The changing climate of the VP debate

Tuesday night is the first and only VP debate. Will climate change get some much-needed attention?

CREDIT: AP Photo/Darron Cummings/John Heller
CREDIT: AP Photo/Darron Cummings/John Heller

This year’s presidential race has managed to suck most of the oxygen out of any room, meaning the running-mates have gotten a lot less attention (a recent ABC News survey found that more than 40 percent of Americans couldn’t name either VP candidate).

They’ll get their moment in the spotlight during the first and only vice presidential debate on Tuesday night. And there are plenty of questions for Gov. Mike Pence (R-IN) and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), including, notably: “Where do you stand on the fate of the planet?”

Climate change wasn’t mentioned by Lester Holt, moderator of the first presidential debate, but garnered a lively 82 seconds of discourse after Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton hit her opponent, Donald Trump, for referring to global warming as a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese (he tried to deny it but the tweets don’t lie).

How to address climate change and the emissions that drive it will be a critical issue for the next president, and his or her vice president will play a key role in setting that agenda. So how do Pence and Kaine stack up?

Climate science

The science behind global warming is quite clear: The vast majority of climate scientists agree that it is both happening and largely driven by human activity. In 2001, Pence referred to global warming as a “myth,” used by the environmental movement “to raise taxes and grow centralized governmental power.” He also claimed “the Earth is actually cooler today than it was about 50 years ago.” In 2009, he told MSNBC that “the science is very mixed on the subject of global warming.”

In 2001, Pence referred to global warming as a “myth.”

Pence has tried to temper that a bit recently, defending Trump’s claims of a global warming hoax as “humorous,” and telling CNN, “there’s no question that the activities that take place in this country and in countries around the world have some impact on the environment and some impact on climate.” (Trump’s campaign manager clarified the man at the top of the ticket still does not believe climate change is man-made.)


Kaine, conversely, has been clear for several years about both the reality of climate change and the need to address it. In 2012, he said “humans have a responsibility to do something” about global warming. This July, he joined fellow Democratic Senators in admonishing organizations that seek to cast doubt on the threat of climate change, calling out those that “knowingly try to misrepresent the status of climate science, and suggest that climate change is not occurring.”

What to do about emissions

Scientists are also clear that to have any hope of slowing the onslaught of climate change, it’s crucial to swiftly and aggressively cut the greenhouse gas emissions that fuel Earth’s rapid warming. Pence has staunchly opposed the Clean Power Plan — President Obama’s proposal to cut emissions from the power sector — vowing repeatedly to defy it before indicating earlier this year that his state would comply if the plan survives legal challenges (Indiana is still one of 27 states suing the EPA over the plan). As Indiana’s Journal Gazette noted, his opposition aligned him with “big political donors — utilities and coal companies” — which have given nearly $2 million to Pence and the foundation that funds his economic development travel.


As for the need to reduce carbon pollution in the state, a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out that Indiana’s “industrial greenhouse-gas emissions are second only to Texas in the United States and exceed those from Israel, Greece, and 185 other countries.” Four of the nation’s 22 heaviest polluting facilities — so-called “super polluters” — identified in the CPI report are located in southern Indiana.

Kaine, on the other hand, supports the Clean Power Plan, calling it “the biggest step the United States has ever taken to address the pollution responsible for climate change” (though, as Emily Holden notes in ClimateWire, he and Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe asked the EPA to lower Virginia’s emissions goals, arguing the state should receive more credit for the emissions reductions steps it had already taken).

While Kaine was a key opponent of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, he has come under fire from environmentalists for supporting offshore drilling in the Atlantic (a position he has since reversed), throwing his weight behind one of the last coal plants to come online in the U.S., built in southern Virginia, and being pro-fracking.

How to prepare for climate change

Even if emissions are cut dramatically, enough warming has already been set in motion to have a substantial impact on extreme weather, sea level rise, and forest fires, to name a few. Gabriel Filippelli, a professor of earth sciences, told CPI he organized a letter from 23 Indiana academics, urging Pence to draw on expertise within the state to create a climate mitigation and adaptation plan; they received “zero” response. Attorney Anita Wiley is taking a different tack, suing to force the state to create a climate action plan; as CPI notes, “the state argued in a motion to dismiss the case that it is not required to write a climate plan.”


As governor of Virginia, Kaine created the state’s first climate change commission and directed the commission to study the projected impacts of climate change on the state (the commission was dissolved under Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell but McAuliffe reinstated it in 2014). As senator, he worked to achieve bipartisan action to make the Hampton Roads area more resilient to sea level rise and coastal flooding, as the Washington Post detailed.

While climate change is more often than not ignored on the national election stage, Pence and Kaine present a clear contrast — Kaine has a lifetime score of 91 percent from the League of Conservation Voters; Pence just 4 percent — ideal fodder for Tuesday night’s debate.