In dramatic shift from previous elections, Democratic presidential candidates call for dedicated climate debate

"Climate change is the biggest threat facing our nation."

Floodwater surrounds a farm on March 22, 2019 near Craig, Missouri. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Floodwater surrounds a farm on March 22, 2019 near Craig, Missouri. CREDIT: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Candidates barely discussed climate change during the 2016 presidential election cycle, but some Democratic contenders are lobbying to change that in 2020 — an indicator of how, for the first time, climate issues are playing a major role in the race to lead the country.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has devoted his presidential campaign to climate change, called on the Democratic National Committee (DNC) this week to dedicate an entire primary debate to the issue.

“Climate change is the biggest threat facing our nation,” a petition launched by Inslee’s campaign states. “And it demands to be the sole focus of a nationally televised debate. Democrats must put this issue front and center.”

In an email to his supporters shared with ThinkProgress, Inslee argued that “each 2020 nominee needs to have a concrete plan to address climate change — and we deserve to hear those plans.”


At least one other 2020 contender agrees. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) added her support in a statement to ThinkProgress and other outlets, calling climate change “the greatest threat to humanity today” and one requiring ideas “big enough and bold enough” to address the issue.

“A DNC debate focused on climate change would show the world that America intends to lead again on this issue, and would be a smart place to discuss the key tenets of the Green New Deal — infrastructure, green jobs and clean air and water — and how to put a price on carbon,” the senator said.

The fact that Democratic candidates are calling for a debate solely devoted to climate issues marks a dramatic change from recent elections. Historically, climate change hasn’t played a major role in debates or in campaigning, regardless of the stances candidates have taken on the issue.

According to Media Matters, a left-leaning nonprofit that tracks media coverage, climate change has been consistently neglected during election cycles. Throughout the 20 presidential primary debates during the 2016 season, only 1.5% of questions were about climate change. During the three 2016 general election debates, not a single question was asked about climate change.

“Moderators and panelists in past years have been ridiculously negligent of climate change, most notably in general election presidential debates, but also in presidential primary debates and in senator and governor debates. Most of the time they ignored climate change,” Lisa Hymas, director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters, told ThinkProgress.


“On the rare occasions when they asked about it, the questions were usually general, so candidates could get away with vague answers, and the moderators and panelists failed to follow up and press candidates for clarity or specifics,” Hymas said.

But times have changed. Following several years of disasters, including deadly wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding that experts say will worsen with climate change, the U.S. public is increasingly worried about global warming. Many also want action, giving an opening to activist groups like the youth-led Sunrise Movement, who have backed the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA).

The resolution has been met with resistance from congressional Republicans and some moderate Democrats, but Democratic 2020 contenders have largely embraced it — even if few have offered specifics about what they think the Green New Deal should look like.

Hymas said she is “cautiously optimistic” that the uptick in conversations about climate change will shed more light on the issue during the 2020 debates. “But if moderators merely ask one question about climate change and don’t follow up, candidates are likely to give sound-bite answers and voters won’t learn anything new,” she said.

A debate focused on climate change could give candidates the opportunity to flesh out their specific approaches to tackling the problem and tease out differences between Democratic candidates who have otherwise committed to addressing climate change.

Most 2020 Democratic contenders support the Green New Deal, for example, but only 10 have committed to declining to accept any contributions over $200 from political action committees or companies associated with the fossil fuel industry, in addition to executives and lobbyists. According to Oil Change U.S., at least eight major Democratic contenders have not taken that pledge.


And of the very large field of Democrats, only a small handful have offered real plans touching on climate issues. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) is one of the only candidates so far to roll out climate-related policy. On Monday, she released a detailed plan to protect public lands while bolstering renewable energy.

At least 11 organizations have backed the call for a climate debate, including 350 Action, the Women’s March, and Greenpeace USA. They have issued their own petition, arguing that voters need to know which candidates will commit to acting on climate change “Day One” in office, and that a debate is an important forum to assess that likelihood.

“A dedicated climate change debate would motivate candidates to develop clear plans and commitments, and would let voters find out where candidates stand on a range of potential solutions and responses to climate-related problems,” said Hymas.

The DNC has so far remained vague in its response.

“The DNC’s goal is to provide a platform for candidates to have a vigorous discussion on ideas and solutions on the issues that voters care about, including the economy, climate change, and health care,” said DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa in a statement.

“While Republicans refuse to even acknowledge that climate change is real, Democrats are eager to put forward their solutions to combat climate change, and we will absolutely have these discussions during the 2020 primary process,” Hinojosa said. “The DNC is currently ironing out the details for all 12 debates and will work with the networks to ensure that Democrats have a platform to discuss these issues directly with the American people.”

This piece has been updated to clarify components of the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.