A couple of nights ago, half the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates took the debate stage for a second time. There are still twenty candidates trying to break out from the crowded field, many will ask a resounding “Who??” as former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, or Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan answer questions, there’s one thing conspicuously missing: a true debate about climate change. During the first two days of debate, climate change got just 15 minutes out of four hours of content. That’s simply not good enough for the single most pressing issue facing humans as a species.
So far, we’ve seen a wide range of climate change proposals from these candidates, but many are vague or platitudinal.
Governor Jay Inslee has made climate change the heart of his entire campaign, and in his recently released five-part Climate Mission Agenda, he outlines a plan to bring “100 percent Clean Energy for America”; a 10-year, $9 trillion investment plan to create an “evergreen economy”; a plan to reshape foreign policy around climate change; freedom from fossil fuels; and community climate justice.
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Last year, Elizabeth Warren unveiled the Climate Risk Disclosure Act which would require companies to expose their climate related risks, such as greenhouse gas emissions, so the public and investors can see which companies are doing the most harm. She also pledged to prohibit all new fossil fuel leases on public land, announced a $2 trillion 10-year package to invest in green research, manufacturing, and exporting, and seems to support the Green New Deal.
Kirsten Gillibrand released a “moonshot” plan to transition to 100% renewable energy in ten years and plans to implement a Green New Deal “for workers and communities.” Like Warren, she pledged to stop fossil fuel leasing on public land and hold polluters accountable.
Corey Booker co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution and supports the “100 by ‘50 Act” which will transition the U.S. to renewable energy by 2015. He also made climate justice a core element of his campaign and will ban fracking as president. He also says he would halt new federal fossil fuel projects.
Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the aforementioned “100 by ‘50 Act” and the “Keep It in the Ground Act” which would cut off federal support for coal, oil, and gas.
The SEAL Awards named Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders as the three best candidates for climate change in descending order. A panel of 20 environmental experts along with youth activists from organizations like the Youth Climate Strike and the Sunrise movement voted on candidates’ policies. Safa Bee, the Award’s impact lead says of the three candidates that they “are ones that are not thinking about climate change as a stand-alone silo but rather are seeing everything—from foreign policy to food systems to social services—through this lens of climate change… Any candidate that is failing to connect the dots between social justice and climate change did not make the list.”
On the other end of the spectrum, John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, Michael Bennet, Andrew Yang, John Delaney, and Amy Klobuchar were all ranked a C- or lower on climate by Greenpeace.
Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Bill de Blasio, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson, and Andrew Yang all signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge in which they promise not to take more than $200 donations from fossil fuel lobbyists, corporations, or employees. John Delaney, Steve Bullock, and John Hickenlooper have not signed.
Many of the other candidates fall somewhere between the two extremes, but the climate crisis is so urgent that we need to be able to compare each candidate and their stances in-depth and in contrast to each other. That’s why we need a climate debate.
During the first half of the second Democratic debate, Bernie Sanders criticized moderate democrats for being “afraid of big ideas” on climate change. “Please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry… nothing happens unless we do that…. Here’s the bottom line: what do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying the planet. I say that is criminal activity. That should not be allowed to happen.”
Greenpeace reported that “Following the first debate in June — in which just six percent of questions over two nights addressed climate change policy — we heard just one candidate, Elizabeth Warren, outline their vision for implementing a Green New Deal.”
John Hickenlooper said that support of the Green New Deal is “a disaster at the ballot box… you might as well FedEx the election to Donald Trump” while Steve Bullock said progressive climate proposals will hurt workers.
Luckily, we’ll get some opportunities to hear more from the candidates on climate topics, but the DNC (Democratic National Committee) has still yet to decide whether it will host a climate debate.
CNN and MSNBC invited candidates to September climate town halls scheduled for September 4th (CNN) and September 19 and 20th (MSNBC). These events will be open to candidates polling above two percent with at least 130,000 individual donors, the same requirements the DNC set for its September debate.
This is a great step in the right direction, accomplished in part thanks to the activism of the Sunrise Movement, a grassroots movement of primarily young activists mobilizing around climate change and the Green New Deal, specifically. Hundreds of their volunteers sat in outside the Democratic Headquarters for three days to demand a climate debate, and they claimed these town halls as an indication that their pressure is working.
However, Tom Perez, the DNC chairman, says a specialized debate would “favor certain candidates” and would create a slippery slope towards many individual-issue debates. However, there are few issues that require such swift and dramatic change as the climate crisis, and claiming that we’d end up having a debate on every granular issue is absurd. Then again, if there’s something the people want to know more about, why not host more debates or events? Transparency allows voters to see which candidates are peddling vague noncommittal non-decisions, and which are brave enough to take a definitive stance.
A climate debate hosted by the DNC is important not only to give airtime to these candidates debating their solutions to the global climate crisis, but will signal to the world that the U.S. Democratic Party is giving this issue the reverence and time it deserves. This is more than a debate, but a push for the Democratic Party and the U.S. left-of-center to rally around climate change and environmental justice as some of its most pressing issues.
The DNC will host a vote on whether to host a climate debate at their national meeting from August 22-23 in California. Sunrise Movement and others are mobilizing activists across the U.S. to pressure their state and local party officials to vote yes on the Resolution to Request a Democratic Presidential Debate on the Climate Crisis.
The climate crisis is coming and has already started to happen. Clearly some of the people running for president understand that urgency, while others are still in the 20th century mindsets when it comes to sustainability. We need more than individual candidates advocating for climate change, we need the Democratic Party as a whole to stand up and say that this is an urgent matter that requires dramatic action.
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Feature image of Kamala Harris by Gage Skidmore via Flickr.