First 2020 Debates Spent 15 Minutes on Climate Change. What Did We Learn?

With 20 Democrats and limited time, the debates were heavy on sound bites, but offered some insights into candidates’ ideas. Could a climate-only debate do better?

Democratic candidates take the stage for the second night of the first 2020 primary debate. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

With so many Democrats running for president, the first debate was split into two nights. Here, the second-night candidates take the stage for their first 2020 primary debate. Credit: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty

The discussion of climate change in the Democrats' first presidential debates was a little like the bad meal served up in a famous Woody Allen joke—it was terrible, and such small portions.

With only seven minutes on Wednesday and eight minutes on Thursday given to one of the most consequential and complex issues the next president will face, activists and some candidates renewed their call for a separate climate debate. But would a single-issue forum do any better at giving voters a sense of the candidates' climate leadership potential, without deeper questions and more time for answers?

With a crowded platform of candidates seeking to stand apart from the rest, and answers limited to one minute each, the climate discussion was oddly truncated.

Although four of the 10 candidates who were asked to name the nation's greatest geopolitical threat responded "climate change," none had a chance to say why or what he or she would do about it. One question assumed that action on climate change would have to happen at the expense of health care. Carbon taxing, one of the only solutions mentioned by name, was framed as politically unviable at the start.

The debate did provide some glimmers of information that could be useful to voters who care about climate change and are trying to draw distinctions among the candidates.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)  and former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-Texas) talked about the need to transition off of fossil fuels; while former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper held firm to his contention that working with oil and gas companies was the way to tackle climate change.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg talked about the issue with a focus on Middle America. "Rural America can be part of the solution instead of being told they're part of the problem," he said. "With the right kind of soil management and other kind of investments, rural America could be a huge part of how we get this done." 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) made her climate appeal to the workers who are the central focus of her campaign: "There is a $23 trillion market coming for green products," she said. "We should be the leaders and the owners, and we should have that 1.2 million manufacturing jobs here in America."

The first night of the two-night first debate of the Democratic presidential primary season. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The first night of the Democrats' two-night primary debate, June 26-27. Twenty of the Democrats running for president met the party's requirements to participate, and they were split into two groups, with 10 on the debate stage each night. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The debate did clear the low bar of comparing favorably to previous presidential debates in its treatment of climate change—after all, Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016 without facing a single question on the issue in the 11 primary and three general election debates. But it was questionable whether the brief exchanges among the 20 Democratic contenders for 2020 rose even to the vague standard set by Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez, when he rejected the idea of a climate-focused debate with a promise the issue would be "featured prominently" in the 12 planned wide-ranging forums. 

"Good to discuss climate change. But these questions about climate change are terrible," tweeted Jason Bordoff, a public affairs professor at Columbia University and former energy adviser to President Barack Obama, during the first of the two nights of Democrats' clash.

Young activists from the Sunrise Movement who staged an all-night vigil on the steps of the DNC headquarters in Washington, D.C., between the debates were offered plenty of ammunition to bolster their argument that the party was not giving climate the attention it deserves. "We're trying really hard not to say 'we told you so,'" the group wrote Friday morning on Twitter.

Candidates sought to signal their support for the protest. Sanders sent the protestors pizza. Julian Castro offered breakfast. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee relayed water and cookies, while repeating the call that touched off the intraparty controversy: "The @DNC will not address the climate crisis with the urgency it requires," he pinned at the top of his Twitter feed. "We must hold a #ClimateDebate. Now."

[Update: The weekend after the debates, the DNC Executive Committee agreed to vote as early as August on two measures: one calls for holding a climate policy debate among the candidates, and the other calls for a candiates' forum focused on climage change.] 

A Climate Debate Needs a Different Format

The problem was more than just the scant time allotted to the climate discussion—less than 15 of 240 minutes of debate. Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, said there was something "deeply problematic" about treating climate as just one of many issues the next president will face.

On the crowded stage, with little speaking time, "each of the candidates is going to be looking not to illuminate voters on what they think is the best path forward," said Maibach. "They are just looking to differentiate themselves and one-up their competition."

That is particularly ill-suited to a discussion of climate, which Maibach argued is an issue that in the U.S. is still in an early stage of what legendary pollster Daniel Yankelovitch identified as the "seven stages of public opinion."

Health care, for example, has been at the center of political debate in the United States for years—and the candidates engaged each other in extended sparring over the virtues of a single-payer system versus private insurance with a public option, which many politically engaged viewers would have understood as shorthand for their differing governing philosophies.

Imagine if there had been a similar back-and-forth over a carbon pricing system that used the revenue for mitigation and adaptation projects, versus returning the revenue to households in the form of dividends—two of the legislative approaches that are now in the mix on Capitol Hill. It's not clear that 60-second answers and 30-second rebuttals would have been adequate to lay out the pros and cons in a way that would be comprehensible to those trying to decide among the candidates.

"Most members of the public don't understand climate change very well, and don't understand the solutions very well," said Maibach. He argues that one of the reasons the DNC should hold an entire debate on climate change—perhaps later in the process, when there are fewer candidates—is not only to allow the candidates to fully lay out their plans, but to help educate the public—as will be needed to build support for solutions.

Ducked Questions and Missed Opportunities

Instead, the shallow climate Q and A during the debates emphasized obstacles, even if that was not the intent of the NBC moderators who led the climate questioning, Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow, both of whom have given serious coverage to the climate crisis on their programs.

Todd's question to Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) on a carbon tax not only portrayed such a levy as "politically impossible," it assumed that the tax was a way of raising revenue to address climate damage, rather than a signal to the marketplace to drive innovation and deployment of alternatives to fossil fuels.

Inslee ducked an unanswerable question from Maddow: Would his plan save Miami?

It was significant, though, that Inslee, the most climate-focused candidate on the stage, didn't seize on that opportunity to spell out what his substantial plans would do. Instead, he answered in vague terms ("we now have a vision statement") and described himself as "the only one who's saying this has to be the top priority."

In other words, the candidates themselves gave short shrift to climate change. Across the board, they clearly preferred talking about health care and immigration—but none of them talked about climate as a health issue or as a driver of refugees or migration.

Ryan dodged Todd's carbon tax question to inveigh against what he saw as the Democratic Party's coastal and elitist tilt. Harris moved quickly to North Korea and Kim Jong-un when given an open-ended chance to lay out the details of her climate plan.

Although four of the candidates did mention climate as at least one of the top geopolitical threats that the nation faces, only the two Colorado candidates—Sen. Michael Bennett and Hickenlooper—took the opportunity to list it as their first policy priority if elected.

The Green New Deal, which has animated the national debate on climate change, went unexplored, except for Harris and self-help author Marianne Williamson mentioning their support. Hickenlooper praised its ambition while dismissing it as an example of a socialist idea that the Democrats should steer clear of.

The debates underscored that while polling is showing that climate change is becoming an increasingly important issue for U.S. voters, neither politicians nor the systems now in place for political discourse has found a way to grapple with it.

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