On the eve of the first Democratic presidential debates, advocates are ramping up last-minute efforts to ensure that climate change — a major election issue for the first time ever — plays a central role in the conversation.
Polling shows that Democratic voters care deeply about the issue and would support a dedicated climate debate, but the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has denied mounting calls for one. So, environmentalists are turning their sights to this week’s general debates.
The first two debates scheduled for June 26 and 27 are largely seen as a test for the party’s commitment to centering climate action, especially given their location in Miami, Florida — a coastal city that has been dubbed “ground zero” for climate impacts.
One of the groups pushing for a climate debate is the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has played a large role in elevating conversations around climate change over the past year. On Tuesday, the group held a sit-in at DNC headquarters, where more than 150 activists renewed their demands and called on the committee to “reverse its ban” on such a debate. DNC head Tom Perez said earlier this month that the committee would not hold a debate dedicated to climate change, arguing that it would come up in other debates, even though it has not in the past.
Also Tuesday, another group, the science-focused 314 Action, went a step farther, offering $100,000 towards hosting a climate debate. The organization said it is seeking environmental partners willing to help fund a debate, which could cost upwards of $1.5 million. The debate would likely be held in an early primary state and would allow candidates the opportunity to flesh out their differences on climate action.
In a statement, 314 Action’s founder Shaughnessy Naughton called climate change “an existential crisis” and argued that it was “worthy of an hour-and-a-half-long debate where Democrats can put forth their plans for voters to see.”
Candidate climate plans
That push comes amid an unprecedented moment for climate activism. The issue has exploded onto the stage as a leading issue, driven by headline-making proposals like the Green New Deal resolution, along with a staggering uptick in disasters including hurricanes, wildfires, and massive flooding, all of which have impacted virtually every part of the country.
Republicans have largely been thrown for a loop by the sea change and members of the party have struggled to establish themselves on the issue. Several Democratic presidential contenders, however, have seized the moment.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) is running a campaign dedicated entirely to climate action and has rolled out four major climate-based proposals to-date. The governor’s plans would see the United States on a path to zeroing out emissions by 2045, with much of that progress underway in the next decade. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and former Vice President Joe Biden have similarly unveiled proposals that would see the country striving for the same goal by 2050.
Other candidates have released smaller scale plans, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has called for banning fossil fuel production on federal lands, in addition to decarbonizing the U.S. military — a major global polluter.
At least 15 Democratic candidates — including Inslee, Biden, Warren, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) — have called for a climate-focused debate. Support for such a debate hinges on history; past debates have largely neglected climate change, relegating the issue to throwaway questions or ignoring it entirely.
But the DNC has resisted. Inslee said earlier this month that the committee had reached out to his campaign and declined to host a climate debate. Moreover, according to the governor, the DNC threatened to disinvite any candidate participating from such a debate from future DNC-sponsored debates, in keeping with the committee’s long-standing policies on external debates.
Inslee said he might violate that rule and participate in an unsanctioned debate. He has been joined by Warren in challenging the DNC decision and calling for a climate-focused debate, but so far Perez has doubled down, arguing that the committee “will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area.”
That stance has only heightened the pressure on this week’s debates. The backdrop of Miami is particularly charged — a city threatened by sea-level rise, worsening hurricanes, and prolonged heat waves, Miami is considered one of the most vulnerable areas in the country. That’s also true of Florida more broadly, with electoral implications: The swing state is one of the most coveted for presidential candidates.
And in a twist, the Florida Everglades — which border Miami and other areas along the state’s eastern end — are currently grappling with a severe fire sparked by lightning. While fires are a natural part of the Everglades, climate scientists agree that global warming will worsen and exacerbate such disasters, potentially giving the candidates an easy talking point.
On a call with reporters on Tuesday, Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) emphasized that climate issues are “personal to each and every one of us in Florida,” and that the debates would be a critical time for candidates to flesh out their climate action plans.
“One of the first questions, if not the first question, should be on how we are going to tackle the climate crisis,” said Castor, who chairs the House’s select climate crisis committee.
Castor declined to say whether she would push Perez and the party’s leadership for a climate debate, saying instead that “every debate should be a climate debate.” She also did not elaborate on what course of action she might take if climate change fails to play a big role in the debates this week, instead indicating that public pressure might play more of a role. “I think the voters will speak very loudly on that,” she offered.
Demand for climate debate
According to data from Public Policy Polling circulated this week, 57% of Florida voters consider climate and environmental issues important, with 58% supporting a completely clean energy economy by 2050. Of those polled in the politically mixed group, 48% had voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, while 46% had voted for Hillary Clinton. A separate Florida poll released this week found that 85% of the state’s Democrats support government action on climate change.
Florida Democrats aren’t an anomaly; party voters nationwide have consistently ranked climate change as a major issue this cycle. A Morning Consult 2020 tracking poll released Monday found that 56% of likely Democratic primary voters were “climate voters” — those who considered the candidates’ climate plans to be “very important” to their votes. Of those, 85% think the DNC should host a climate debate, compared to 68% of likely Democratic voters more broadly.
Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune, whose organization commissioned the poll, argued that the data speaks for itself.
“Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly want the Democratic National Committee to host a climate debate, and that’s true of the candidates as well. It’s time for the DNC and Tom Perez to follow the lead of the public, and its own members, by embracing this opportunity,” said Brune in a statement.