 percent of the nation’s total power demand in 2018. This could potentially create problems for the nation’s grid.

The study, by engineers at the University of Toronto, accounts for projections that the average number of miles driven per car will continue to increase. The authors suggest that meeting climate targets may require modifying this trend by encouraging Americans to drive less.

An ambitious plan for nuclear fusion may be feasible, according to scientists.

“Scientists developing a compact version of a nuclear fusion reactor have shown in a series of research papers that it should work, renewing hopes that the long-elusive goal of mimicking the way the sun produces energy might be achieved and eventually contribute to the fight against climate change,” the New York Times reports.

In seven peer-reviewed papers published Tuesday in an issue of the Journal of Plasma Physics, researchers made the case that a nuclear fusion reactor, called Sparc, is both technically feasible and could produce 10 times the energy it consumes. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the private spinoff Commonwealth Fusion Systems — engaged in a collaboration to develop the reactor — said that construction will begin next spring and take three to four years.

The hope is that by the beginning of the next decade a power plant could generate electricity from fusion energy — in time, the developers say, to help mitigate the effects of global warming.

“Like a conventional nuclear fission power plant that splits atoms, a fusion plant would not burn fossil fuels and would not produce greenhouse-gas emissions. But its fuel, usually isotopes of hydrogen, would be far more plentiful than the uranium used in most nuclear plants, and fusion would generate less, and less dangerous, radioactivity and waste than fission plants,” the Times writes.

University of Oxford researcher and founder of Our World in Data Max Roser:

Thermometer

Ocean waters are mixing less, which could speed up global warming.

“The layers of the world’s oceans aren’t mixing like they used to due to climate change, potentially speeding up how fast the planet will warm in the coming decades,” our colleague Andrew Freedman reports.

A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that the topmost 700 feet of ocean water is rapidly warming with less exchange between layers of deeper, colder water. This pattern could exacerbate climate change, but it has not been taken into account in many climate models.

The trend is “projected to increase energy available to hurricanes and other storms, reduce essential nutrients for fish in upper ocean layers and diminish the oceans’ ability to store carbon, among other impacts,” Freedman writes.

If layers in the ocean aren’t mixing—a process that Freedman compares to the separation of oil and vinegar in a salad dressing—there could also be implications for some of the globe’s most important ocean currents, which rely on an exchange of lighter surface waters and deeper ocean layers.