In a historic first, two climate forums announced for 2020 Democratic candidates

Climate change remains a key issue for Democratic 2020 contenders.

A striking school student with a planet mask on Westminster bridge on June 21, 2019. CREDIT: Guy Smallman/Getty Images
A striking school student with a planet mask on Westminster bridge on June 21, 2019. CREDIT: Guy Smallman/Getty Images

Two different news outlets have announced they will host climate forums this fall, following months of pressure from activists calling for Democrats to hold a dedicated presidential climate debate.

The forums aren’t official debates as designated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), but they will offer candidates a chance to distinguish themselves on climate issues at a time when the U.S. public is growing more concerned about global warming. And the formation of not one but two dedicated climate events only bolsters the role presidential climate platforms could play going into the general election.

Two networks, CNN and MSNBC, announced this week that they will host climate forums in September — albeit with different criteria.

CNN’s forum will take place on September 4 in New York City and will feature any Democratic candidate that meets the DNC’s own debate criteria, which imposes a 2% polling threshold in at least four major polls. At time of publishing, that includes Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former Vice President Joe Biden, and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.


Notably missing from this list is Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who has devoted his entire campaign to climate action in addition to leading the charge among 2020 contenders in calling for a dedicated climate debate. Billionaire activist Tom Steyer, who announced his candidacy weeks ago and is similarly focusing on climate issues, would also not be included. However, all candidates have until August 28 before their window for inclusion officially closes.

For those that don’t make the cut by then, there is another opportunity. MSNBC said Thursday that it will be the media partner for a Washington, D.C.-based climate forum hosted by Georgetown University and the website Our Daily Planet, set to take place September 19-20. Georgetown University said in a statement that “all declared 2020 presidential candidates from both political parties” have been invited to the event.

“Poll after poll shows climate change consistently rates as one of the most important issues on the minds of young voters heading into the 2020 election,” said Mo Elleithee, head of the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service, in a statement explaining the decision.

A number of environmental groups welcomed the news. “We look forward to hearing candidates discuss ambitious plans to act on climate on day one and every day of their presidency,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.


Others expressed cynicism. Forums differ from debates in that they often feature candidates speaking for a set amount of time on stage individually, as opposed to engaged in conversation and debate with one another. The DNC only designates its own debates as official; the committee requires that other events be forums and has indicated that candidates partaking in unofficial debates may be barred from their DNC-sanctioned counterparts.

The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has played a leading role in pushing for a climate debate, pointed to the forum-debate distinction in a series of tweets pushing back on the twin announcements. While noting that “our pressure is working,” the organization asserted that the forums do not reflect the scope of their demands.

“[T]hese are not climate debates,” Sunrise asserted. “We know that only a DNC-sponsored debate — with all the candidates on the same stage, at the same time — will put the eyes of the nation on this crisis at the scale it demands.”

The DNC has been under increasing pressure to host a climate debate as more and more 2020 contenders have voiced their support for one. DNC head Tom Perez has repeatedly shot down the idea, arguing that all issues deserve equal time on stage. But the tide may be changing. At an upcoming August meeting, Democratic officials are likely to vote on proposals that include an official climate debate, along with a more informal climate forum.


Activists who say they want a climate debate largely point to precedent. Climate change has historically garnered virtually no time during presidential debates. The issue received a combined 15 minutes during the first two Democratic debates in June — more than the whole of the 2016 cycle, but less than other topics like health care.

Polling indicates that the lack of emphasis on climate change is out of touch with the U.S. public; Americans increasingly say they want climate action and are concerned about global warming. That trend has resonated with candidates: Inslee, O’Rourke, and Biden are among those who have already put out comprehensive climate plans, while Warren has notably released several smaller-scale plans aimed at goals like decarbonizing the U.S. military.

And on Thursday, two more candidates released major plans. Both Steyer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) unveiled their own approaches to tackling climate change, ramping up pressure on rival contenders like Sanders and Harris, who still have yet to release their plans despite supporting proposals like the ambitious Green New Deal resolution to rapidly decarbonize the economy.

Advocates say those new plans reinforce the ongoing prevalence of the issue and reflect a growing clarity around elements of climate action, like targeting the fossil fuel industry.

“It wasn’t too long ago that Presidential campaign climate plans were built on vague promises to achieve unclear goals with no reference to the fossil fuel industry that is causing our climate crisis,” said David Turnbull, strategic communications director at Oil Change U.S., who asserted “that time has passed.”

September’s forums are likely to bring continued attention to climate issues, along with ongoing activism. The MSNBC event will notably coincide with a planned week-long “global climate strike” across at least 150 countries — a protest that could see heightened coverage because of the forum.