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The Last Democratic Debate Had No Climate Change Questions. This Year That Will Change.

The Democratic Party refused to host a single issue climate debate, but as 20 presidential candidates square off in Miami this week, the topic is expected to be discussed.
From left to right: Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

From left to right: Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren.

Twenty candidates are set to take the stage this week for the Democratic primary debates, which will take place over two nights in Miami. There's a record number of primary candidates in the crowded field (including four who didn't make the cut for the debates), not to mention an unprecedented number of women and non-white candidates. The debates this week may also be the first time presidential primary candidates take on tough questions about climate change.

There were no direct questions about climate change in the 2012 and 2016 debates. "This was very much not on the agenda of the Democratic National Committee on the debates last time," says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California–Santa Barbara, who focuses on the environment and climate change. "We all sat around, waiting and watching and wondering when they were going to talk about the biggest problem we face as a planet, let alone as a country. And we waited forever. It never came last time."

This year ahead of the primary debates, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has made climate change the centerpiece of his presidential campaign, sparked a grassroots movement for a debate dedicated entirely to climate issues, and many of the other candidates endorsed the idea. But the DNC ultimately shot down the idea, and warned Inslee that if he participated in a climate debate organized by a third party he would not be invited back for future debates. The party cited concerns that if it hosted one single-issue debate, it would have to plan specific debates to address housing, health care, and other single-topic issues as well. "Once you have one single-issue debate, then every debate needs to become a single-issue debate in order to address the concerns," DNC chairman Tom Perez told activists in Orlando, Florida.

Climate activists pushed back against the direct comparison between climate change and other topics likely to come up at a political debate. "Climate is not an 'issue'—it's the backdrop for all other issues," Naomi Klein, the author and climate activist tweeted earlier this month. "It's the fabric of life on Earth and it is unraveling."

Perez penned a Medium post in response to the backlash noting that climate change would "feature prominently" in this week's debates. That may not satisfy everyone, but it means we're likely to get a lot more climate discussion than the 82 seconds the presidential candidates spent discussing the topic across both the 2012 and 2016 elections. So how did climate change go from a non-issue to one that at least one of the presidential candidates has designed his entire campaign around?

One explanation is that climate change itself has progressed: Since the 2016 election, fire-prone California has experienced its deadliest and most destructive wildfires on record, the Midwest was hit with historic flooding, and the United States experienced its most disastrous hurricane season yet—all of which were fueled by climate change.

"The media plays a really important role in terms of telling the story so that when people are dealing with climate impacts, we can understand that that's what's happening. This has been an amazing six months in terms of the media beginning to tell the story in a bigger way. But historically, the media has really struggled to connect things like forest fires, heat waves, and hurricanes to climate change," Stokes says, "and so that leaves a lot of people experiencing climate change, but not even knowing what they're experiencing."

A second explanation is that more Americans than ever are aware of climate change and worried about it, and that's especially true for Democratic voters. A CNN poll of the group from earlier this year found that 96 percent said it was important to them that their nominee take "aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change."

Democratic climate plans as a whole have become drastically more aggressive in recent years. Policies calling for a tax on carbon, net-zero emissions targets, and bans on drilling on public lands were all but absent from the 2016 election, but supported by many, if not most, of the Democratic candidates today. Any of those ideas might have been considered radical just a few years ago, but today candidates who don't support all of them can be criticized for not doing enough. As Pacific Standard reported earlier this week:

Eighteen ... Democratic candidates, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris, and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have said they would put an end to fossil fuel leases on federal lands; five ... —Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, Representative Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, author and spiritual counselor Marianne Williamson, Sanders, and Warren—would ban fossil fuel exports; and all but one, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, would eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.

A third explanation is that climate scientists have begun to sound even graver alarms. "I think grappling with the scale and timeline is a new thing," Stokes says, who notes that, since the last election, the United Nations' top climate panel released a special report showing that the world has roughly a dozen years to drastically reduce emissions if we are to meet the Paris Agreement's goal of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

"There's still main candidates who are saying, 'Obama-era [regulations] are the way to go; let's just do marginal things,'" Stokes says. "But they're getting attacked for doing that. Some of these things like a price on carbon or CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency] standards or fracking and natural gas as a replacement for coal—that is not good enough anymore. There's a reckoning with the fact that the scale and scope of this problem is so large that you can't have half measures anymore. You have to commit to taking on this challenge."

It's fitting that the first primary debate to directly address climate change will take place in Miami, a city more vulnerable to sea level rise than any other in the nation. While all of the Democratic candidates generally agree on the basics of climate change—that it is real, made worse by human activities, and urgently needs to be addressed—there could be a lively debate this week about the best way to tackle the problem.