Here's What Democrats Need To Say About Climate Change At The Presidential Debates

Three Senate climate hawks lay out how presidential candidates should speak about a defining issue for Democratic voters ahead of 2020.

Most Democratic presidential candidates agree on the need to tackle the catastrophic threat of human-induced climate change, and they’ll get a chance to discuss their plans to do so at the first debates of the 2020 presidential campaign this week in Miami, a city already struggling with flooding related to sea-level rise.

But what matters more than a candidate who can rattle off policy and specifics is someone who can speak on the matter with the conviction and moral clarity it deserves, according to three climate hawks in the Senate who sat down with HuffPost for a lengthy interview this week.

“I’m not looking for keywords or even whether or not they agree with us on any particular policy,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) told HuffPost. “I’m looking for some reason to believe that the candidate means it ― feels it ― in his or her gut.”

“What I’m certainly hoping to see is that passion,” added Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), who joined the interview along with Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).

Climate change is increasingly at the top of Democratic voters’ minds. According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll released this week, climate change outranked all other topics, including abortion, health care, gun policy and immigration, as issues Democratic voters most want to hear about during the two nights, Wednesday and Thursday, that the candidates are on stage. A CNN survey earlier this month, meanwhile, found that three-quarters of Iowa Democratic caucus participants said that their candidate must treat climate change as the greatest threat to humanity. 

The growing concern among Democrats about climate change follows alarming reports of extreme weather and abnormal warming across the globe, including unprecedented wildfires in California, flooding in the Midwest and rapidly melting ice sheets in Greenland, which was captured in a photographer’s striking photo this month. Last week, scientists released photos showing how the ice melt in the Himalayans, which includes Mount Everest, has doubled in recent years.

“We’ve had a tipping point in the public,” Whitehouse said. “We have the beginnings of an awakening in the corporate community.... and I think the fossil fuel industry is starting to feel that it’s in real peril.”

The Rhode Island senator, who gives a weekly speech on the Senate floor about climate change titled “Time to Wake Up,” suggested it would be “helpful” for Democratic presidential candidates to identify who stands in the way of progress on climate: dark money and the Republican Party, he said.

“That really is how you break through, by pointing out to the American public. You have been lied to,” Whitehouse said.

The Trump administration has zealously moved to unravel President Barack Obama’s climate policies, including most recently his clean power plan, which put in place sweeping curbs on power station emissions. It’s part of a broader deregulatory sweep in which the administration is trying to eliminate or delay at least 83 environmental regulations, particularly rules to reduce greenhouse gases.

Some climate deniers have urged the White House to go even further, attacking the very science itself and arguing carbon dioxide should not be regulated under the Clean Air Act at all.

The Trump administration’s climate denialism and rapid actions seeking to undo Obama-era climate policies were precipitated by a presidential campaign strikingly devoid of discussion of climate change. In 2016, three presidential debates devoted just a little over 5 minutes on the topic. (The issue got only slightly more play during the Democratic primary debates.)

The Democratic National Committee rejected calls for a climate-only 2020 debate earlier this month, though, despite calls from climate activists and overwhelming support from Democratic voters, according to a recent poll. The decision particularly angered Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who has struggled to gain traction despite making his presidential campaign focused singularly on climate change.

But what climate hawks like Schatz want even more is that climate policy be prioritized during the entire primary process ― not just during one debate.

“I would rather see climate covered extensively in a dozen debates rather than separate it out as an issue,” Schatz said. “The reason you don’t have a health care only debate is because you know health care is going to get covered in every single debate.”

The fact that climate change is growing as an issue in the minds of voters is likely to make it a topic in future debates. Still, it is the media organizations that host the debates that make the decisions on what questions get asked. And those decisions are often made with ratings in mind.

“One nagging worry I have is that it’s going to be this kind of game show format where they say, ‘Raise your hand if you’re for the Green New Deal.’ That is the least informative thing we can do,” Schatz added.

In recent years, major U.S. news outlets and networks have also been criticized for their flawed coverage of climate issues, including their failure to identify clearly the links between major weather events and climate change.

“They totally overlook all the national security consequences that very serious people are warning about,” Whitehouse complained.

Heinrich agreed, pointing to the recent damaging floods across the Midwest. “It doesn’t take that many connect-the-dots to realize, you know, that things are changing dramatically for people’s livelihoods,” he said.