This post was first published in July. Since then, the Democratic National Committee has officially decided not to hold a climate debate. However, CNN and MSNBC will both hold town halls on the subject, and the advice below, on questions to ask, applies to them as well.
I have to admit, I have had strenuously mixed feelings about the prospect of a Democratic climate debate.
On one hand, yes, climate change is important and tied to all the other issues Americans care about. It would be nice to have a robust conversation among the candidates that illuminated their thinking and educated the public.
On the other hand, good lord, so much could go wrong.
The unfortunate background condition here is that very few people know enough about climate policy and politics to maintain a focused, substantive hour-long discussion, and cable TV moderators are unlikely to be among them.
It is easy to envision vague, broad questions that solicit pablum — a dozen variations of “Congress must act, the US must rejoin the Paris agreement, and also jobs.”
It’s easy to envision questions wandering off into dubiously related and politically unhelpful directions, moderators trying to box in candidates on controversial issues, asking them if they’ll raise taxes or ban cows, looking to get a viral video moment.
The sad truth is that most mainstream political journalists and observers in the US don’t care all that much about climate policy as such, so if they watch the debate, it will be in hopes of someone screwing up and creating material for hot takes and negative ads. It’s a high-wire act over a chasm, with lots of downside risk and not much upside reward.
Nonetheless, if it’s going to happen, it should be done right.
Two political premises to inform a climate debate
The Washington Post recently rounded up seven climate change experts — scientists, advocates, and former public officials — and solicited questions to ask at the climate debate. A few are good, a few are okay, and several are just plain bad.
It got me thinking how I would structure a climate debate, not only the specific questions I’d ask (which I get to below), but also a couple of core political premises that would inform my approach.
First, candidates for president should be asked what they will do with the powers of the presidency to advance climate policy. That is all that really matters. The questions should focus on the real powers the office commands.
The powers of the presidency are broad but not unlimited. And quite a bit of political science research indicates that persuasion is among the least of those powers. The public, the media, and many climate advocates are obsessed with words and “messaging,” but it turns out the president’s ability to persuade those who disagree with her is vastly overestimated. If anything, when a president uses the much-ballyhooed “bully pulpit” to publicly enter a debate, it is more likely to spur backlash from the opposition party. (Just ask Obama.)
Yet three of the seven Post questions are variations of: How will you talk people into doing things? How will you persuade?
Persuading opponents to drop their opposition is not the main thing presidents do. But questions about it are certain to elicit long, fatuous answers.
To avoid that, questions should focus on what is within presidential power — executive actions, appointments and staffing, foreign policy, party organizing, and domestic policy advocacy (targeted mainly at co-partisans, not opponents).
The second premise is that climate science is peripheral, not central, to climate politics. The fact that climate advocacy originated in climate science has misled many people about this, for many years. The discussion has remained stubbornly mired in science, just where conservatives have wanted it.
But the primary sources of conflict in climate politics are not disagreements over science. Like all political conflicts, they are ultimately power struggles between incumbents and challengers — in this case, between fossil fuels (and all the people, practices, and industries that depend on them) and the sundry forces rallying around cleaner alternatives.
It is power, not science, primarily at issue. That is what divides climate hawks from their opponents. Questions should focus on how to shift the balance of power.
Bill Nye the Science Guy wants to ask the candidates: “How would you persuade climate deniers in Congress to help you address the problem? Or how would you work around the deniers?”
This violates both our premises.
First, the answer to how the president would persuade deniers is that the president wouldn’t, and couldn’t, so why ask? A multi-decade conclave of the world’s best climate scientists issuing repeated reports tying together the latest scientific results couldn’t persuade deniers. Why in the world would Earth’s most famous Democrat be able to do it? The president does not have magical powers.
Second, while “deniers” may be a useful rhetorical category into which to slot some opponents of climate policy, it is not a meaningful political category. There is no substantial political bloc organized around scientific disagreement. There are blocs organized around protecting various fossil fuel–related industries and the politicians (and party) they fund, blocs that borrow science-denialist talking points when advantageous, but there are no rooms full of Congress members making skeptical notes in the margins of IPCC reports. Again, the axis around which this conflict turns is power, not science.
So, with that griping out of the way, what should moderators ask at a Democratic climate debate?
Questions for a Democratic climate debate
It will matter a great deal whether the debate or forum involves 20 candidates or 10 (or five). The fewer candidates there are, the more chances there will be for them to go deep. With that in mind, the questions below are arranged in roughly the order I would ask them. Obviously there’s no science to this, and moderators should follow the conversation where it leads, and press candidates where they are weak. But the questions below can serve as a rough guide.
I’ve put a few notes under each question, explaining my reasoning.
1) Conventional wisdom says that a president has only 100 days or so in which to pass a few key priorities, before backlash and the next round of elections take over. In 2008, Democrats decided to put health care first, and climate never got done. Where does climate change fall on your list of priorities when you step into office?
Something like this was asked during the Democratic debates:
But I would like to hear it asked specifically about climate change. Supporting something is easy; prioritizing it is difficult. Gov. Jay Inslee, whose climate proposals are much more comprehensive than any of the other candidates’, would have an easy time answering this question; I’d be very interested to hear what the others have to say.
2) According to most polling, Democrats’ best hope in 2020 is a fairly narrow majority in the Senate. There is no chance of getting to 60 Senate votes on any Democratic bill. So as long as Mitch McConnell is willing to filibuster everything, no legislation, including climate legislation, can pass. If Democrats win a majority in the Senate, will you advocate for reforming or scrapping the filibuster?
In my experience, everyone, including candidates and average voters, is annoyed by this question. And it violates my premise above, since it’s not directly under the president’s power.
But I don’t see any way around it. I don’t see any point in talking about legislation of any kind as long as McConnell wields the filibuster. He will kill everything he has the ability to kill. He has made that very, very clear.
I would also accept, as a substitute here, any kind of democracy reform question — restoring voting rights, ending partisan gerrymandering, statehood for DC, what have you. I agree with South Bend mayor and candidate Pete Buttigieg: The system is so structurally stacked against progressives at this point that they have got to take the time to prioritize structural reform for once. Ambitious climate policy, or policy of any kind, has become prohibitively difficult.
Conservatives want to break Congress as a legislative body and simply use it to stack the federal bench with conservative judges. That’s largely what they’ve done under Trump. Democrats have got to make the system work again before any of the other stuff they talk about is possible.
3) Assuming Republicans control one or both houses of Congress and legislation becomes impossible, what executive actions are you prepared to take to reduce carbon emissions?
This is the question Carol Browner, who once ran the Environmental Protection Agency, asks in the Post, and she is right to do so. As unpleasant as it is to contemplate, a Democratic president with one or both houses of Congress controlled by Republicans is very much a possibility in 2020.
If that happens, legislation is off the table. So there is a decent chance that the next president will have only executive powers to work with. It would be smart for her to be prepared, with a plan to raise pollution, efficiency, and fuel economy standards, implement a carbon test for new infrastructure investments, and shut down oil and gas exploitation on public land, among other things within a president’s purview. (Inslee’s plan has plenty of pointers.)
A possible follow-up here: Trump has managed to block or overturn many of Obama’s executive actions, like the Clean Power Plan. If you’re forced to use executive actions alone, how will you make yours more resilient?
4) Some communities are more vulnerable to climate change than others. Some communities depend on fossil fuel industries more than others. Some communities have been left behind in previous national economic transitions, including the New Deal. What will you do to ensure that vulnerable communities are protected during the transition to clean energy?
Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice asks a version of this question in the Post, and it should absolutely be part of any Dem debate about climate policy, now and forever more. Every Democratic campaign should have its candidate briefed on “just transition” challenges and policies, at least enough to plausibly acknowledge and address them. It’s a threshold issue.
5) Many climate advocates and economists, and even a handful of Republicans, support putting a price on carbon emissions, through some kind of tax or cap. What role do you see carbon pricing playing in climate policy?
I’d leave this one a bit open-ended, since we don’t just want to hear about which bill they may support — we want to see if they’ve thought about the contours of serious climate policy. Conventional wisdom about carbon pricing has evolved pretty rapidly in recent years; it would be interesting to hear who has kept up.
Also, this might be a bit inside baseball, but I’d like to ask this question before the Green New Deal question, since it will test whether they’ve connected the two or figured out how to situate the one in the other.
6) Recently, many Democrats in Congress signed on to a nonbinding Green New Deal resolution. How do you view the Green New Deal — what does the term mean to you? And do you support it or something like it?
The traditional moderator way to ask this question is to try to use some gimmick to force a moment of good TV. “If the Green New Deal passed Congress on your first day in office, would you sign it?” “Show of hands: who supports a Green New Deal?” “The Green New Deal will cost a kajillion dollars. How high do you want to raise taxes?”
That might make for good TV, but it makes for crappy debate and negative educational value. It would be much more illuminating to just hear the candidates talk, free-form, about what exactly they think the GND is. After all, for now, there’s no policy attached to it.
I’d like to hear what candidates think the concept means and how well (or not) it describes their climate policy ambitions. We would learn more from that than from any thumbs-up-or-down gimmick.
7) Republicans have almost unanimously opposed every serious climate policy to reach Congress and most state legislatures. They show every sign of continuing to do so. Will you pursue Republican votes and try to secure bipartisan policy, or will you unify Democrats and try to pass climate policy over Republican objections, as many states and cities have?
No candidate is going to give an honest answer to this question — every single one will talk about extending the hand of cooperation, because that’s what Democratic voters like to hear — but it is, nonetheless, the central political question facing climate hawks across the country, and it would be fun to hear the candidates talk around it.
8) There are several ongoing lawsuits against fossil fuel companies, charging that they deliberately concealed the dangers of climate change. There are shareholder resolutions seeking to tie them to carbon reduction goals. Universities and other institutions are divesting from fossil fuel stocks. Do you support these and other efforts to hold fossil fuel companies accountable?
Law professor Ann Carlson got at the lawsuits in the Post; they are a hot topic right now. One of the carbon tax bills being backed by (a few, retired) Republicans contains within it a provision that would permanently shield fossil fuel companies from legal climate liability, which is why most environmental groups oppose it.
I suspect that one thing “moderate” campaign consultants are telling their clients is that they should frame fossil fuel companies as partners in the effort to reduce emissions. And there are legitimate doubts about whether a position of hostility toward fossil fuels is a good general election strategy.
So let’s see what the candidates are willing to say about the fossil fuel industry.
9) Greenhouse gas emissions are falling in the US, mainly because they are falling in the electricity sector, thanks in part to wind, solar, and batteries. But in other sectors of the economy, like transportation and industry, emissions are rising. What will you do to target those other sectors and get their carbon emissions falling?
This is about one level deep in domestic climate policy, and that’s about as deep as I’d expect any candidate except Inslee to be able to go at this point in the race. But this question would at least test to see if the candidates have thought past the surface into some of the details of decarbonization.
10) The US military has called climate change a “threat multiplier” that will increase the odds of disasters, mass migrations, and armed conflict around the world. What will you do to help the US prepare for a more chaotic world? And what will you do to help other countries and international institutions prepare?
It would be easy to have a whole debate on climate change adaptation and foreign policy. Climate change and its impacts are going to scramble lots of conventional geopolitical assumptions and relationships in coming years.
This question is broad, but it would at least probe how the candidates view climate change in the context of global affairs.
So there you have it, 10 questions for a climate debate (or town hall).
I’m not entirely sure that having a devoted climate debate is in Democrats’ best political interests, and right now, all climate hawk hopes ride on Democrats. But if it’s going to happen, they might as well use it to prompt some serious discussion about decisions that will be in the president’s hands.
Moderators: Focus on what matters. Not science. Not “framing.” Power and policy.
Read some of candidates’ climate plans here: