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Climate change got just 15 minutes out of 4 hours of Democratic debates

Climate is one of the most important issues for Democratic primary voters. It deserves its own event.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper laid out how he intends to fight climate change and why he opposes the Green New Deal during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate.
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper laid out how he intends to fight climate change and why he opposes the Green New Deal during the 2019 Democratic presidential primary debate.
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

The first two Democratic presidential debates for the 2020 election this week devoted more attention to climate change than in all the 2016 debates combined. But the climate crisis got just 15 minutes across four hours of airtime. And it wasn’t time particularly well spent: The questions were muddled, the discussion was shallow, and most viewers probably didn’t come away better informed.

All of this helps to make activists’ case for why the Democratic National Committee should hold a separate climate change debate. Groups like the Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace have been calling for one and were disappointed with this week’s performances.

“This is not how you behave in an emergency,” Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman said in a statement. “Despite the candidates’ acknowledgement of the existential threat that climate change represents to humanity, we heard next to nothing over two days about how they would actually address this monumental challenge.”

DNC Chair Tom Perez has declared that the party does not want to host an event centered on the issue and that candidates who create their own climate debates would be barred from other DNC debates. (A climate change “forum” or a “town hall” would be allowed.)

His argument is that a climate change debate would show unnecessary prejudice toward the issue and end up favoring the candidates like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has built his entire campaign around climate. “If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had?” wrote Perez on Medium earlier this month.

However, the debates ended up revealing several reasons why holding a separate climate debate makes sense:

1) Many candidates have thoughtful ideas about climate change and want to present them

With more than two dozen Democrats running for the White House, it’s hard to tell them apart. This is especially true on climate change, a complex problem that needs sophisticated, thoughtful solutions.

We got a hint of what some of the candidates would do, and how they differ, during the debates. But despite having published several long, thorough policy proposals on fighting climate change, Inslee barely had more than a couple minutes to discuss his ideas.

On Thursday, we learned about how California Sen. Kamala Harris’s visits to communities affected by wildfires exacerbated by climate change in her home state drove her to support the Green New Deal. It would have been nice to more from her on how she intends to both reduce emissions and mitigate the impacts of global warming.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he wants to use the money raised from a carbon tax and distribute it back to people as a progressive dividend, an idea to address economic inequality and reduce emissions.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders frankly talked about how advancing an adequate climate agenda would require a political upheaval generated by millions of voters focused on averting dangerous levels of warming.

This is an issue where many of the candidates have a wealth of interesting proposals that could be parsed in greater depth — and debated. Yet in a standard debate format, where upwards of six issues must be discussed, the candidates will never have an opportunity to do it.

2) The moderators’ climate questions were insufficient and, at times, muddled

The Democratic debates also revealed that the moderators had allotted only a narrow window to ask about climate. And some of those precious opportunities to ask questions were squandered.

On Wednesday, moderator Rachel Maddow posed an awkward question of whether a candidate’s plan would “save Miami.” But it’s a question that almost impossible to answer given that the city that’s already regularly battered by extreme weather and faces frequent flooding from rising seas. Significant damage from climate change has already been done, much more is still to come, and most of it is irreversible. In Miami, it’s now a race to adapt or retreat.

Moderator Chuck Todd turned a question about climate change policy into one about winning over people opposed to big government. Todd also started to pose an interesting question about whether the government should continue to rebuild homes damaged in climate-related disasters, but it came out muddled, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro barely had time to answer:

Thirty seconds, Secretary Castro, does -- who pays for the mitigation to -- to climate, whether it’s building sea walls, for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living? Is this a federal government issue that needs to do that? Do they have to move these people? What do you do about that, where maybe they’re building a place someplace that isn’t safe? Who pays to build that house? And how much should the government be bailing them out?

There was also at times a stark contract in how the moderators handled climate compared to other issues, like how they parsed all the fine distinctions among the candidates in Medicare-for-all and the role of private insurance.

3) There’s a public appetite for a climate change debate

So far, 15 Democratic candidates have said that they support holding a climate change debate, including frontrunners like Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

Outside the DNC headquarters in Washington, DC, activists from the Sunrise Movement have been calling for a climate change debate for nearly three days. Democratic primary voters routinely rank climate change among their top concerns. Clearly, huge parts of the Democratic base are energized and mobilized around the issue.

But climate change rarely receives a substantive prime-time policy discussion, so voters don’t often hear about it on television. A debate asking presidential hopefuls to walk through how they plan to cope with a warming world would be a public service and help educate voters who may not realize just how much a warming world will impact agriculture, the economy, health, and national security.