Everyone Flopped on Climate Change During the First Democratic Debates

Raise your hand if you want a climate debate.
Photo: AP

If there is one thing glaring clear from this week’s Democratic debates, it is this: We need a goddamn climate debate.

Wednesday and Thursday were like an SOS flare fired into the night sky, showing that the political journalists asking the questions and the politicians answering are not prepared to discuss the most serious existential crisis facing the U.S. (and the world) today. Climate change came up late, was addressed superfluously, and was quickly put back in the box it supposedly came from. This was not the “featured prominently” billing Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez promised. Overall, the two nights of debates showed that Democratic discourse around climate change today is only a slight step up from 2016, and hardly adequate.

The sorry case of climate change in the 2016 primaries and general election has been well-documented. There were no general election debate questions on climate, and moderators and candidates devoted just a sliver of the time in the primary debates to talking about it. That means the bar to be cleared by both candidates and debate moderators this week was to basically crawl out of 2016’s pile of burning rubble. And all parties basically did that.

But of course, clearing the lowest bar does not equate with actually doing well. The short climate-focused section came roughly two-thirds of the way into debate both nights. And that’s where the problems started. Climate change isn’t neatly contained anymore. While Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd, the anchors who moderated the section, didn’t pigeonhole it as solely an environmental problem, relegating it to a back half of the debate section shows a failure to grasp what climate change really is. It’s an economy changing, infrastructure eating, public health problem. It inserts itself into nearly every facet of American life. Chucking it into an eight minute window rather than peppering questions throughout the debate’s other sections was the first big whiff.

Then there were the questions themselves, of which there were only 10 representing just six percent of all questions asked, according to Media matters for America

On night one, Maddow asked Jay Inslee the first climate question of the night. Using the city the debates were held in, she asked “[d]oes your plan save Miami?” This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of sea level rise, which will continue unabated for centuries even if emissions stop. It also completely ignores the structural inequalities climate change creates. Even if part of Miami can be “saved,” who’ll get to live there, and at what cost? What about smaller communities with less wealth and fewer glittering skyscrapers, places like Isle de Jean Charles and Tangier Island?

The questioning only got worse when Chuck Todd gave Julian Castro 30 seconds to answer “who pays for the mitigation to climate… for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living?” The mix of implicit victim blaming, by suggesting some Americans simply put down roots in the wrong place, and asking who pays to protect American citizens who had, for example, no say in the pollution unleashed by Hurricane Florence showing up in their houses is just grotesque. Also, there is no 30 second answer.

Expecting political journalists with no climate expertise to dive deep in climate change in a compressed format with 10 candidates on stage was always a bit of a pipe dream. But then, the answers to most climate questions were also wildly unsatisfying. Kamala Harris used a question about her climate plan (which doesn’t exist in any detailed form) to pivot to talking points about Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Jong Un. Pete Buttigieg took a question about the Midwest floods and climate change and briefly mentioned regenerative agriculture, which is genuinely interesting, and then quickly switched to talking about local leadership. It was a missed opportunity because, even if you don’t stan soil conservation, it’s going to be absolute crucial to combatting climate change. John Hickenlooper touted his work with the oil and gas industry, and really that’s all you need to know about that.

Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee mentioned their plans to address climate change most explicitly outside the climate section. But by and large, candidates said they saw it as a threat, talked in platitudes, and moved on. And why wouldn’t they? They knew the moderators weren’t going to press them!

It’s clear most candidates had a stronger grip on other topics like healthcare, guns, and immigration. Those are obviously critical issues they’ll have to deal with. But none are as all-encompassing as climate change, a topic they essentially got to skate through. And all that, together, illustrates why we need a climate-focused debate now more than ever.


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