Debate’s Attempt to Show Candidates Divided on Climate Change Finds Unity Instead

The Democrats may butt heads on climate policy details, but they all see growing risks to security, economy and health that the next president can't ignore.

Round two of the second Democratic primary debate, held in Detroit. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
The second 2020 Democratic primary debate, held in Detroit, was conducted in two rounds over two nights with 10 candidates each. Climate change and environmental issues got about 21 minutes of attention. Credit: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

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In two nights of debates that seemed designed to highlight divisions among the candidates, the Democratic presidential hopefuls this week managed to display remarkable unity in their proclaimed commitment to aggressive action on climate change.

Barbed questions posed by a CNN panel produced sharp wrangling over the details of universal health care, immigration and crime. But when it came to decarbonizing the economy, few hard and fast differences surfaced.

“We have all put out highly similar visions on climate,” said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.


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Former Vice President Joe Biden sought to fend off the charge that his plan was “middling.” Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio envisioned a manufacturing future centered around the electric car. Sen. Kamala Harris of California called for adopting a Green New Deal and getting the country to carbon neutral by 2030.

Yes, some of the moderates don’t like the Green New Deal. And the left-leaning politicians were more vociferous in their denunciation of the fossil fuel industry, with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont accusing the corporations of “criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue,” and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts vowing to take on a Washington that “works great for the oil companies, just not for the people worried about climate change.”

But those differences belie the candidates’ fundamental agreement that transformative policy is needed to address climate change, including that:

  • emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil energy have to be brought to zero no later than 2050;
  • an expansive and rapid economic transformation with special attention to the needs of workers is key; and
  • trillions of dollars of federal investment will be necessary and worth the money given the scientific evidence that the alternative would be far costlier.

“I think it’s pretty clear from everyone on that stage that you can’t be serious about running for president if you are not committed to acting on the climate crisis,” said Tiernan Sittenfeld, vice president for government relations for the League of Conservation Voters, who watched the sessions live from the Fox Theatre audience in Detroit.

The first night of the two-night second debate of the Democratic presidential primary season. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, right, was the only new candidate on the stage who didn’t also participate in the first set of debates. The debates were held over two nights to accommodate most of the large Democratic primary field. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

John Delaney, the entrepreneur and former Maryland congressman, touted a plan centered on a fast-rising carbon tax that he said would get the nation to net zero emissions by mid-century. That and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s talk of aiding fossil fuel workers in the transition to a carbon-neutral world put the supposed soft-pedalers squarely in the same lane traveled by Sanders.

Ryan, a dark horse who casts himself as a working-class hero, didn’t take the bait when he was asked if he was worried by Sanders’ plan to phase out the internal combustion engine. “We’re going to make 10 million electric vehicles somewhere in the world in the next 10 years,” Ryan said. “I want them made in the United States.”

That put him right in tune with Warren, who said her big-ticket, transformative industrial and trade platform would position a new American green-energy industry as an exporter of technology to the world. It is a theme that seems destined to re-emerge when one of the contenders faces President Donald Trump, who touts his “Energy Dominance” agenda of increasing U.S. exports of carbon fuels.

Sanders was the most vocal in blasting the fossil fuel industry: “What do you do with an industry that knowingly, for billions of dollars in short-term profits, is destroying this planet?” But others have taken aim at the fossil fuels industries, too, as when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York proposed recently to impose an excise tax on their production to pay for climate damages.

For anyone seeking detailed, thoughtful discussion of complex policy particulars, this was an ill-suited format: 20 candidates, divided over two nights, spent 21 minutes in total on climate and environmental issues, similar to the first debate, in June. Inevitably, it boiled down to sound bites.

A Role for Fossil Fuels?

From time to time, CNN’s panelists managed to fan sparks into brief flames.

“What do you know that they don’t?” Dana Bash asked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee at the opening of a short round-robin on climate change.

In response, Inslee singled out Biden’s platform as full of “middle ground solutions” that “are not going to save us.”

Biden bristled, “There’s nothing middle ground about my plan.” He pointed to his 2030 goal for all-electric vehicles—a seemingly more rapid deployment than envisioned in a bill co-sponsored by Sanders, Harris and Gillibrand. But a close reading of Biden’s platform shows 2030 is his deadline for the roll-out of a charging station network, not an all-EV fleet.

“Our house is on fire,” Inslee shot back. “We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a president to do it or it won’t get done.”

Pressing Biden, Bash asked whether fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, had “any place in your administration.” Biden answered vaguely that “we would work it out.”

Still Waiting to Hear How They’ll Get There

Atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton, who has been one of the lead authors of the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said the candidates’ universal acknowledgement of the climate crisis was “certainly interesting and, up to a point, encouraging.”

“While it’s nice that most were on board with the concept of an aggressive stance against climate change, by and large we are still waiting for the ‘how to get there’ part,” Oppenheimer said.

For now, there may still be too many long-shot candidates and too many spitball pitches to completely make sense of the climate policy debate. Still, even the least likely players were reckoning with the enormity of the challenge.

“This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late. We are 10 years too late,” said Andrew Yang, the technology entrepreneur who believes a universal basic income could help address all our ailments, even the climate crisis.

“We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction,” he said, “but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground.”