Just 15 Minutes on Climate Change in First 2 Democratic Debates

By: Dharna Noor | June 28, 2019

The first two Democratic debates, which together spanned four hours, included just fifteen minutes of discussion on the climate crisis—even though climate change was the number one issue on which voters wanted to hear from candidates.

“It’s hard to get candidates to talk about anything in-depth,” tweeted youth-led climate organization the Sunrise Movement during the second debate night. “When it comes to the broadest, most stubborn-ass issue of our generation, we need more than 15 minutes split between 20 candidates.” 

Sunrise has been leading the push for the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to host a primary debate focused entirely on climate change. 

Earlier this month, Washington governor and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee, who has made climate change the central focus of his campaign, wrote a letter to DNC chairman Tom Perez taking up the demand. Perez rejected the idea and even barred candidates from participating in unofficial candidate debates, said he’d “made clear to [the DNC’s] media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently” in all twelve sanctioned ones. 

Inslee was one of ten candidates who participated in Wednesday’s debate in Miami, FL. Eighty minutes into the two-hour debate, moderator Rachel Maddow asked Inslee the first question about the climate crisis of the night—and it wasn’t a good one. She didn’t ask about candidates’ specific plans to take on the fossil fuel industry or rapidly phase out of carbon emissions. 

“We are here in Miami, which is already experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea level rise. Parts of Miami Beach and the Keys could be underwater in our lifetimes,” Maddow said. “Does your plan save Miami?”

“Yes, first by taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell to start with,” Inslee said, referring to the Republican-controlled Senate’s unwillingness to engage on climate issues.

Some studies from as early as 2015 show it could be too late to save cities like Miami that are particularly vulnerable to sea level rise, even if we enact bold climate action plans.

The next climate question, posed by Chuck Todd to former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, was about “who pays for mitigation to climate,” but the examples he gave, such as “building seawalls for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living,” suggest he meant climate adaptation, not mitigation. Todd’s question left out the untold economic costs of not acting on climate change—not to mention the countless lives that would be lost, particularly in poor communities of color that are often hit hardest by climate disasters. Castro was given only 30 seconds to answer. 

Todd also asked former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke about climate action, but again, instead of asking how he would distinguish his climate plan from others’, Todd asked him, “What’s your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you’re trying to do, but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live?” 

Government inaction is not an option if humanity is to survive. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report on reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial temperatures says, the world’s policymakers must usher in “unprecedented changes across all aspects of society” to avoid widespread irreversible and catastrophic effects of climate change. 

On night one, five candidates weren’t asked any questions about climate change at all.

Before the second round of candidates took the stage on Thursday, Inslee doubled down on his demand and wrote Perez another letter, which his campaign shared with the Huffington Post. “At last night’s first debate, the DNC and its media partners had the opportunity to show that they were listening and willing to help educate voters about our candidates’ views and policy plans on climate change,” he wrote. “They failed.”

Thursday night’s debate featured eight minutes on climate change—a marginal improvement from night one. The first person to mention climate policy was John Hickenlooper, who slammed the Green New Deal. “If we want to beat Donald Trump and achieve big progressive goals, socialism is not the answer,” he said. 

The response was unsurprising: As governor of Colorado, Hickenlooper was such an ardent defender of the hydraulic fracturing industry that he was nicknamed “Frackenlooper.” 

By contrast, Kamala Harris voiced support for the Green New Deal, but offered no specific climate policies she’d undertake as president. She also pledged to re-enter the United States into the Paris Climate Accord, a nonbinding international agreement from which President Trump withdrew the nation in 2017, but many leading climate scientists argue that the Paris Accord is woefully inadequate to address the climate crisis. 

When asked how his climate plan would impact farmers, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg made what was surely the first reference to soil management’s impact on climate change on a presidential debate stage, but followed it up by calling for a carbon tax—a policy which many environmentalists call regressive because they privilege the rich who can afford to pay them, and don’t directly take on fossil fuel corporations.

“A carbon tax is unfortunately regressive unless a lot of work is done to make sure that there are rebates to low income folks. But low income folks spend more on their energy bills than higher income folks,” Greenpeace Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman told the Real News in 2016. “A carbon tax is not, I think, the best way to reduce carbon. Regulation on power plants is the best way to reduce carbon. Regulation on cars and making public transportation available, moving the way we move our goods from trucks to rail lines is the best way to cut carbon.”

On both nights, other candidates offered small insights about their plans to fight climate change. Elizabeth Warren called for investment into green technology, Biden said he’d immediately establish new 500,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles across the nation. Bernie Sanders was the only candidate to directly say he’d “take on…the fossil industry.” But on both Wednesday and Thursday, moderators reserved their questions about climate change until the second half of the debate. “It was past 10 PM both nights,” said Zina Precht-Rodriguez, a 22-year-old fellow with the Sunrise Movement who helped organize their 60-hour sit-in on the DNC headquarters’ steps to demand a climate debate. “Climate was treated like an afterthought.” 

Climate change is an issue that impacts every facet of human life, and on the debate stage on Wednesday and Thursday, it wasn’t treated as such. Candidates were asked about their healthcare proposals, but except for a brief mention from new age-y author Marianne Williamson about the impact of environmental policy on wellness, no one discussed the impact of the climate crisis on public health. Just three days ago, over 70 medical organizations released a report that says climate change is the “greatest public health challenge of the 21st century.” 

The moderators also asked the candidates about their plans for immigration reform and their attitudes toward global conflict, but there was no mention of the impact of the climate crisis on forced migration, even though just last month, a new report showed that rising seas could mean the world sees 187 million climate refugees by 2100. And heated debates on systemic racism took place, but no one talked about the ways climate change and environmental degradation disproportionately impact Black and brown Americans

“Addressing the climate change crisis must be a central platform for any serious presidential candidate as the costs and harms of climate-related disasters – including flooding, wildfires and intensified storms – mount around our nation,” said Dr. Rachel Cleetus, policy director and lead climate and energy economist for the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a statement.

Failure to address the climate crisis with any sort of seriousness—especially in Miami, a city facing rising seas and spreading brush fires—is a disservice to voters and the planet. Fifteen of twenty Democratic candidates have endorsed the calls for a climate debate, and on stage, many of them agreed that climate change is an existential threat. 

But based on the debate questions, you’d never know it.

Disclaimer: Dharna Noor donated $27 to Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Related Bios

Dharna Noor

Dharna Noor is a host and producer at The Real News Network, and the managing editor of TRNN’s Baltimore Bureau. In her reporting, Dharna focuses on environmental and climate justice in Baltimore and beyond. Before coming to TRNN, Dharna studied political philosophy and vocal music at Sarah Lawrence College, and taught ecology in community gardens…