The first two Democratic debates featured more mentions of climate change than the 2016 presidential election, but advocates say that isn’t enough. Following Thursday night’s debate, many are renewing calls for a dedicated climate debate that would prioritize the issue, something they argue did not happen this week.
Seven minutes were devoted to climate change during Wednesday’s debate — the first of two in the first round of Democratic primary debates. That alone was more than the entirety of the 2016 debates, but still significantly less than other issues, like health care or immigration.
On Thursday, that total stretched to eight minutes, or 15 cumulatively for both debates. That upward trend shows progress: for years, presidential debates all but ignored climate change. Now, for the first time ever, candidates feel compelled to propose climate plans, as voters increasingly say they want a candidate who takes climate action seriously.
But experts speaking to ThinkProgress were quick to poke holes in the small victory of having a quarter-hour focused on the climate crisis.
“Less than 6% of the questions over the two nights were about climate change,” said Lisa Hymas, director of the climate and energy program at the watchdog organization Media Matters. She noted that of the 20 candidates, 10 “were not asked any climate questions at all.”
Following the debates, many climate advocates said they wanted to see questions with more substance, as well as more time allotted overall. Their demands come as the Democratic National Committee (DNC) continues to feud with groups like the youth-led Sunrise Movement over a proposed climate debate, one that would see the issue front and center. “Another debate, another climate section the length of a bathroom break,” the group’s official Twitter count quipped shortly after Thursday’s debate concluded.
The second night of the first Democratic debates, however, did bring a few notable moments for climate advocates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) repeatedly lashed out at the fossil fuel industry, while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) referenced and endorsed the Green New Deal, a resolution to rapidly decarbonize the economy. On the other end of the spectrum, former Gov. John Hickenlooper (D-CO), known for his close relationship with oil and gas, pushed back on such proposals, arguing that “we can’t demonize every business.”
Some say the line of questioning Thursday was an improvement compared to the first night when it came to climate change. Climate advocates expressed disappointment to ThinkProgress regarding the moderators’ Wednesday debate performance, arguing that they failed to ask hard-hitting questions on the issue or to give it real space.
“I think the moderators did a really bad job [on Wednesday],” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at U.C. Santa Barbara and an expert on environmental politics. She said that those fielding the questions framed climate action “in terms of costs” without giving space for the price tag associated with climate impacts.
“They didn’t focus at all on the costs of inaction,” she said.
Some candidates during the first night took it upon themselves to push the issue. Answering questions about income inequality and jobs, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) both wove plans for things like clean energy jobs and green technology into their responses. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) meanwhile slammed the giant oil companies and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) made an unprompted reference to a “green economy.”
And in a standout moment, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) named climate change as the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States. He was quickly joined by a chorus, with Warren, Booker, and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro echoing the sentiment.
Those moments gave climate issues some time on the debate stage. But Stokes said she wanted to see much more in terms of substance, something that could only be prompted by tailored questions. Thursday’s debate, she said, “went better” but ultimately failed to really establish climate change as a pressing issue.
Others expressed similar sentiments on Thursday. The Sierra Club called the climate sections of the debates “insufficient” and expressed qualms with the questions chosen by MSNBC. In a statement, Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman asserted that “we heard next to nothing over two days” about how candidates would address climate change. And the Center for Biological Diversity slammed the addition of “a single measly minute” to the time count on Thursday, underscoring that the total time was far from enough.
A dedicated climate debate
That broad disappointment has only deepened demands for a climate debate. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) recently poured cold water on calls for an official forum dedicated to climate issues, but many of those invested in climate action say such a format is the only way for the candidates to distinguish themselves on the issue — an unprecedented challenge which impacts everything from the economy to health care.
“It’s now more obvious than ever that we need a dedicated climate debate,” said Hymas. “The traditional debate format won’t give voters solid, specific information about how candidates would deal with the climate crisis.”
Not all climate advocates support a dedicated debate, but some have come around on the idea. Stokes admitted that she was initially apathetic but now feels a specific climate debate would give the issue the space it deserves.
“[During the debates] you saw that there was a real discussion of immigration… you had health care, in detail, you had people being pushed. These candidates had coherent ideas,” she said. “That did not happen for climate policy.”
Stokes said that an effective climate debate would feature a moderator fluent in the issue and floated Chris Hayes of MSNBC. Hayes himself notably tweeted in support of a climate debate Thursday night, arguing that there is “no way to wrestle with” the scope of climate change in a general debate.
Most of the candidates are on their side. At least 15 Democratic contenders have said they would support a climate debate, including frontrunners like Warren, Sanders, and former Vice President Joe Biden. That’s likely because climate change is consistently polling as a leading issue for Democratic voters, a trend that has sparked significant action. In addition to rolling out extensive climate policy proposals, many contenders back the Green New Deal and 18 of the 20 who appeared in the debates this week have taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge swearing off fossil fuel donors.
Climate advocates say that should be enough for the DNC, and largely reject the committee’s assurances that the issue will be given precedence in general debates.
“There’s no good reason to believe that the networks and moderators running the debates will make climate change a priority,” said Hymas. “They’ve been neglecting climate change for years.”
Going into the next round of Democratic debates, pressure from advocates is only likely to rise. Stokes framed the issue using language that activists have leaned into while pushing the Green New Deal, arguing that a “war mobilization”-style effort is needed in order to meet climate change head-on. Stokes used the same wording to underscore the rationale behind a climate debate.
“If we were in the middle of a war,” she said, “you’d better believe we’d have a stand-alone debate.”