Climate change served as a rallying point during the second night of the second round of Democratic debates in Detroit, Michigan, as candidates largely seemed united behind the need for urgent action.
More than 11 minutes were devoted to climate issues on Wednesday night, bringing the total to over 20 minutes this week compared to a cumulative 15 minutes during the first two Democratic debates last month. The resulting conversation was one of substance, with Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) differentiating himself on climate issues from former Vice President Joe Biden, even as the candidates largely underscored their commitment to tackling global warming.
Nearly an hour and a half into the debate, moderators asked Inslee, who has devoted his entire candidacy to the issue, about his decision to focus on addressing climate change. Inslee responded that climate action is an intersectional goal.
“Look, climate change is not a singular issue,” the governor said. “It is all the issues that we Democrats care about. It is health. It is national security. It is our economy.”
Inslee has rolled out a five-pronged sequence of sweeping climate plans addressing issues like immigration and systemic inequality through the lens of climate change and environmental degradation. He took aim at Biden, whose own wide-scale climate plan has been critiqued by some climate activists as not going far enough.
“We know this: Middle ground solutions, like the vice president has proposed, or sort of middling average-sized things, are not going to save us,” Inslee asserted, underscoring that “too little, too late is too dangerous.”
Biden responded quickly. “There is no middle ground about my plan,” he said, going on to push for rejoining the Paris climate agreement.
In June 2017, President Donald Trump said he would leave the Paris climate deal. While the United States is still technically party to the accord, virtually all 2020 Democratic contenders have pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement — a consensus that prompted Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) to pan the promise as unambitious.
“Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accord. That is kindergarten,” said Booker, who expressed support for Inslee’s approach.
But even as the exchange grew heated, candidates largely agreed with one another on the urgency posed by the climate crisis.
“The reality is that I would take any Democrat on this stage over the current president of the United States, who is rolling it back to our collective peril,” said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), targeting Trump. She went on to highlight her endorsement for the Green New Deal, a proposal to radically shift the U.S. economy to net-zero emissions.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who joked that her first act as president would be to clean the Oval Office with Clorox, went on to underscore that her second act would be climate action. “The greatest threat to humanity is global climate change,” she said, calling for a “robust solution” and throwing her weight behind ambitious efforts to tackle global warming.
“Why not have a green energy race with China? Why not have clean air and clean water for all Americans?” Gillibrand asked. “Why not rebuild our infrastructure? Why not actually invest in the green jobs? That’s what the Green New Deal is about.”
Asked to explain her decision not to sponsor the Green New Deal, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) pivoted away from attacking the proposal and instead spoke to larger support for climate action, influenced by growing up in Hawaii.
Biden himself was pushed on his support for maintaining fossil fuels while working towards zeroing-out emissions. When asked if there would be a place for energy sources like coal or natural gas in his administration, the vice president appeared to hedge.
“No, we would — we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for either one of those, either — any fossil fuel,” he said.
“We cannot work this out. The time is up. Our house is on fire,” Inslee rebutted.
Disputes over phasing-out fossil fuels were coupled with other controversial moments. At one point, entrepreneur Andrew Yang declared the country to be “10 years too late” to addressing climate change and argued in favor of relocating people away from climate-impacted areas.
“We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground,” he said, pushing his plan for a Universal Basic Income (UBI). “The best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.”
Climate activists have fought hard for a dedicated climate debate, arguing that the issue rarely comes up in official Democratic National Committee (DNC) debates.
Following Wednesday’s debate, advocates applauded the substance provided by candidates during the exchange. The League of Conservation Voters called it “a badly needed step in the right direction” and environmentalist Bill McKibben offered his praise on Twitter.
“Kind of blows my mind how good most of these answers on climate change are,” McKibben commented.
Still, some continued to call for a single-issue debate. The youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has advocated for a climate debate, lamented the time given to climate issues. “Funny that [the debate] spent 11 minutes on the climate crisis when it’s an existential threat we have 11 years to solve,” the group wrote on Twitter.
Those hoping for a compromise are in luck: There will be two climate forums in September hosted by major networks, which will give candidates more time to flesh out their differences on climate action.