Four Democratic presidential contenders used the first debate of the election cycle to cite climate change as the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States as they worked to distinguish themselves on the increasingly hot-button issue in a city reeling from climate impacts.
To the dismay of activists and environmentalists, it took around an hour and a half before moderators asked a few brief questions about climate change on Wednesday evening in Miami, Florida, as issues like health care and immigration took precedent. But several candidates took the initiative to raise the issue on their own, especially during one question.
At one point towards the latter half of the debate, Chuck Todd, a moderator for the MSNBC-hosted event, asked each of the 10 candidates assembled on stage “what” or “who” is the “biggest geopolitical threat” to the United States. Several contenders named China, along with nuclear war. Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who has staked his candidacy on climate change, notably argued that President Donald Trump was the biggest threat.
But things changed when the question moved to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX).
“Our existential threat is climate change. We have to confront it before it’s too late,” said O’Rourke.
A trend was quickly born. “Climate change,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) without hesitation. “Nuclear proliferation and climate change,” elaborated Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Rounding out the group, Julián Castro, former Department of Housing and Urban Development secretary, chimed in with, “China and climate change.”
Linking climate change to global instability poses a challenge scientifically, but researchers are increasingly connecting the two. And that has implications for the United States. A 2018 study by the Pentagon found that climate change is threatening almost half of all U.S. military sites globally, something military experts have repeatedly underscored as a national security threat. And earlier this month, top government officials warned members of the House Intelligence Committee that climate change is likely in the “top two or three” major longterm global threats facing the country.
Such warnings have struck a chord with some Democrats, including O’Rourke, who has cited climate change as a national security threat several times on the campaign trail. And the chorus of presidential contenders echoing him on Wednesday spoke to a larger theme throughout the night — one of candidates elevating an issue without prompting.
Moderators continuously teased questions about climate change, but when they came, they were brief. Overall, climate dominated only around seven minutes of the debate. While that’s more than all of the 2016 debates combined, environmentalists say it’s still not enough.
Activists who have spent weeks demanding a debate dedicated entirely to climate change argued after last night’s debate — the first of two in the first set of Democratic primary debates — that the event proved the point they have been making: A stand-alone debate guarantees a thorough discussion of climate change, while a general debate does not.
Members of the youth-led Sunrise Movement spent more than 24 hours outside Democratic National Committee (DNC) headquarters leading up to the debate demanding a climate debate; many also held an election-watch party there to heighten pressure.
Despite their demands, the DNC has repeatedly rebuffed calls for a climate debate. DNC head Tom Perez has argued that the party “will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area” while pledging that climate change will take up more space this election cycle than it has historically. The first debate in Miami, a city dubbed “ground zero” for climate impacts like sea-level rise, offered a glimpse into whether or not that might come to fruition.
Activists largely say it did not, although they praised a few standout moments. At one point MSNBC moderator Rachel Maddow asked Inslee about his proposals given the debate’s location. “Does your plan save Miami?” Maddow prompted Inslee.
The moment gave Inslee a chance to elaborate on his proposals, which so far include four major climate plans and a goal of zeroing out emissions by 2045. But such questions were few and far between, sparking outrage from groups like Sunrise.
“It’s absurd to host a debate in Miami — a city where millions of people could lose their homes due to sea level rise that’s also only 20 miles from the Everglades where massive fires are out of control — and spend only a few minutes on the climate crisis,” said Sunrise head Varshini Prakash in a statement.
But moments like the segment about geopolitical threats speak to another reality: Many Democratic contenders understand that climate change is an issue of increasing importance to voters, regardless of whether it matters to moderators or party leadership. Throughout the night, multiple candidates responded to questions not specifically about climate change with answers that centered the issue.
“We know that we can put millions of people to work in the clean energy jobs of the future,” Inslee replied to a question about income inequality near the beginning of the debate.
Warren, facing her own jobs question, similarly steered the conversation towards the “worldwide need for green technology” and called for a focus on “research and development on green energy.” Those answers pushed climate issues throughout the night, even when moderators did not.
Wednesday’s debate was only the first round for Democratic contenders, as well as for moderators looking to ask climate questions — they’ll get another chance on Thursday, as the second half of the expansive field takes the stage.