Time Is Running Out, So Why Aren't Democrats Yelling About Climate Change?

The party has shifted to the left and is proposing bold new solutions on a range of issues—but its leading figures aren't talking much about the most existential threat to our future.
Photo illustration by Lia Kantrowitz from photos via Getty

As 2020 approaches, the Democratic Party’s top presidential hopefuls are scrambling to the left. From Medicare for all to a federal jobs guarantee to abolishing ICE, many of the party’s most buzzed-about potential candidates are backing unabashedly left-wing policies as they anticipate a presidential primary season where progressive credentials are seen as imperative. After all, they’ll be competing for votes from a base that is more fond of the idea of socialism than capitalism, according to a recent Gallup poll.


But the Democrats’ major contenders have been strikingly reserved about one major policy issue: climate change.

Unlike the economy and healthcare, climate change isn’t a policy space where the Democrats’ leading lights are striving to out-flank each other. Major potential candidates like senators Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders aren’t making global warming a focal point of their messaging, nor are they unveiling flashy legislation or policy positions that show off how progressive their solutions are. At the annual Netroots Nation conference earlier in August—a key event for presidential hopefuls looking to court progressive activists—climate policy was largely overshadowed by discussions about how to go bolder on higher education, the economy, criminal justice, and immigration.

The quietness around climate change has been all the more noticeable since the past few months have been packed with climate-related catastrophes. “This summer we are seeing the true face of climate change, in the form of record floods, droughts, heat waves and wildfires,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, told me. “And I think people are now getting this at a gut level, as the tragedy of extreme weather events play out in real time on their television screens.” When terrifying “fire tsunamis” are engulfing chunks of the nation and scientists are crying out that the nightmare they’ve been warning about is already here, it’s an obvious opportunity to talk seriously about tackling global warming. And yet climate policy appears to be on track to remain a second- or third-tier issue for another election cycle.


Climate policy analysts say that if Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress after the 2020 elections, it will be the best chance they have to secure sweeping climate legislation in a generation. But the window of opportunity will be small, given the historical likelihood that they lose the House or the Senate after the 2022 midterms. Considering the speed at which the world is hurtling toward heating up 2°C higher than pre-industrial levels—the tipping point after which the world will be struck by the worst effects of climate change, according to many experts—it could be the last major opportunity for the US to prevent the most extreme environmental disasters humanity has ever seen.

But for real action to take place in 2021, top Democrats need to be talking about climate now, and put forth a climate policy equivalent of Medicare for all—a deeply ambitious program that they can sell to voters while demonstrating they’re serious about global warming. Climate policy experts say that such a plan is still a possibility, but time is running out fast.

One reason that there isn’t yet a climate version of Medicare for all is there isn’t an obvious Democratic establishment position to break from, no Affordable Care Act equivalent that frustrated the left. Democrats’ last big legislative push on climate was the American Clean Energy and Security Act, commonly known as the Waxman-Markey bill, back during Barack Obama’s first term. Climate advocates didn’t consider it a dream piece of legislation by any means, but it was a substantive effort that would’ve established a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions, imposed serious regulations on the fossil fuel industry, invested in clean energy, and more. It passed the House in 2009, but ultimately the Democrats prioritized other bills ahead of it, and as the specter of a Tea Party–fueled massacre in the midterm elections grew, it lost momentum and died in the Senate in 2010 without coming to a vote.


But when control of Congress flipped to Republicans, Obama turned to executive actions to fight climate change. Most notably, he signed the Clean Power Plan in 2015, which was meant to drastically cut carbon emissions from the country’s power plants but which was blocked in courts after conservative legal challenges and eventually reversed by the Trump administration. Obama also raised fuel economy standards for cars, restricted fossil fuel extraction on public land, and, under immense pressure from environmental activists, axed plans for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. All of those measures have been reversed by Donald Trump as well.

Democrats oppose Trump’s climate actions, of course, but they don’t have much more to offer than condemnations. They have no consensus bill or widely backed program for taking action on global warming. And there are no obvious efforts on the Hill at the moment to generate one; as usual, climate change is being treated as something to be handled after more urgent issues are dealt with.

That isn’t to say there aren’t Democratic bills in existence. There’s the 100 by 50 Act, introduced to the Senate last year by Oregon’s Jeff Merkley and cosponsored by potential 2020 contenders Sanders (probably the most outspoken likely candidate when it comes to climate) and Booker. The bill seeks to move the US to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050 with measures like financial support for clean energy and assistance for displaced fossil fuel workers. Julian Noisecat, a policy analyst at progressive climate justice group 350.org, told me that it’s “the most ambitious and progressive piece of federal climate legislation that was ever written.”


But the 100 by 50 bill did not garner widespread buzz or support, even among progressive lawmakers. It’s mostly a symbolic piece of legislation—as Robinson Meyer noted at The Atlantic last year, the bill “includes no economy-wide mechanism to phase down carbon emissions.” And neither Sanders nor Booker seem to be keen on promoting it much these days anyway.

There are also more modest climate bills, like Merkley’s Keep It in the Ground Act, which would ban new fossil fuel extraction on federal lands and offshore, and is cosponsored by Sanders, Gillibrand, and Warren. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Brian Schatz have drafted the American Opportunity Carbon Fee Act, a modest corporate-friendly carbon tax that’s explicitly designed to lure Republican lawmakers across the aisle—and has almost entirely failed to do so. Neither of these bills represent a comprehensive attempt at tackling climate change, and neither is getting much promotion or attention.

All in all, the climate policy space is wide open. There’s huge opportunities for big ideas and for a candidate to use the issue to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in what’s shaping up to be a very crowded Democratic primary. The question is whether anyone thinks it’s worth it.

Protesters at 2017's Climate March on Washington. Photo by Jason Bergman

It’s commonly believed that climate policy is cursed by how easy it is to postpone it. Polls show that most Americans, including many conservatives, are at least somewhat concerned about human-caused global warming, and say that something must be done about it. Many of them believe, presumably, that in the long run it is the issue that trumps all others, given that the future of civilization depends on finding a solution. But relatively few voters seem to want to make it a top priority right now.


What makes things even more complicated is the long-running tension between the climate justice movement and the labor movement. When it comes to issues like shuttering oil pipelines, the two groups often lock horns, with climate advocates claiming that oil workers need to stand down and shift to renewable energy and fossil fuel workers arguing that their economic future is being flippantly dismissed. “There have been folks in both camps who have not done the work of building trust and alliances,” Evan Weber, the national policy director for the climate justice group Sunrise Movement, told me. That split on the left has made some Democrats wary of embracing the climate justice movement too eagerly, and it’s why the Democratic National Committee recently reversed its ban on fossil fuel company donations.

But with the right message and the right messenger, climate could become a prominent issue if a candidate seizes on it—think of how Sanders single-handedly turned economic inequality into the watchword of the 2016 primary.

The key to making climate an issue everyone cares about, climate policy experts say, is to connect it to people’s lives—make it tangible and offer a positive vision of the future to the public. Both Weber and Noisecat say that a “Green New Deal” —a term that’s being used by rising democratic socialists like New York congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—is the most promising frame for tackling climate change. The idea is to move away from austere-sounding rhetoric about cutting emissions and instead talk about how a more sustainable economy can offer opportunity to all.

There are even indications that the federal jobs guarantee programs that some 2020 contenders are eyeing could be fused with a Green New Deal program. According to new polling data from Data for Progress and the Sunrise Movement, a green jobs guarantee appears slightly more popular among both Trump and Hillary Clinton voters than a non-green jobs guarantee.

There’s still time before politicians start formally throwing their hats in the ring to make a run for the White House—that typically comes after the midterm elections in November. But the ideas primary is already on, and policy priorities are beginning to form. As a society we can’t afford to let climate policy not be a top priority anymore. What’s needed is some courage and creativity.

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