Climate debate-gate: Democratic Party chokes on its own greenhouse gas — but the fight's not over

Voters, candidates and activists all want a Democratic debate on climate. Why are Tom Perez and the DNC refusing?

Published June 22, 2019 12:00PM (EDT)

Tom Perez; Joe Biden (Getty/AP/Salon)
Tom Perez; Joe Biden (Getty/AP/Salon)

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The Democratic Party is making two huge mistakes right now — and they’re related, both in terms of the muddled, backward-looking thinking and the cluelessness about how to communicate to the American people. Democratic leaders are still blocking impeachment in the House — based on a bevy of mistaken arguments rooted in a misremembered past — and blocking a debate on climate change in the 2020 presidential campaign. That too is based on a visionless miasma of misdirection that includes debate rules reformed to fight the last war, the continued influence of donations from the fossil fuel industry, and Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez’s myopic claim that it’s "just not practical.”

“What's actually unrealistic,” the Sunrise Movement tweeted in response, is “the Democratic establishment saying we'll stop climate change when they aren't even willing to have a debate on it.”

Together with the global Climate Strike movement, the Sunrise Movement, organizing via the #ChangeTheDebate hashtag, represents a generational shift in consciousness about the global climate crisis, which has been called “this generation’s Vietnam War.” In this light, the DNC’s disconnect from younger voters, whose support is so crucial and who represent the future, is blatant evidence of political malpractice.

"Once you have one single-issue debate, then every debate needs to become a single issue debate in order to address the concerns," Perez said, in his effort to save face. But climate change isn’t a single self-contained issue, activists responded. "Climate is not an 'issue' — it's the backdrop for all other issues," author and activist Naomi Klein tweeted. “It's the fabric of life on Earth and it is unravelling.”

A CNN poll of likely Iowa caucus voters shows how well that’s understood: Three-quarters said that recognition of climate change “as the greatest threat to humanity” is a requirement for any candidate to get their support. They get the big picture loud and clear — far better than Perez and the DNC do. But they need to hear more about what candidates intend to do about it: They need a climate debate. Not only is the DNC refusing to hold one, it has issued a bizarre threat to lock out any candidate who participates in a climate debate sponsored by someone else.

Nothing about the Democratic Party’s approach to the debates inspires confidence, John Nichols writes at the Nation, but this particular decision “should inspire fury,” as “morally wrong and practically foolish.” Meanwhile, public interest continues to grow. The New York Times just posted a series of video clips of candidates sharing their climate views, and University of California, Santa Barbara, political scientist Leah Stokes summarized them in a fascinating Twitter thread.

While Perez made the non-sequitur argument that “a president must be able to multitask,” Nichols pointed out what that actually meant in a debate setting:

There will be plenty of grab-bag debates where Democratic candidates preen and position and ponder questions about the president’s latest tweet. What’s needed are a few debates that allow for this crowded field of contenders to go deep on issues of overwhelming consequence, from climate change to economic inequality to racism and war and peace ….

The DNC is making a huge mistake by refusing to organize and support single-issue area debates — especially on climate change.

Indeed, a Data for Progress poll found 64% support for a climate-specific debate among Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents, with only 11% opposed. The candidates themselves support it, too. While Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has led the way on this issue, 15 candidates have now called for such a debate, along with more than 50 DNC members organized through state party networks.

The executive committee of the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party voted unanimously to urge the DNC to hold a climate-specific debate. That might not sound significant on its own, but Miami is a crucial metropolitan area in a decisive swing state, will host the first Democratic debates and is without a doubt the most vulnerable city to sea-level rise in the United States. Miami-Dade could see nearly 2 million people displaced by sea level rise by 2100, along with another 1.5 million in neighboring Broward County. People on the ground get it. Candidates out on the campaign trail listening to their concerns get it. Those trapped in the Beltway bubble, not so much.

Climate activists are correct to highlight what sets the climate crisis apart, but that’s not the only problem with Perez’s argument, in the eyes of state-level activists.

“Democrats come to our party because of issues,” Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb told Salon. “We have a shared value of fairness that brings us all together. Critical issues of climate change, health care and education are all interrelated. A clear way to take action on all the requests for issue forums and debates is to create a survey that all Democrats and groups can send around and then we declare three issue-focused debates on the top ones identified." This would, she added, be "a great way to listen to the base voters and gather information to help win elections.”

That's more than wishful thinking from one red-state Democrat. The Association of State Parties adopted a related resolution at its last meeting in New Mexico, starting with a recognition of “the issue of climate crisis” and seeking a “win-win solution” to "accommodate issues important to our voters" within the planned 12-debate format.

“Debates and the rules around them are messy and we must have the flexibility to adjust,” Kleeb said. ”We want to find a solution with the DNC and Chair Perez. No one is interested in a fight or splicing of words in a forum or debate. We want to ensure that we are addressing the critical issues voters want to hear." In the 2016 debates between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, she said, "Climate was nowhere to be heard.”

As Boston College political scientist David Hopkins writes at his Honest Graft blog, after 2016 the DNC was "desperate to preserve its popular legitimacy and prove its dedication to equality and inclusion," and made some rapid adjustments ahead of the 2020 campaign. "But as so often happens in life, maneuvering to address one set of problems can create a new set of problems — with no guarantee that the original set will indeed be solved."

Hopkins refers to what I described above as "debate rules reformed to fight the last war." He told Salon he "very much" agrees that the 2020 debates “should be focused on substantive topics and questions that allow the candidates to address all of the major policy issues and governing challenges of our time, including climate change." If national and state party organizations "can use their leverage over the production of the debates to encourage that to happen, it will be a welcome contribution," he said. “However, I think that it’s unlikely to happen.”

One reason is the aforementioned focus on fixing the last elections’ mistakes. “The DNC has become obsessed with demonstrating ‘fairness’ to all candidates,” Hopkins said, and any particular issue focus for a debate would look like “using its power to tilt the playing field ... and with 20-plus candidates in the field, it’s impossible to satisfy everyone.”

In addition, Hopkins continued, “The DNC is dependent on its media partners to actually produce and moderate the debates.” Those partners, generally TV networks, “view themselves as independent journalists, not agents of political parties,” so they’re likely to resist anything that feels like a party-directed restriction.

Debate moderators also tend to have very different priorities than parties or candidates: “gotcha” questions, alleged flip-flops and so on, all based on notions of “good television.” “Anything that might be too ‘boring’ or ‘in the weeds’ is looked on with suspicion that it will provoke viewers to flip the channel,” Hopkins added.

In short, everyone’s operating within institutional frameworks, acting “rationally” in terms of the options before them — or at least so the story goes. But the frameworks themselves have all failed catastrophically — as runaway inequality, democratic erosion and the climate crisis all vividly show. No wonder young people, not habituated to those frameworks, see their failures so clearly.  No wonder they demand better. 

Last weekend, Salon contributor Carl Pope, former CEO and chair of the Sierra Club, painted an optimistic portrait of Democratic candidates on the climate issue. Most have shifted away from the timid positions of the past, he argued. Seven of the 2020 candidates have introduced their own climate plans while three have sponsored the Green New Deal resolution:

As a group, none of these climate planks harken back to Barack Obama’s “all of the above” genuflection to the enduring political power of fossil fuels. Nor do they resemble Hillary Clinton’s 2016 proposals, which focused almost entirely on renewable power — ambitious but narrow. They eschew the carbon-pricing emphasis of many Beltway economists and policy mavens. And they avoid the austerity frame that climate deniers have for so long used to dampen public support for clean energy.

Pope even suggested that there's an “emerging Democratic climate platform,” summed up as a list of bullet points:

  • Climate science and ambitious decarbonization goals are in.
  • Climate sacrifice and austerity are out.
  • Investment, not carbon pricing, is the new silver bullet.
  • Standards and regulation are back.
  • It’s not just electricity — economy-wide approaches are embraced.
  • Finally, research gets respect.

What's missing from Pope’s list, I would argue, was anything regarding justice — either environmental justice for indigenous and minority communities who have long been primary victims of environmental racism or economic transition plans for fossil fuel workers and communities, who’ve long been used as pawns to block progress, even as they pay dearly in terms of their own health and well-being. For example, a 2011 Harvard study found the externalized costs of coal amounted to “a third to over one-half of a trillion dollars annually,” concentrated most heavily in health and mortality costs to coal-producing workers and communities.

Pope is certainly right that the center of debate has shifted, but the grassroots-funded PAC Climate Hawks Vote offers a different perspective. Its survey of 2,600 members finds numerous points of both agreement and disagreement. “Climate has risen to the top of voters’ concerns in recent polls," wrote CHV political director RL Miller in a recent press release, "but most average folk don’t know the real differences among the carbon pricing proposals, the Green New Deal, and more. And the best way to explain the differences is with a debate.” 

There was near unanimity within the group on a few points: 100% supported an immediate return to the Paris Agreement, and 99% supported a Green New Deal — with most of those favoring a "Green New Deal-plus-equity," meaning universal health care and job guarantees as part of the package. More than 90% supported both phasing out all fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and investigating Exxon and other oil companies for concealing knowledge about climate change clear back to the 1970s. (Around 30% were willing to consider a tradeoff on that issue, meaning a hefty carbon tax in exchange for a waiver of Exxon’s liability.)

But in other areas there were significant differences, such as on nuclear power: While 60% favored phasing it out, 21% wanted to keep existing power plants and 18% wanted to build advanced reactors. There was even less coherence on agricultural policy, where 39% favored farm subsidy reforms, 38% favored educating farmers and 21% supported a tax on meat. A large majority wanted to eliminate internal combustion engines, with 55% saying that should happen by 2030, which is likely impossible.

“There are substantive differences among the candidates — and tensions that haven't yet been expressed, which is why a climate debate is needed,” Miller told Salon. “For example, how seriously are the candidates behind the Green New Deal?” she asked. A few, such as former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and former Maryland congressman John Delaney, have rejected both the Green New Deal and the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Others, Miller suggests, may have signed onto the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., "because it's politically expedient." But their actual climate plans are either much more modest (she cited Sen. Amy Klobuchar) or haven't yet been articulated (as with Sen. Kamala Harris).

David Turnbull of the activist group Oil Change U.S. has proposed a list of 60 questions for a climate debate, which are not meant to be exhaustive. Still, the first five are illuminating:

  1. What do you think is the single most important step you can take as president to show leadership on the climate crisis?

  2. Have you signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge? Why or why not?

  3. Describe your plan to put the United States on a managed decline of fossil fuel production in line with climate science.

  4. What do you believe are the key elements of a just transition for workers and communities as we move our economy away from fossil fuels?

  5. Please describe how the principles of environmental justice and concerns from low income communities, frontline communities, indigenous communities, and communities of color will be heard and incorporated in the planning and implementation of your climate agenda?

Questions 4 and 5 are particularly important. Justice issues have become increasingly important for climate activists, although the mainstream media largely hasn't noticed. Such questions are vitally important for the Democrats' racially diverse base, as well as for the coal and fossil-fuel workers and communities to whom Donald Trump has made so many false promises. Climate justice is a central issue that can organize and motivate strong majorities around a livable future for all — and it’s doable as well. In my April 2017 story about the decline of coal, I cited the "just transition" plan developed by Robert Pollin and Brian Callaci, which they estimate would cost $500 million a year, or

about "1 percent of the annual $50 billion in new public investment that will be needed to advance a successful overall U.S. climate stabilization program." That modest annual commitment "would pay for income, retraining, and relocation support for workers facing retrenchments as well as effective transition programs for what are now fossil fuel–dependent communities."

So the amount of money involved is trivial, in relative budgetary terms — but the impact on workers and communities would be enormous, and the principle equitable treatment for all is essential, both in moral and political terms. If I were running the DNC, there would be an entire debate focused solely on environmental justice and a just transition for workers. A robust Green New Deal can encompass all these justice issues in a coherent and integrated way.

The American people need and deserve an extensive debate in which these possibilities are explored. For the moment, they remain poorly understood and shrouded in doubt for tens of millions of voters. That’s the way Donald Trump likes things — the hazier, the better. It’s the exact opposite of what any Democrat should want, and indeed what any citizen should want. The climate crisis is not just about the "environment," or about escaping an unprecedented threat to the human economy. It’s about shaping a shared future for generations to come. We either let ourselves be torn apart, or we work to come together.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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