Democrats Say They Want a Climate Debate. So Which Ones Killed It?

The leading 2020 candidates supposedly wanted a debate devoted to climate—but the Democratic National Committee shot down that idea. We should know who is responsible.
August 28, 2019, 6:23pm
Bernie Sanders onstage with Joe Biden.
Bernie Sanders (left) and Joe Biden at a June Democratic debate. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

Over the weekend, members of the Democratic National Committee appeared to kill off any hopes of a debate devoted to climate change. Following a Thursday vote by top DNC officials to not hold a presidential debate focused on climate, the full DNC voted 222-137 on Saturday not to even allow candidates to debate the issue at hypothetical non-DNC-sanctioned events. In doing so, the DNC ignored the voices of protesters who, The Mercury News reported, disrupted the meeting in San Francisco with chants of "We can't wait!" DNC Chair Tom Perez has been adamant throughout the public wrangling over the debate that it would be unfair to raise up climate change above all other issues, and this argument has apparently carried the day, even though climate advocates say that the warming planet deserves to be placed at the center of the Democratic agenda.

What makes this decision notable is not that the Democratic establishment has ignored demands from left-wing activists—everyone is surely used to that by now—but has also publicly broken with the vast majority of Democratic candidates who have publicly indicated they want a climate debate, a group that includes not just lefties like Elizabeth Warren but the relatively moderate frontrunner Joe Biden. Confusingly, the Democratic Party is publicly breaking ranks with the most popular and prominent Democrats in the country, and the DNC needs to offer a better explanation of why it is doing what it's doing.

The DNC is largely not a public-facing organization. Its membership, as laid out in the Democratic Party charter, mostly consists of the leadership of the state Democratic parties, the heads of various Democratic organizations like the National Democratic Municipal Officials Conference, and other VIPs appointed by state parties. These people are mostly not famous and the DNC itself is rarely in the news. A full list of its members, if it exists, is very difficult to find.

But the decision to not hold a climate debate isn't just another intraparty squabble, it's a matter of vital public importance. In an oversaturated, overlong 2020 campaign, debate nights still cut through the noise: The first debate in June scored record ratings, and though the second round of debates drew fewer viewers, nearly 10 million people tuned in. Setting aside one of those debates for climate change would create an opportunity to educate Americans about the issue, emphasize its importance, and underline how committed the Democratic Party is to fighting it. (A seven-hour climate change "town hall" scheduled to be livestreamed by CNN will likely have far fewer viewers, and less impact, than an official debate.) While defending his record on climate change in May, Biden said of his attitude in the 80s, "I said, we have an existential threat, we are in a situation where, if we don’t act quickly, we’re going to basically lose almost everything we have… And that’s exactly the case. It’s even more urgent now." Surely nearly every Democrat, in or outside of the DNC, would agree with that.

So it seems fair to ask why Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser, was against holding a climate debate and called it "dangerous territory in the middle of a Democratic primary process." It seems fair to wonder who voted to quash the climate debate, and what positions they hold within the party. (VICE asked the DNC for such a list but did not get a response. We also asked the Biden campaign to clarify its position on a climate debate but have not heard back.) Perez, the DNC chair, wrote that changing the debate rules to devote an event to climate would amount to "putting our thumb on the scale"; it might be fair to wonder whether he was partially motivated by the thousands donated to the DNC by fossil-fuel company executives. Last year, Perez backed a resolution, which the DNC passed overwhelmingly, that allowed the organization to take money from fossil-fuel employees—he said he wanted to make sure the Democrats remain "a party of a big tent where all working people are welcome. We’re not a party that punishes workers simply based on how they make ends meet."

Do you have inside knowledge of internal deliberations about a climate debate going on inside the Democratic Party? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Harry Cheadle securely on Signal at +1 929 400 2927 or email harry.cheadle@vice.com.

One might also ask whether the Democratic candidates who have loudly supported a climate debate might be willing to challenge the DNC publicly and agree among themselves to hold such a debate, with or without DNC approval. If Biden, Warren, and Bernie Sanders all said they wouldn't be apart of any debates unless one of them was devoted to climate, surely the DNC would back down. So why have the campaigns not done so? (VICE reached out to the Warren, Sanders, and Kamala Harris campaigns to ask whether they would defy the DNC on the matter, but did not receive a response.)

A slate of candidates feuding openly with the party establishment would be an extreme move. So, for that matter, is banning contributions from the oil industry; so is changing the previously-agreed-to rules to create a climate debate.

But if climate change is a crisis—or, to quote the Democratic Party platform, a "real and urgent threat"—extreme measures would seem warranted. Democrats have two choices that make sense: They can continue to call climate change an existential threat and start acting like it, or they can continue to go about business as usual and stop using the language of crisis. As it stands, the stated position of the Democratic Party seems to be that the world is on fire, but that there’s no reason to do anything differently.

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