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ANALYSIS-Fires and floods hurl climate change to fore of U.S. election

NEW YORK, Sept 19 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Previously overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic and the country’s racial reckoning, climate change has hurled to the front of the U.S. presidential race, as historic wildfires raged in the West and powerful storms battered the South.

This week, Democratic contender Joe Biden tackled the issue of extreme weather from his home base in Delaware, calling U.S. President Donald Trump a “climate arsonist” for failing to acknowledge the role of global warming in the Western wildfires.

His Republican rival - despite disputing any climate change fingerprint in California’s fires, the largest in the state’s history - made a last-minute trip there to meet state officials and firefighters.

Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, said the recent fires and storms had dominated the news cycle and pressed the point.

“It’s forced the issue of extreme weather and climate change into the election,” he said.

Dozens of wildfires have raged across California and the Pacific Northwest, scorching more than 4.5 million acres (1.8 million hectares) within several weeks and killing several dozen people.

The fires also have filled the air with harmful levels of smoke and soot, turning skies eerie shades of orange and sepia while worsening the public health crisis caused by COVID-19.

Simultaneously, Hurricane Sally pummeled the Gulf Coast on Wednesday, marking the 18th named storm in the Atlantic this year and the eighth to hit the United States with tropical storm or hurricane strength.

Climate change may be a factor making storms like Sally move more slowly, scientists say, leading to catastrophic amounts of rainfall and widespread flooding.

This week also saw the appearance of five named storms at once in the Atlantic, a rarity that has not happened since 1971, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“What’s very clear is that the record-setting extreme events of the past couple of months have captured the entire nation’s morbid fascination,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

“People are just ... reeling,” he added.

CASH OVER CLIMATE

Nonetheless, polling in the months leading up to and through the recent destructive weather has shown that voters rank climate change behind other priorities, including the pandemic - which has killed nearly 200,000 Americans - and the economy.

A new poll conducted by the University of Southern California from Aug. 25 through Sept. 13, while the fires were ablaze, showed only 4% of Americans naming climate change as their top issue when voting.

By comparison, the same poll found that the economy, battered by the coronavirus crisis, was most frequently ranked the top voting priority, by 33% of respondents.

The pandemic is predicted to shrink the global economy by 4% this year, or about $3.4 trillion, roughly equivalent to wiping out the economies of Canada and Australia, according to Reuters polling of more than 500 economists.

But while seemingly sidelined by COVID-19 and other issues, climate change has gotten significantly more attention in the 2020 presidential campaign than ever before, Maibach said.

“In all past elections, climate change was given a little bit of lip service by both the candidates and even by members of the press,” said Maibach.

But this time around, candidates in the Democratic primaries were “literally competing to see who was going to be the most aggressive climate hawk,” he said.

Although the Democratic National Convention refused to hold a primary debate focused on climate change, media outlet CNN hosted seven hours of climate-focused town halls, where most contenders laid out extensive policy plans on the issue.

One of the 2020 Democratic primary candidates, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, centered his campaign around climate issues.

SCIENCE DIVIDE

A 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly two-thirds of Americans believe the country’s political leaders should address climate change, and ranked environmental protection as a leading policy priority.

But Trump and his challenger, former Vice President Biden, are divided on the science behind climate change.

Biden, slammed by Republicans for not visiting disaster areas, gave a speech on the threat of increasing weather extremes that Leiserowitz called one of the most “powerful” on climate change in the country’s history.

Trump, meanwhile, has in the past referred to climate change as a “hoax”, and in 2017 vowed to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the main global pact to tackle the problem.

This week in California, he doubled down on his skepticism.

“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” he said. “I don’t think science knows.”

Trump and his allies have also sought to pin the blame for large wildfires in California on state officials, saying fuel-choked forests and scrub need to be thinned, more firebreaks should be cut and flammable debris cleared from forest floors.

Maibach said the majority of Trump’s supporters would likely be unswayed by recent evidence of worsening climate impacts.

“Moderate female Republicans ... would be the ones who are really most at risk of saying ‘Enough is enough’,” Maibach said. “Most members of his base will vote for him anyway.”

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