On August 22, the Democratic National Committee’s resolutions committee rejected a resolution to sponsor a climate debate, dealing a significant blow to a months-long campaign from activists and most of the Democratic presidential field. A climate-focused debate would have helped voters learn where the candidates stand on potential solutions, motivated candidates to articulate clear plans for climate action, and ensured that debate moderators don't give climate short shrift as they have done in years past.
Behind the grassroots movement for climate-focused debate
In April, environmental and progressive groups including Credo Action, 350 Action, Greenpeace USA, Sunrise Movement, the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, and Daily Kos began circulating three petitions requesting that the DNC hold a climate-focused debate. Not only have the petitions garnered more than 300,000 signatures, but leading presidential primary candidates have also called for a climate debate. DNC Chair Tom Perez defended his organization’s refusal to hold a climate debate and downplayed activists’ concerns in a June Medium post, writing:
If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had? How do we say no to other candidates in the race who may request debates focused on an issue they’ve made central to their own campaigns?
When all is said and done, I’m confident that we will meet our North Star test of ensuring that the primary process was fair to everyone, that our debates focused on the key issues, and that the American people will know the Democratic Party has their back. I’m equally confident that climate change will receive more attention than ever before — and deservedly so.
In late June, shortly after NBC hosted a two-night debate in which less than 6% of the questions were about climate change, the DNC announced that its resolutions committee would vote on two proposals -- one calling for an official debate on climate change and the other calling for an informal forum on the topic.
The DNC’s decision ignores how little climate change is discussed during debates
The Democratic debates have failed to substantively discuss climate change during the current election cycle so far. The climate crisis was the topic of 9.5% of questions during the most recent two-night Democratic presidential primary debate on July 30 and 31 -- CNN moderators posed a total of 242 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, and just 23 were climate-related. During the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, only 5.8% of the questions were about climate change. These numbers are only slightly better than those of the 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, when only 1.5% of the questions were about climate change.
When moderators and panelists bothered to ask questions about the climate crisis during the first two Democratic debates of 2019, they tended to be shallow and lack follow-up, which resulted in uninformative exchanges. For example, the climate questions NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked on both nights of the June debates were poor, in some cases ignoring the crushing costs of climate disaster and instead fixating on the potential costs of taking action. Their questions on the second night were slightly better -- they at least asked a few of the candidates to describe their climate plans. CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash, who moderated the climate portion during both nights of the CNN debate, focused her climate-related questions on the Green New Deal’s feasibility and on asking candidates if the climate proposal was “realistic.”
Why a climate debate is still necessary
Although the DNC did advance a different measure on the issue that would potentially allow the candidates to appear “on the same stage, engaging one another in discussion,” it's unclear if the committee's rules would actually allow that. CNN and MSNBC are scheduled to host climate forums next month that could now allow the candidates to share the same stage. But they are no substitute for a debate dedicated to the climate crisis.
Sunrise, which staged a multiday sit-in at DNC headquarters in June to demand a climate debate, immediately tweeted its disappointment with the DNC’s decision to reject a climate debate.
A DNC-sanctioned climate debate would give millions of voters an opportunity to watch the candidates have a substantive, focused debate about how they plan to lead on the existential crisis of our time. The debate in Miami on June 26 and 27 garnered about 15.3 million viewers on the first night and nearly 18.1 million on the second, breaking the record for the biggest audience for a Democratic primary debate. While the audience for CNN’s July debate was much smaller, more than 8 million people still watched the first night and nearly 11 million watched on the second.
The DNC’s decision to reject a climate debate will only embolden grassroots activists to keep fighting to ensure the climate crisis gets the attention it so urgently requires.