Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere now is at higher levels than at any other point in human existence. The United States is ramping up oil and gas production. Historic wildfires, floods and storms killed thousands of Americans in just the last two years, and it’s forecast to get much, much worse.
Yet Democrats spent less than 10 minutes on Wednesday talking about climate change at the first presidential primary debate.
At an event in Miami ― a city already facing disastrous sea level rise and where a wildfire is raging just 30 miles northwest ― a handful of candidates raised the issue unsolicited. But NBC’s moderators waited an hour and 22 minutes to ask any questions about climate change. Only five of the 10 candidates onstage had a chance to respond to four questions on the issue directed at individual contenders, making it impossible to compare everyone’s stances. Discussion of a topic that only first came up 10:22 p.m. local time ended abruptly at 10:29 p.m.
“Spending only seven minutes on climate questions was absurd,” Kassie Siegel, climate director of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said in a statement.
Climate barely came up during the 2016 primary debates. The general election debates infamously spent a total of five minutes and 27 seconds on a topic about which moderators asked no questions.
The climate-related questions on Wednesday covered how to “save” Miami (something that’s basically impossible), whether to extend flood insurance benefits to residents living in coastal communities prone to disaster, how carbon pricing should work, and how to pay for efforts to curb and adapt to a warming world.
That the queries were too uninformed (Miami, due to a number of reasons, is basically doomed already) or too wonky for a quick response (policies to shift communities inland go well beyond whether to insure flood-prone homes) will likely embolden activists criticizing the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to host a debate focused entirely on climate change.
Campaigners with Sunrise Movement, the youth-led grassroots group whose protests popularized the concept of a Green New Deal, camped outside DNC headquarters on Tuesday and vowed to remain there until at least Thursday.
The term “Green New Deal” never came up. But Exxon Mobil Corp. aired an advertisement in the middle of the two-hour event.
“I really, truly, perhaps naively, thought this time would be different,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, said in a tweet.
The first mention of the climate crisis came in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s opening remarks, when she painted the economy as “doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us.”
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard made a passing reference to the need for increased environmental protection. In response to a question about jobs roughly 18 minutes into the debate, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who’s pegged his entire candidacy to fighting climate change, touted his $9 trillion economic plan to zero out most emissions by 2030.
“The next thing I’ll do is put people to work in the jobs of the present and the future,” he said. “Donald Trump is simply wrong. He says wind turbines cause cancer. We know they cause jobs.”
Other candidates rushed to top Inslee. Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan made a vague call for an industrial policy that favors electric vehicle manufacturing. Warren went further, talking up her plan to increase the federal budget for clean energy research tenfold.
“There’s going to be a worldwide need for green technology, ways to clean up the air, ways to clean up the water,” she said. “We can be the ones to provide that.”
About 40 minutes into the debate, two presidential hopefuls mentioned policy ideas to curb Central American migration that whiffed, in the most generous reading between the lines, at climate change. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro vowed to enact “a Marshall Plan” for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, three countries where migrants are fleeing the effects of devastating drought. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker made a similar call to “invest” in those so-called Northern Triangle countries.
When, nearly three-quarters of the way through the debate, moderators finally asked about climate change, the candidates received little time to articulate their plans.
The biggest decision for the American public is who is going to make this a priority. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Inslee, whose unrelenting demands for a climate-specific debate put him at loggerheads with the DNC for weeks, gave the opening answer, pledging first to abolish the filibuster, a Senate rule progressives worry a Republican majority could use to block any substantive climate legislation. He then highlighted his record of enacting emissions-cutting policies in the Evergreen State and set himself apart by noting he was the lone candidate pledging to make addressing the climate crisis his primary concern.
“The biggest decision for the American public is who is going to make this a priority,” Inslee said. “I am the only candidate to say this has to be the top priority for the United States, the organizing principle of the United States.”
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who kicked off his campaign with a policy proposal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, listed disasters across the country and sketched out a plan to overhaul agriculture and use farming to sequester carbon dioxide in soil.
Castro, who earned regular applause throughout the night for his nods to downtrodden communities, centered the victims of climate change in his response. He noted that, unlike his rivals, his first trip as a presidential candidate was to Puerto Rico, where nearly 3,000 people died in the wake of back-to-back hurricanes in late 2017.
“My first visit wasn’t to Iowa or New Hampshire,” he said. “It was to San Juan, Puerto Rico.”
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney boasted about introducing a bipartisan bill to set a price on carbon dioxide emissions and deliver the revenues back to taxpayers in the form of a dividend. Though scientists say such a plan is woefully insufficient to reduce emissions at the rate necessary to keep warming in a habitable range, Delaney, running as an avowed centrist, said it was politically feasible.
“Republicans in Florida, they actually care about this issue,” he said.
With just about seven minutes of responses, moderators shifted gears. Climate change came up again when O’Rourke, Warren, Booker and Castro listed the crisis as the greatest geopolitical threat to the United States.
“This sets up the election of our lifetimes with a tone of insufficient seriousness to address the magnitude of the climate crisis, its impact on communities, and the courage it requires to invest in real solutions,” Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, 350 Action Director, said in a statement. “It is tone deaf to the calls of the people and a show of selective hearing from the Democratic National Committee.”
After the debate concluded, Inslee renewed his call for a climate debate.
“It is clear that this deserves more debate and a much more intensive focus,” he told HuffPost. “And we do need a separate debate.”
This story has been updated with comment from Inslee.
Daniel Marans contributed reporting from Miami.