WASHINGTON — Donald Trump is a "climate arsonist" bent on watching the country burn, his Democratic challenger said Monday as climate change and presidential politics collided on the campaign trail.
Joe Biden chose to exploit Trump's contempt for the climate crisis on a day when the U.S. president was en route to California for an update on the deadly blazes ravaging tinder-dry parkland up and down the U.S. west coast.
For Biden, the arrival of a category-1 hurricane churning in the Gulf of Mexico just off the Florida panhandle — a queue of other tropical cyclones lining up in the Atlantic Ocean behind it — couldn't have come at a better time.
"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," Biden said from his home state of Delaware.
"If we give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if we have more of America ablaze? If we give a climate denier four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if more of America is under water?"
Trump, who famously tried to blame California wildfires two years ago on the state's failure to conduct proper "raking and cleaning" of its forest floors, doubled down on that remark prior to Monday's briefing.
Wildfires are also terrorizing residents of Oregon and Washington state. There are 60 firefighters from Quebec who are currently helping battle the North Complex fire in California, and federal officials in Ottawa say they don't anticipate sending more unless asked. But in an update on the fire Monday, Jake Cagle of the U.S. Forest Service sounded an anxious note.
"We are getting stretched thin," Cagle said during his daily update.
Smoke from the fires is already having an impact on the other side of the Canada-U.S. border, said Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who represents the riding of North Vancouver.
"The air quality in Vancouver is as bad as any air quality in the world," Wilkinson said as some of his cabinet colleagues gathered in Ottawa for a two-day meeting prior to next week's throne speech.
"It's an important lesson for all of us that we need to think forward about the crisis that looms on the horizon. And that is the crisis of climate change."
The wildfires and the resulting smoke has at least helped to drive home the importance and the urgency of the climate crisis — particularly in Canada, where the variations in seasonal temperatures can make people complacent, said Kyla Tienhaara, a School of Environmental Studies professor at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.
"In Canada, I think we've often felt sort of sheltered, not only in terms of time, like this is something that's going to happen in the future, but also in terms of our location," Tienhaara said.
"If you're on the west coast of Canada right now — where, for example, my family lives — you're experiencing really terrible air quality."
A catastrophic wildfire season in Australia just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic claimed at least 34 lives, destroyed nearly 6,000 buildings and razed more than 18 million hectares. In the end, the smoke claimed more lives than the flames did, Tienhaara said.
For years, activists have struggled to convince people to make environmental concerns a priority, particularly in times of high unemployment or fiscal uncertainty, which invariably end up pulling public and policy focus.
But the sheer scale of the fires, the fear of a coming historic barrage of hurricanes, the flooding that swamped the upper midwest last spring — all of it appears to be adding up to a paradigm shift.
"California's climate apocalypse," the Los Angeles Times declared Sunday in its banner front-page headline. "Fires, heat, air pollution: The calamity is no longer in the future — it's here, now."
Trump nodded politely as Gov. Gavin Newsom, who does not shy away from linking the fires to climate change, spelled out the scale of the disaster for the president on Monday.
"The hots are getting hotter, dries are getting drier," said Newsom, who acknowledged the state has more to do when it comes to forest management. He also noted more than half of the state's forests are federally managed.
"Something's happened to the plumbing of the world ... humbly, we submit that the science is in, and the observed evidence is self-evident that climate change is real, and that is exacerbating this."
In an exchange with someone else at the table who blamed climate change, Trump pushed back: "It will start getting cooler," he said, eliciting chuckles from elsewhere in the group. "Just watch." When the official tried to point to scientific evidence, the president said: "I don't think science knows, actually."
Biden sought to put the climate emergency on the same tier as the other three crises roiling the U.S. and the world: the pandemic, the ensuing economic collapse and the racial upheaval sparked in May by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Trump, who also spent part of Monday bestowing honours on a group of National Guard pilots who rescued trapped residents from the wildfires last week, is likely to try to do the opposite, particularly given how much an economic recovery is likely to mean for his re-election chances.
"The government has sort of taken advantage of the COVID crisis in order to try to push a gas-led recovery, which is catastrophic in environmental terms," Tienhaara said of the Australian aftermath.
"I hope to God that they don't have anything catastrophic happen again this season, but you know, the timing is important because things do fade from people's memory very quickly, unfortunately, when they have so much to deal with."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.
— Follow James McCarten on Twitter @CdnPressStyle
James McCarten, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version neglected to make clear Tienhaara's comments about a gas-led recovery were in reference to Australia.