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Sunrise Movement fellow Zina Rodriguez says she celebrates the moves from two major networks, but they don’t change the need for a real climate debate

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DHARNA NOOR It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

We still don’t know if the DNC will sanction a presidential climate debate, but it looks like two broadcast networks will host climate forums. On Thursday, CNN announced that they’ll host a climate change town hall in New York City on September 4th. They say they’ll invite all candidates who qualify for the DNC’s September debates to join. Right now, that’s eight of them who qualify. And the same day, The Daily Beast reported that MSNBC will hold a two-day climate forum in Washington, DC on September 19th and 20th. They invited all the candidates and President Trump. If you’re new here, here’s some background: Advocates have been pressuring the DNC to host a climate debate for months. Fifteen candidates actually endorsed the call, but in June in response to a letter from Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, they outright rejected the proposal. Weeks later, their leadership agreed to reconsider it at a meeting in San Francisco on August 23rd.

Now joining me to discuss all of this is Zina Precht-Rodriguez. She is the Press and Media Fellow with the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led climate organization who have been leading the fight for a climate debate. Thanks for being here, Zina.

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Thanks for having me.

DHARNA NOOR So again, ya’ll have been pushing this for months. I think I first met you last month when you helped organize a sit-in on the steps of the DNC’s headquarters during the first two presidential debates to push this demand. Is this a victory? Are these town halls as good as actually having a DNC-sanctioned debate?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Yeah. So I would say this is a victory in general. Of course, we’ve always said as an organization and leading this climate debate campaign, that any more discussion on the topic of the climate crisis is exactly what we need, especially in the lead-up towards distinguishing who we want to defeat Donald Trump, but we see it as a victory in this sense. But we also don’t see it as achieving what we initially demanded, which was a debate. So we still don’t have a debate. There’s a big difference between having a town hall and having a debate. The two main differences here that we are highlighting is the fact that having a forum, a town hall, doesn’t allow all candidates to be on one stage at one time debating the issues. And then secondly, the viewership is drastically different between having a town hall and having a debate. It’s estimated that approximately like 2.5 million people tuned into the most viewed town hall, which I think you’re going to get into, whereas the debates have much higher viewership in the millions. 18 million people, I think, viewed the last debate.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah and data shows that, you know—Actually, last month there was this poll from The Hollywood Reporter and Morning Consult that showed that 55% of those polled said they hadn’t even heard much about the coming town halls, or that they’d heard nothing at all. And as you said, you know, that Media Matters showed that far, far more people are watching these debates than these town halls. Could you just talk about what that means that the difference will be, and what that means your strategy will have to be in either mobilizing people around watching this town hall, or in continuing to push for a climate debate or both?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Yeah. So in terms of strategy, we still have our eyes on the prize and that’s to have a debate in the upcoming months on the climate crisis. And the reason why we view that as especially important in our demands is that the debate is way more than, you know, a discussion that a few people tune into in the lead-up to an election. It’s become a social event. It’s almost something like a Super Bowl or like the World Cup where people are having debate watch parties across the country. Virtually anyone who is voting in the United States and who is interested in not having Donald Trump as their president in 2020, is paying such, so much, attention to these debates. And it’s really high stakes. And as a result, as we saw in the first round of debates, it can totally change the landscape, the political landscape. We saw the confrontation between Joe Biden and Kamala Harris totally, you know, have voters re-evaluate, sort of, the stances that these candidates are taking on the issues.

And I think that we know that we have a range of candidates on this stage. There are some who have been fighting for climate justice and climate policy for their entire careers and there are some who have accepted money from the fossil fuel industry. And it’s great that all of these candidates are now hopping on the Green New Deal and accepting the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, but we don’t view that as enough. And we want to see the candidates all on stage, all at one time, and basically arguing amongst themselves over who is the most qualified and fit and trustworthy to step into office on the first day in 2020 and immediately mobilize every resource that we have in our arsenal to address the climate crisis with the intensity that is needed.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. I’m also kind of wondering how these town halls could impact the coming debates because in watching the first two debates, I was really struck by the way that climate questions were kind of siloed. I wrote about this for The Real News, but essentially, you know, there weren’t very many questions about climate change at all, but there weren’t any questions about, you know, tying immigration to the climate crisis, and I wonder if they’ll silo the issue of climate change even further now. So what happens if they stop asking any climate questions in the debates now because they can just say, oh well, we had these two forums where candidates got to talk about that issue?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Right. That would be completely antithetical to the mobilization that we’re calling on in our platform of the Green New Deal. As you might have reported on in the past, Tom Perez called climate change a “singular issue” and that’s why he justified not having a separate debate for climate change because he said it would set a precedent for other issues. But we know that climate change is an issue that impacts every single aspect of our lives from housing to the economy, to jobs, and to immigration especially. And so, I think that it would be a mistake for the DNC to take this position on siloing the climate crisis even further than it’s been.

The questions that were asked in the first round of debates are even more troubling. They were in the frame of much conservative media on promoting this idea of, are we going to address climate change or are we going to sacrifice prosperity? And so, we understand that in order to have a substantial conversation on the issue of climate change and how it will impact every single aspect of our lives, it’s going to be more than fifteen minutes of soundbites. And that’s precisely why it’s amazing that we’re having these town halls, right? But what purpose is it going to do if the people tuning into these town halls are only those who know about it and who are interested, like you said, who are already interested in the topic?

This is an opportunity to have a collective educational experience on the climate crisis. The political and media establishment has ignored this crisis for the entirety of our lives. And so, what we’re really calling for is, you know, the DNC to step up and to mature. And this is not by any means an out for the DNC. The fact that we are still receiving pressure back from the DNC, is just proof that, you know, they— for whatever reason— are afraid to address the crisis for what it is. And I think that’s troubling for what it reflects on where we’re at as a society in general, if we can’t have a two-hour debate on the most existential crisis that we’re facing. It doesn’t make much sense.

DHARNA NOOR And as you touched on before, you know, Sunrise has implored all the Democratic candidates to pledge not to take any more fossil fuel money. The media takes fossil fuel money too in the form of advertisements. CNN and MSNBC certainly both do. So are these the right outlets for town halls like this because it’s not as though CNN or MSNBC have been climate leaders, have been leaders in climate education?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ I would say that we welcome CNN and MSNBC now perhaps changing their stance on the role that they hope to play in the climate crisis and that what’s most important for this issue is to have the highest viewership. And particularly in cable news, climate change has not received nearly the amount of attention that other conflicts and other issue areas that we commonly talk about day-to-day— like health care and immigration has received. And so, it’s almost as if viewing it as: we are catching up from our history of ignoring the topic. And now, we have this opportunity to address it head-on, and to take the time, and sit down, and address climate change for the emergency that it is.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. You know, I’m posing these critical questions, but I do want to say, like, I do think that this is a big deal. So what kinds of questions do you hope come up in both of these town halls? What do you hope that the candidates really have to answer?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Yeah. So every question that is asked has to demonstrate, has to differentiate really where these candidates stand on how aggressive of action they are willing to take and using their executive authority as president. So for example, one question that we would ask is, does every candidate believe that the climate crisis requires an economic mobilization at a scale that hasn’t been seen since the New Deal? So, in over half a century. Will every candidate mobilize every resource at their disposal as the President of the United States to combat this crisis? Would every candidate make the Green New Deal a top priority in their [first] hundred days in office? Does every candidate agree that economic and racial justice must be at the core of all federal climate policy? Those are some that we’ve been thinking about.

DHARNA NOOR And I guess, I’ll just finish up by asking you how could a candidate make something like a Green New Deal a day-one priority or prioritize it in their first hundred days? Are there any specific policy proposals that you’re looking for candidates to endorse or to even discuss in these coming forums?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ I think that the main topic of discussion as it relates to policy will be the Green New Deal based on the amount of media attention it’s gotten from both sides of the aisle. But it’s true that the people voting in the coming elections overwhelmingly support the Green New Deal. And so, I think candidates understand that that is a top priority for voters, and it’s an extremely popular platform simply because of the promise it has in addressing not only the crisis of climate change, but the crisis of income inequality in the United States, of racial injustice, of economic injustice, of all the injustices under the sun. That is what the Green New Deal is targeting and it’s saying that we can have a better future— one that is more environmentally safe, and also one that reflects the principles of this nation.

DHARNA NOOR Yeah. So for any viewers who have been living under a rock, your organization, Sunrise, has been pushing this Green New Deal for even longer than you’ve been pushing a climate debate. The proposal is essentially to phase out of fossil fuel emissions within a decade, create millions of jobs in the process, center front line communities who are hit first and worst by the climate crisis. So until we get to these two town halls, of course, we are going to see some more DNC-sanctioned debates. We have two more next week. What does Sunrise plan to do to mobilize around these debates to, you know, ensure that until we get to these town halls, candidates are being asked about their climate plans to hold candidates accountable to their climate policies and promises?

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Yeah. So we have a team of Sunrise organizers on their way out to Detroit now, and they will be side-by-side in Detroit with the candidates holding our Sunrise Summit— one of our four regional summits— as well as partnering with a coalition out in Detroit who were running a campaign called Detroit is the Engine of a Green New Deal. And so, what our goal is there is to highlight the potential promise of a place like Detroit for the implementation of a Green New Deal where it used to be one of the industrial capitals of the nation and of the world, and that was left behind by the auto industry, and that also faces a lot of discriminatory policies as it relates to racial justice, as it relates to economic justice. So it’s basically a campaign that will illuminate for the general public what a Green New Deal might look like in a specific location like Detroit. And that’s where all the candidates will be.

DHARNA NOOR All right. Zina Precht-Rodriguez, a 22-year-old Fellow with the youth-led environmental organization, the Sunrise Movement. Thanks for being here and we’d love to talk to you again as we see how these debates and how these town halls go.

ZINA PRECHT-RODRIGUEZ Thanks so much, Dharna. Nice talking to you again.

DHARNA NOOR And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Zina Precht-Rodriguez is a press and media fellow with the youth-led environmental organization Sunrise Movement.