The Democratic National Committee officially voted to kill the idea of a presidential debate on climate at the party’s summer meeting in San Francisco last week.
Now, the question is whether the candidates themselves will go rogue.
DNC leaders have ardently resisted the idea of a single-issue debate on climate change, but activists inside the party organization are teasing the idea of going over their heads. Now they’re taking their plea directly to the candidates, and have even discussed enlisting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to moderate it.
“I guess the question would be, ‘Will they all do it?’” said Washington Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski, a big advocate for a climate debate within the party.
It could come with consequences. Back when Inslee first floated the idea of having a full debate focused on climate change, the DNC told Inslee that if he participated in a climate debate without the Democrats’ blessing, he wouldn’t be welcome at future debates.
But advocates for this plan think DNC Chairman Tom Perez couldn’t possibly ban top-tier candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren from future debates.
“If they will all do it —and all of them have said to this point that they would be willing to do a climate debate — it would be really hard to stop subsequent debates,” Podlodowski said.
Going around the DNC
Going around the DNC could pit the candidates against their own party apparatus, but it might show that candidates are serious about an issue that polling has shown Democratic voters care about. A CNN poll in April found that Democratic voters cared more about addressing climate change than any other issue.
After all, the Amazon rainforest is burning, glacial ice is melting decades earlier than predicted, and July was the hottest month in recorded human history. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts “above normal” hurricane activity through October, a prediction already bearing out with Hurricane Dorian closing in on Florida this weekend.
That’s not to mention September’s global climate strike and the U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, which give activists plenty of opportunities to elevate the message. Plus, CNN and MSNBC are holding climate town halls with candidates in September, where activists are sure to force the matter. During town halls, candidates will speak one after another rather than debate head-on, which the DNC will allow.
Though Inslee, the only presidential candidate in history to focus a campaign almost entirely on the issue of climate change, has bowed out of the race, some think he should still be on the debate stage in a different way.
Christine Pelosi, a DNC official and the daughter of Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said she would pitch Inslee to moderate a climate debate.
“I would have a panel of experts who would be moderating the panel,” Pelosi said. “You can have Gov. Inslee because here's a politician who can say, ‘Here's how you get things done, folks.’”
That would be a remarkable return to national prominence for Inslee, who did not meet the DNC’s polling threshold for making the September debate stage, and dropped out of the race Aug. 21. But he’s made his mark: The candidates who are still in the race have been calling up his campaign to ask for advice on putting together their own climate plans, according to the Daily Beast.
Pelosi said she'd like to see candidates lay out their visions for what the official Democratic Party platform should be out in the open in a series of subject-specific debates. From those, the party would shape its platform. Pushing the party to allow candidates to directly debate the issues at stake on the platform could be a new way to wedge in a debate on climate change.
Asked whether there was a candidate whose proposals might form the basis for the party’s platform on climate change, Pelosi said, “The answer to that question is Jay Inslee."
“He has really embraced the role of the person who's willing to say, ‘Look, Democrats, this is really, really important,’” she added. “In terms of the impact he's had on the race, it's tremendous. Everyone should be building on and riffing off of the Inslee plan.”
Inslee had clearly been frustrated by what he sees as the slow pace and triviality in how other campaigns approach climate change. He scolded the current Democratic front-runner, former Vice President Joe Biden, for saying, “We’ll work it out,” in one of the more fiery moments of the last debate in Detroit. He was also frustrated with businessman Andrew Yang’s call for Americans to move to higher ground because of rising sea levels.
“It's not an answer, because you can't run from this. Ultimately, you can't run from the asthma,” Inslee told VICE News that night. “The communities that depend on fishing and don't have any fish to catch, they don't have any higher ground. The people whose houses burned out in California, they don't have any higher ground. No, I disagree. I think to demoralize our national commitment would be a mistake.”
That’s not Yang’s craziest idea for addressing climate change. He’s also proposed putting giant mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away from the Earth.
The climate vote
No one still in the race quite fills Inslee’s shoes as a candidate relentlessly focused on the issue. But now, activists believe there's a competition to win their hearts.
“There’s a competition for who has the most ambitious and comprehensive climate change plan and who is willing to put their political capital on the line,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy organization.
Right after Inslee dropped out, Sanders made a play to fill his shoes as the climate candidate, dropping an extensive plan to curb global warming the day after Inslee bowed out. Sanders wants to prosecute oil executives and to eliminate fossil fuel use by 2050. So far, Greenpeace likes his plan best.
Billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer has also thrown his hat in the race, and has a long history of climate activism. He was once floated as a potential major donor to Inslee’s campaign but decided last month he’d rather take a shot at the White House himself. Steyer is perhaps more recently known for his aggressive push to impeach President Donald Trump, but he is also the founder of NextGen America, a nonprofit that backs candidates who speak out on climate issues.
Steyer, on Wednesday, also failed to make it onto the next debate’s stage — despite spending millions to rake in donations and build name recognition. His campaign said that, though Steyer didn’t make it onto the stage for CNN’s Sept. 4 Climate Town Hall, he’d be hosting his own, by himself, on Sept. 3 in Oakland, California.
Other candidates have stepped up on climate change issues as well, even if environmentalists think they leave something to be desired.
Biden released a climate plan among his first policy planks, including in it an enforcement mechanism to get to net-zero carbon emissions and buy-in from unions. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has said he’d ban fracking and wants to get to 100% clean energy by 2050.
Big picture, the candidates all agree that climate change is real and that decisive action needs to be taken in order to avert its worst consequences. Without a debate, the climate hawks argue, the public won’t know the difference between the candidates' climate platforms.
Cover: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden (2nd R) speaks while Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) (R) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and former housing secretary Julian Castro listen during the Democratic Presidential Debate at the Fox Theatre July 31, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)