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Democrats Spent 15 Minutes Talking About Climate Change at the Primary Debates

After DNC chair Tom Perez promised the issue would "feature prominently" in the debates, climate activists were disappointed by how little attention it got.
A group of people flip over an hourglass in front of the Democratic National Committee headquarters during a Green Peace rally to call for a presidential climate debate on June 12th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

A group of people flip over an hourglass in front of the Democratic National Committee headquarters during a Green Peace rally to call for a presidential climate debate on June 12th, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

In the weeks leading up to the first Democratic primary debates, the Democratic National Committee faced mounting pressure from climate activists, voters, and the candidates themselves to hold a debate dedicated entirely to climate change. DNC chair Tom Perez shot down the idea, promising that the climate crisis would "feature prominently" in the week's two debates.

But the first question on climate change Wednesday night came more than 80 minutes into the two-hour debate in Miami, Florida. On Thursday, climate advocates waited nearly as long for a discussion on the climate crisis.

Altogether, the candidates in the Wednesday night debate spent just over seven minutes discussing climate change, and only four candidates were given the chance to respond to climate-related questions. Afterwards, climate activists criticized the DNC and the moderators for both the number and the content of the questions.

"It's disheartening how little NBC news decided to allocate to the climate crisis that affects not only Miami but the country," Drew McConville of the non-profit Wilderness Society Action Fund told reporters after the debate.

In response, Perez said: "Is that enough? Absolutely not, but we have already done tonight more than we did in 2016." That answer wasn't good enough for climate activists.

The conversation around climate change has evolved rapidly since 2016. A string of sobering scientific reports outlining the society-wide impacts global warming will have and the rapidly shrinking timeline available to do something about it have brought the stakes into focus. Additionally, a number of (costly and deadly) extreme weather events fueled by rising temperatures have brought the issue of climate change into the backyards of millions of Americans.

"[Seven] minutes on the climate crisis is 7 more than we had in 2016, but it’s not even close to enough time to cover the gravest existential threat we face," the Sierra Club tweeted Wednesday night.

Only four of the 10 candidates on stage Wednesday were asked directly about the climate crisis and their plans to prepare for it. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker didn't field any questions about climate change, though both were able to slip references to their climate plans into their responses to other questions. Warren, for example, mentioned a "worldwide need for green technology" in response to a question about the economy. Booker told CBS he was "frustrated I did not get to talk more about my vision for dealing with the crisis."

When the candidates who were asked about the climate crisis on Wednesday spoke, they tended to fall back on platitudes, rather than digging into the differences between their policies. "We're the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last that can do something about it," Washington Governor Jay Inslee said, when asked if his climate plan would "save Miami." Three-term Congressman Beto O'Rourke said his administration would "fund resiliency" and "free [the country] from a dependence on fossil fuels." When asked how to pay for climate mitigation, Ohio Representative Tim Ryan skirted the question, and former Maryland Representative John Delaney was cut off when he tried to jump in to discuss his tax and dividend plan, which would charge polluters for emissions and give the money back to American households. "You can't put a price on carbon, raise energy prices, and not give the money back to the American people," he said.

"Our survival is worth more time than vague, irrelevant, and trivial questions posed 80 minutes into the debate to a few minor candidates," Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a climate advocacy organization, said after the first debate.

On Thursday, the moderators spent the first hour peppering the candidates with questions on health care and immigration. Climate advocates were quick to point out that climate change plays a key role in driving migration, and global warming will have a huge impact on human health, from respiratory illnesses from increased air pollution, to injuries and deaths from extreme weather events, to the spread of illnesses and infectious diseases.

When the debate did turn to the climate crisis, California Senator Kamala Harris was the first to namecheck the Green New Deal, a blueprint to wean the United States off of fossil fuels and address economic inequality. Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Indiana, mayor, talked about a carbon tax-and-dividend plan that would give funds back to American households, and former Vice President Joe Biden quickly outlined a plan to build half a million recharging stations for electric vehicles and mobilize $400 million for research and development to make the U.S. the "exporter of the green economy."

Eight minutes later, the climate discussion was over.