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The Case for A Climate Debate

Five minutes and twenty-seven seconds—that’s the total stage time candidates spent talking about climate change in the 2016 presidential debates. Back then, disregarding the climate crisis was the norm. One party denied the scientific truth of global warming. The other treated acknowledgement of this truth as little more than an applause line. The political media barely reported on the issue. In fact, cable-news coverage of climate change declined sharply, by 45 percent, from 2017 to 2018, according to a study by Media Matters. Until Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the Sunrise Movement occupied House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office last November, this crisis was not treated as a pressing political issue. This is why the Democratic National Committee (DNC) must hold a climate debate. Climate change demands the stage, now.

The United States must act decisively to avert catastrophic warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to scientists. Last month, atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 415 parts per million for the first time in three million years. The last time that happened, forests grew in Antarctica, the Greenland ice sheet did not exist and sea-levels were more than 50 feet higher than they are today. Our species did not yet walk the earth.

Fossil fuels are cooking the planet and wreaking havoc on communities built in a bygone geological era. In March, historic flooding inundated the Missouri River basin, washing away farms and homes. Last year, the Camp fire torched Paradise, CA, in less than half an hour, killing 85 people. The year before that, Hurricane Maria, killed more than 3,000 Puerto Ricans. Despite the high costs of inaction, politicians have largely ignored this crisis. Dr. James Hansen frist testified to Congress in 1988, creating public and political awareness about climate change, and in the years since, polluters burned more fossil fuels than in all prior human history.

To ensure climate change gets the platform it deserves, grassroots activists have been campaigning for a climate debate and have collected over 200,000 signatures calling on the DNC to host such a discussion. Washington state Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski has drafted a resolution, signed by at least nine state party chairs and over 50 party members, calling for a debate. Fifteen presidential candidates, eager to show leadership on the issue, have joined their call. Polling from our organization, Data for Progress, shows that 64 percent of Democrats and left-leaning independents support the idea.

Rank-and-file Democrats want a climate debate. Our party does not. What’s more, the DNC says it will blacklist candidates who participate in any unsanctioned debates about global warming or any other issue. 

The committee is reluctant to sanction a debate about one issue because it would alienate other activists who have devoted themselves to causes like immigration, education, and health care, and would see the party effectively ranking issues.

This is bad reasoning and bad politics. For one, the issue of climate gets short shrift because of a systemic media bias. Health care will attract attention because it will be a central theme of Democratic paid advertising. As the progressive MSNBC host Chris Hayes has acknowledged, climate change doesn’t get attention because it’s not sexy and kills ratings. With its power, the DNC could force cable news to cover this issue as one of literal planetary importance, and bring it ratings, too.  

In Data for Progress surveys of Democratic voters, climate is regularly seen as a top issue. We use an allocator method that forces people to make hard choices about what they want to see in candidates, and climate action is a top issue. This finding is consistent with other research from organizations like the Center for American Progress. 

Further, because of a new injection of ambition, climate is one of the most fraught issues in the Democratic ecosystem and one that governors and state legislators grapple with regularly (New York recently passed its Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act). A national debate grappling with the many outstanding questions would be similarly useful

The DNC position sacrifices an opportunity to put climate change on the same footing as other pocketbook issues where it belongs.

In recent months, climate change has emerged as a leading issue in the 2020 elections. In most surveys, the climate crisis is ranked as the top or second-most important issue for Democratic primary voters. An unprecedented swell of grassroots organizing led by youth movements like Sunrise and the U.S. Climate Strikes has rapidly elevated climate to the top of the national agenda. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a resolution for a Green New Deal, outlining goals and projects for a ten-year mobilization to take on global warming. Fourteen candidates have endorsed this vision. Think tanks like our own have begun crafting policies around this mission. Other campaigns, politicians, academics, and groups have responded by developing their own platforms, plans, and legislation. A new era of national climate debate has begun.

But beyond elite and activist circles, that debate remains dominated by Fox News. By refusing to host a climate debate, the DNC is letting the right-wing define the issue.

Over the last several months, Fox has used its platform to feed viewers a steady diet of misleading and, in some cases, outright inaccurate criticism of Democratic climate policies like the Green New Deal. In a survey Data for Progress fielded in April, we found that voters who reported getting their political news from Fox overwhelmingly heard “mostly negative” things about the Green New Deal. Among Fox viewers—who account for over half of Republican voters and over a quarter of all voters—74 percent reported that what they’d heard about the Green New Deal was “mostly negative.” Respondents in our survey were also asked to provide open-ended word associations about the Democratic climate policy. Phrases borrowed from right-wing talking points like “cow,” “fart,” and “airplanes” were among the most common responses. It’s tempting to find humor in this data, except when you realize that it reflects the state of debate on the most significant issue of our time.

At the same time, our survey found moderate and liberal stations have provided Democratic climate policy mixed coverage and far less airtime. A recent Green Advocacy Project study independently corroborates these findings.

While critics on the right, including President Trump, treat the “Liberal Media” like a piñata, the fact is when it comes to climate, coverage has been anything but favorable. Beyond the beltway, Americans have not been given anything like a fair opportunity to decide where they stand on this most pressing issue.

If we host a climate debate, this could change. In the final part of our survey, we aimed to understand what policies had broad, popular support. Respondents rated “clean air and clean water”  extremely important. At the same time, conservative and Republican voters were particularly concerned with developing sustainable agriculture. As Trump has been uniquely adept at undermining the business models of many farmers with his 18th-century approach to trade policy, a savvy candidate could exploit this area of opportunity in alignment with the goals of the Green New Deal. And by talking about the issues, we can convince more voters. Our survey found that, with progressive framing, the Green New Deal is popular.

Our analysis suggests that climate policy needs more airtime. Climate is a complex issue and there is a lot to discuss. In our latest memo, “An Insider’s Guide to the Climate Debate,” we outline 14 of these subjects and arguments on all sides of them: from carbon pricing, to public investment, to phasing out fossil fuels, to building greener cities, to investing in new technologies, advancing economic and racial justice, and much more. By leaning into these debates, Democratic candidates can distinguish themselves and change minds. But first, the DNC has to provide the platform.

Julian Brave NoiseCat is Director of Green New Deal Strategy for Data for Progress and Narrative Change Director with the Natural History Museum. He is also a correspondent for Real America with Jorge Ramos and contributing editor at Canadian Geographic.

Sean McElwee is the co-founder of Data for Progress.

Greg Carlock is a Washington, DC-based researcher in climate-action policy and Green New Deal research director at Data for Progress. The views expressed here do not reflect those of World Resources Institute.