During the first Democratic debate Wednesday night, the moderators and candidates spent all of seven minutes talking about climate change.
That’s more time than global warming got during all of the 2016 presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. But since the 2016 election, the climate crisis has risen to the top of Democratic voters’ concerns. Voters now want to hear about solutions in a way they didn’t three years ago — and that means a full debate centered entirely on the issue.
Even when the debate did put a spotlight on climate change — which has contributed to chronic flooding in Miami, where the debates are happening — the discussion stayed broad and shallow. Yet two of the candidates on the stage, former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, have released detailed plans that try to turn the Green New Deal into specific policy. And others have made climate change central to their platforms.
For example, the only question about taxing carbon emissions, which would gradually make polluting more expensive to incentivize companies to switch to cleaner energy sources, went to Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio. He’s a relatively unknown candidate who hasn't put forward a thorough plan to address climate change.
“We can’t green the economy without the power of the free-market system,” Ryan said, emphasizing that a transition away from fossil fuels would have to engage with businesses.
Inslee, on the other hand, has staked his campaign on bringing attention to manmade global heating and put forward four installments of a still-developing plan to end fossil fuel use in the U.S. He had previously floated the idea of having a debate centered entirely on climate change. At least 18 of his competitors have thrown their support behind the idea, although the Democratic National Committee, which organizes the debates, remains opposed to a single-issue debate event.
But Sen. Elizabeth Warren beat Inslee to mentioning climate change at the debate Wednesday night. The Massachusetts senator, who’s been flexing her progressive chops in an effort to overtake Sen. Bernie Sanders, brought up the issue in the context of her plan to break up huge corporations.
Moderator Rachel Maddow also asked Inslee about what he would do to prevent rising tides from submerging Miami. He responded with a notably political answer and veered away from the policy-heavy proposals that he’s built his campaign on so far.
The first step to saving Miami, per Inslee: “Taking away the filibuster from Mitch McConnell to start with, you have to do that,” he said. “I am the candidate and the only one who is saying this [climate change] has to be the top priority of the United States.”
Asked how he would get a message to voters who view climate action as government overreach, O’Rourke said he was engaging with communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. “We, in our administration, are going to fund resiliency in those communities, in Miami, in Houston, Texas, those places that are on the front lines of climate change today,” O’Rourke said. “We’re going to put farmers and ranchers in the driver’s seat.”
Still, O’Rourke has a spotty record on the climate. He took tons of cash from the fossil fuel industry in his 2018 Senate campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, and he voted twice to lift the limit on U.S. crude oil exports, which would have benefited the fossil fuel industry.
At one point, moderator Chuck Todd asked Castro who should pay for climate change resiliency for people who, in his assessment, shouldn’t be living in the low-lying areas.
Castro sidestepped the question and said that it missed the point: It’s not the case, he argued, that most people choose to live in the path of rising sea levels. (That’s true.) He also emphasized resiliency and getting the U.S. back into the Paris Climate Accord.
Toward the end of the debate, Todd intended to put forward a foreign policy question. “Who is the greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S.?” he asked. But a few Democrats took the opportunity to pivot from naming a geopolitical actor to a more existential threat. Three candidates on the stage — Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Julián Castro, Sen. Cory Booker and Beto O’Rourke — said climate change posed the greatest threat to the U.S.
Inslee notably didn’t say climate change. He said Trump.
After the debates, Inslee told Politico that climate change is “an existential threat to life on this planet, and seven minutes is not enough” to debate how to address the crisis. In fact, Inslee spoke the least out of any of the candidates, for only four minutes and 57 seconds, according to NPR.
But Inslee may have used his time as an attempt to become more than a single-issue candidate. He expressed his support for unions as a means of addressing income inequality, spoke about decriminalizing crossing the border, and providing universal health care that covers abortions.
Cover image: Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a Democratic primary debate hosted by NBC News at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Art, Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)