The Democratic National Committee (DNC) may consider a vote in August on whether or not to hold a debate centering on climate change — a victory for the young protesters who have spent months lobbying for one.
If the committee moves to vote on the issue, it would reinforce the extent to which climate change has become increasingly important for Democratic voters, even as the issue occupied only a few questions during the first set of presidential debates. It would also cement the power of groups like the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has committed to playing an active role in influencing the candidates and party establishment on climate issues.
“They will be voting on a resolution at the August meeting,” Sunrise spokesperson Stephen O’Hanlon told ThinkProgress on Monday. “It’s clear that the pressure is working and support for the [climate debate] is growing.”
Over the weekend, Sunrise announced that the DNC had scheduled a vote for their August 22 to 24 meeting on whether or not to hold a climate debate. Activists said the vote would also reportedly address whether or not Democratic candidates would be barred from participating in a climate debate not sanctioned by the DNC. The committee had previously said such an action would see them locked out of DNC debates, according to the campaign of Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who said DNC officials had told him as much. Inslee is running a campaign entirely devoted to climate action.
The DNC did not initially respond to request for comment from ThinkProgress, but up until now the committee has largely resisted calls for a climate-centric debate. DNC head Tom Perez has said that “climate change is an existential threat” but dismissed calls for a climate debate, asserting that the DNC “will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area.” Traditionally, both the DNC and its Republican counterpart have also insisted that any unsanctioned debate-style events be designated as forums, rather than debates.
On Monday afternoon, the DNC confirmed to HuffPost that a vote would occur, but that it would be on two proposals — one on an official debate and one on a more informal forum, less along the lines of Sunrise’s announcement. DNC officials later clarified to ThinkProgress that the resolutions could still undergo significant changes and that nothing is set in stone, countering the narrative offered by activists.
Nonetheless, the conversation around the August vote signals a sudden pivot, one that comes after the organization staged a massive protest over the DNC’s stance. The group’s young members spent three days on the steps of the committee’s headquarters last week, in an action coinciding with the Democratic debates. That protest didn’t result in the DNC fully relenting, but it may have played a key role in pushing party leadership.
Climate change has exploded as a leading issue for Democratic voters this year in an unprecedented surge after several years of disasters like wildfires and hurricanes, along with wall-to-wall coverage of the Green New Deal proposal — a plan to rapidly decarbonize the economy. But for months, climate activists have worried that the dramatic shift won’t be reflected by the debates — historically, the issue has largely fallen by the wayside during election years.
And those warring with the DNC say the initial debates last week underscored their argument. The first two debates offered a combined 15 minutes of climate discussion, more than the entirety of the 2016 presidential debates — but still less than 6% of overall debate time.
During the first debate, several candidates, including Inslee and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), incorporated climate issues into their answers to broader questions on topics like income inequality and job creation. And during the second night, candidates similarly nodded to the issue — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) blasted the fossil fuel industry, while former Vice President Joe Biden lobbied for rejoining the Paris climate agreement.
But following both debates, activists and experts told ThinkProgress they felt a dedicated climate debate would be a better setting for candidates to establish themselves on climate issues.
“I want [at least] 20 minutes on this topic. And that’s not too much to ask,” said Leah Stokes, who studies environmental politics and teaches at U.C. Berkeley.
O’Hanlon, of Sunrise, echoed that sentiment and took aim at Perez, who has consistently promised that climate change will see more time during the 2020 debates than in previous years.
“Last week’s debate made it’s crystal clear why we need a climate debate,” O’Hanlon said.
At least 15 presidential candidates have said they would participate in a climate debate. Inslee, the climate candidate, has said he would consider participating in an unsanctioned climate forum, even if it meant being barred from future official DNC debates. He told Mother Jones last month that he would not rule out joining a debate that “would highlight both the necessity of defeating the climate crisis and calling for the candidates to step up to the plate.”
Warren has echoed Inslee’s repeated calls for a climate debate. And one Sunrise activist said following the first debate that former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) had pledged “to write an open letter to the DNC” demanding a climate debate and he would ask “all candidates” to sign onto the letter.
I look forward to following up with him to make it happen. pic.twitter.com/0B2EyO7595
— urban fossil (@x3Marcela_) June 27, 2019
That momentum may have pushed the DNC’s hand, although it is unclear what the outcome of a committee vote may be on a climate debate. Sunrise has said the August meeting is likely the last hope for those who want a dedicated climate debate and that the group plans to spend the next seven weeks building “a critical mass of support” around the issue.
This article has been updated to reflect new information from the DNC.