Texans finally got a taste of where the state’s Senate hopefuls stand on climate issues on Tuesday night, as Democrat Beto O’Rourke and Republican Ted Cruz presented their wildly different green views during their second-ever debate.
Sparring in San Antonio, the event marked a shift from the pair’s first debate in Dallas last month. With only three weeks left to go before Texans head to the polls, O’Rourke has sharpened his talking points against Cruz as polls give the incumbent senator the advantage in deep-red Texas. In addition to heightened tension, the second debate also pushed both candidates to flesh out their stances on climate change, something their first face-off declined to do.
Eleven minutes into the debate, moderators prodded Cruz, a long-time proponent of fossil fuels, on his climate change views, noting that major oil companies like ExxonMobil have begun to acknowledge the phenomenon under duress.
“Well, listen, of course the climate is changing,” Cruz responded, declining to weigh in on the stances of oil giants like Exxon. “The climate has been changing from the dawn of time, the climate will change as long as we have a planet Earth.”
Indicating that he feels people are not responsible for that change — despite science confirming that humans are the main cause — the senator went on to say that Democrats approach climate change as “a matter of government power” in an effort to control the economy. Cruz blasted O’Rourke for voting to tax oil in Texas and called for a “robust energy sector” in the country based on fossil fuels.
“The climate is changing. And man-made climate change is a fact,” O’Rourke fired back. Scientists, O’Rourke said, “tell us that we still have time but the window is closing to get this right.”
With a dig at Cruz’s repeated absences from Congress in order to pursue a presidential bid, he continued, “If we’re going to make our commitment to the generations that follow, and not just think about the next election, or our political career, or our pursuit of the White House, then we can make the right decisions.”
The El Paso Democrat also emphasized the importance of considering the needs of Texans in such conversations.
“Now we can support Texas being a proud energy leader, in oil and in gas, but also in renewable energy,” he argued, noting that Texas leads the nation in its production of wind power and that the sector has enormous job potential. O’Rourke called deciding between oil and renewables a “false choice,” to chuckles from Cruz.
Undaunted by Cruz, the O’Rourke campaign almost immediately followed up on the candidate’s comments Tuesday night with a tweet calling climate change “the defining existential threat of our time” and touting the Democrat’s commitment to addressing global warming.
Climate change is the defining existential threat of our time. Beto believes Texas should take the lead in confronting it head on. It’s how we’ll meet our responsibilities to those of future generations. #TeamBeto #TexasDebate
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) October 17, 2018
Both candidates notably have lengthy — and starkly opposing — records when it comes to climate change.
O’Rourke has earned widespread support from green groups for his progressive stances on climate and environmental issues. He holds a 95 percent lifetime record with the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) and has historically opposed oil and gas infrastructure while supporting clean air and water initiatives along with funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and rejoining the Paris climate agreement.
As a congressman representing his hometown, El Paso, O’Rourke has lobbied to protect the city’s beloved Castner Range, in addition to pushing for renewable energy incentives in Texas.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, LCV’s senior vice president for government affairs, called O’Rourke an “incredible environmental champion” in September. By contrast, Sittenfeld told ThinkProgress that Cruz is “a disaster” whose 3 percent LCV lifetime rating accounts for his many votes in favor of rolling back Obama-era environmental regulations, along with his support for President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement.
Those contrasts may be publicly available online, but they haven’t been actively conveyed to Texans. Tuesday’s Senate debate offered a marked shift, not just in the state but nationally.
As of late September, only one midterm debate analyzed by the non-profit organization Media Matters had mentioned climate change so far this year: a Minnesota gubernatorial debate between Republican Jeff Johnson and Democrat Tim Walz. Since then, that number has increased to 7, including Tuesday night’s debate in Texas.
That’s not because viewers don’t care, least of all in states like Texas. Debate watchers in Austin told ThinkProgress during the first O’Rourke-Cruz debate that they were disappointed at the absence of any mention of climate change, especially in a state where devastating hurricanes, enduring heat waves, and controversial fracking continue to be leading issues.
Above all, at the time viewers wished the candidates had been given the space to address Hurricane Harvey, the Category 4 storm that left southeastern Texas reeling last year. Climate scientists have pointed to warming waters in the Gulf of Mexico as a leading factor for the storm’s outsized impacts — increased temperatures allow hurricanes to supercharge and then stall over land, as Harvey did, submerging areas in water.
Harvey made its own appearance in Tuesday’s debate, long after the first mention of climate change had faded away. Prompted to answer for his vote against a tax relief bill for Harvey victims, O’Rourke took the opportunity to flesh out his reasons for that congressional vote — it didn’t include funding to reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and Community Health Centers (CHC), both of which were set to expire.
He also addressed the larger issues still plaguing Harvey victims. “I continue to go back to places like Kashmere Gardens, in Houston, Texas, which more than a year later is still not fully rebuilt,” said O’Rourke, naming a majority Black area located in a flood zone where the median income is $23,000 per year.
The state’s most vulnerable residents have largely never recovered from Harvey, with Texans of color and low-income Texans disproportionately struggling.
“I continue to wonder why Sen. Cruz voted against more than $12 billion in FEMA preparedness knowing full well that we will see more Harveys going forward,” said O’Rourke, bringing in climate change. “Mind you, that was the third 500-year flood in just the last five years. We know that there will be more of these floods coming, and I want to make sure that the people of Texas, especially southeast Texas, are prepared for the next one.”
O’Rourke’s second mention of the impacts of climate change might resonate with the many Texans who have suffered in the aftermath of Harvey. Yet, some in the state may have missed the opportunity to hear either candidate flesh out their climate views; of the 11 Texas cities that broadcast the debate live, none were located along the border, an area disproportionately vulnerable to climate change.