DNC argues climate will still be debate topic after nixing dedicated debate. History says otherwise.

The Democratic establishment argues that all issues deserve a space during the debates -- but climate has historically been left out.

Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. CREDIT: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Governor Jay Inslee. CREDIT: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Despite pressure from environmental activists and Democratic presidential candidates, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has said there will be no formal presidential debate dedicated to climate change — a leading election issue for the first time ever.

In defending its decision, the DNC said climate change is an issue that should be brought up in every debate and that candidates will still have the chance to discuss their plans for climate action. But history says otherwise; climate issues have historically received almost no time on the debate stage.

This year has brought a dramatic shift in how Democrats address climate action. Climate change has emerged as a leading issue for voters going into the 2020 election and Democratic candidates have homed in on global warming as a winning campaign topic. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) have all released sweeping climate action plans. And some have joined activists in calling for a debate specifically focused on climate change so that voters have the chance to see how those plans match up.

But on Wednesday, Inslee announced that the DNC had reached out to his campaign to say the committee would not host a climate change debate. Inslee, who has based his entire campaign around climate action, also said that the DNC told his campaign that participating in any other climate-focused debates would bar candidates from future DNC debates.


“This is deeply disappointing. The DNC is silencing the voices of Democratic activists, many of our progressive partner organizations, and nearly half of the Democratic presidential field, who want to debate the existential crisis of our time,” said Inslee in a statement.

He was quickly joined by Warren, who said Inslee was “exactly right” in calling for a climate debate.

“Climate change is the biggest challenge we face. Every candidate running for president should have a serious set of policies to address it, and should be eager to defend those proposals in a debate,” Warren wrote on Twitter.

DNC head Tom Perez also responded on Twitter, saying that “climate change is an existential threat” and that “it is an issue that should have been more prominent during the 2016 cycle.”

Perez then reiterated the DNC’s comments to Inslee, saying the DNC “will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area — we want to make sure voters have the ability to hear from candidates on all the issues.”


Instead, Perez said, he would “do everything I can to make sure our candidates are able to debate all of the critical issues during this primary — and that we’re doing that as fairly as we can.”

The DNC did not respond to a request for comment from ThinkProgress, but the committee has circulated Perez’s statement as its official stance.

Neither Perez nor the DNC confirmed whether candidates would in fact be barred from DNC debates if they participated in a separate climate debate. Both political parties traditionally sponsor a series of debates and require that any other events held and attended by candidates be considered “forums” that are not designated as formal debates.

But historically climate change has largely been left out of presidential debates, something a climate-focused debate would seek to rectify.

According to Media Matters (MMFA), a nonprofit left-leaning organization that monitors the media, climate issues are routinely ignored during election cycles. Some 20 primary debates were held during the 2016 presidential cycle, but only 1.5% of all the questions referenced climate change. That percentage is better than the general election debates, which did not feature a single climate change question.


Lisa Hymas, who directs MMFA’s climate and energy program, told ThinkProgress on Thursday that the media outlets that typically host presidential debates have a “pitiful record” of asking climate questions. But she emphasized that the broader shift in dialogue shows that voters are increasingly hungry for such a conversation among candidates, which could heighten pressure on the outlets that will host the debates in 2019 and 2020.

“This won’t be the end of the story,” Hymas said. “The many candidates, activists and voters who care deeply about the climate crisis are going to keep pushing the DNC and the media outlets that will host debates, fighting to make sure climate change doesn’t get ignored the way it has been in the past.”

It is unclear what action presidential candidates might take to challenge the DNC’s stance. Apart from Inslee and Warren, most other 2020 candidates have largely been quiet on the issue so far, although a number have previously said they would support a climate debate, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).

Meanwhile, other prominent political figures have also weighed in, including Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), who called the DNC’s decision “way wrong,” and former Vice President Al Gore, who criticized the move, saying it was as a “mistake” to ignore “the most critical issue of this election.”

Groups like the Sierra Club and the youth-led Sunrise Movement, the nonprofit climate group that helped to craft the Green New Deal resolution, also expressed dismay and panned the DNC’s decision.

“Climate change is not just a ‘single issue’ but something that impacts all other issues,” Sunrise said in a statement. “Americans understand that. It’s why climate is a top issue in this election.”