The Democratic Debates Showcased the Most Dangerous Form of Climate Denial

By failing to recognize the urgency of the crisis, most candidates are helping bury it.

BY Thea N. Riofrancos

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Democratic presidential candidates take part in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debate on June 27, 2019 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

An ongoing forest fire has ravaged more than 42,000 acres of the Florida Everglades. Forest fires are a natural occurrence, but they are expected to get worse as climate change lengthens the fire season and reduces rainfall. About 40 miles south of the blaze is Miami, a coastal city of half a million resting on a foundation of porous limestone, which floods on sunny days and could be partly underwater by 2045.

The first Democratic Primary Debates of the 2020 election unfolded in Miami amid this climate chaos. Climate change will transform the future in unforeseeably ways. But this transformation is already happening all around us. The next decade is the time to embark on a just transition to climate safety: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report says that we need to cut global carbon emissions in half in this timeframe to have any hope of staving off a climate crisis that would existentially threaten human society. Alarmingly, most Democratic candidates have made it clear that they have little understanding of the magnitude of the threat and the response required to meet it. And moderators curated debates devoid of the urgency this moment demands.

On Wednesday, the first debate devoted a total of seven minutes to the existential threat of global warming. The moderators evidenced paltry knowled­ge of the subject: Chuck Todd confused the key terms “mitigation” (reducing emissions) and “adaptation” (increasing resiliency), and echoed right-wing talking points about the “cost” of addressing climate change. None of the 10 candidates mentioned the Green New Deal. On Thursday, it was eight minutes spent on climate, and three candidates referred briefly to the Green New Deal. One of them was John Hickenloper, who cited it as an example of why candidates shouldn’t identify as socialists.

Of course, it’s far more important to look at what candidates actually do beyond the debate spotlight. Jay Inslee stands out for convincingly campaigning on climate change as his number-one priority. His plans for sector-by-sector decarbonization and phasing out the fossil fuel industry are impressively detailed—and even suggest using state power to decommission oil, gas and coal assets.

Elizabeth Warren has multiple plans for that, and aspects of them, like the call for a concerted industrial policy and mass job creation, are good. But a worrying thread of “economic patriotism” unites those plans: She sees the global market for green technology as a way for the U.S. to reassert its manufacturing prowess, a quest for dominance that would undermine global cooperation.

At last night’s debate, Todd did a slightly better job presenting his climate question, framing climate change as a “major concern for voters” and asking for policy details. But candidates’ responses left much to be desired.

Kamala Harris referred to the “climate crisis” as an “existential threat” and voiced support for a Green New Deal, but quickly pivoted to other supposed threats—Trump, King Jong Un, and Putin—thus undercutting the punch of her initially bold statement.

Joe Biden waxed nostalgic about the Obama administration’s achievements, emphasized the need for electric-vehicle-recharging stations, and discussed jobs and the Paris Accord before pointing the finger at the “85 percent of the world makes up the rest” of carbon emissions.

Hickenloper, a man who once claimed he drank fracking fluid to prove it was harmless, said working with the oil and gas industry will help address climate change. But those industries are to blame both for climate change and for fostering the dangerous negligence of our political system; they must be dismantled and their executives prosecuted.

Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures.” His first example? A “carbon tax and dividend”—the posterchild for the gradual, technocratic, market-oriented proposals that have failed to gain political traction or avert climate chaos.

Of the 20, only Bernie Sanders seemed to grasp—and relish—the need to confront the fossil fuel industry, and to divert the “trillion and a half dollars” we spend “on weapons of destruction” to transform our energy systems. It’s less the dollar amount that sets him apart, and more the way he links international cooperation and U.S. demilitarization—and doesn’t shy away from naming climate change as our “common enemy.” Yet he didn’t mention the Green New Deal, even though it is an element of his campaign platform.

Weeks earlier, Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, rejected calls for a debate centered on the climate emergency. His reasons, which framed the climate crisis as one narrow “issue” among many others and concern-trolled about breaking the previously-devised rules governing debate procedure, were cringeworthy. He also threatened any candidate who participates in a unsanctioned debate with exclusion from the official ones.

By doing so, he offered an on-the-nose illustration of how the political establishment is aiding and abetting the crimes of fossil capital. Perhaps Democratic Party elites believe that ignoring climate change is somehow necessary to winning over some slice of voters against Trump next November. But they're wrong on the politics: People know that action is necessary. According to recent polls commissioned by Data for Progress, 64% of registered Democratic voters want a climate debate and 71% support a Green New Deal.

On Tuesday, hundreds of Sunrise Movement activists descended the DNC headquarters, demanding a climate debate. As of Thursday, dozens remained, having camped out overnight. Their persistence matches the depth of the crisis. As Sunrise co-founder Varshini Prakash said in a statement released Tuesday, “Business as usual is a death sentence.”

The most dangerous form of climate denial is no longer Senator Jim Inhofe throwing a snowball on the Senate floor to prove that global warming isn’t real, or Trump calling climate change a Chinese hoax. It’s liberal and centrist politicians who should know better appealing to “bipartisan consensus,” immediately shifting the blame to other countries when the U.S. has among the highest per-capita emissions in the world, or asking, “How will we pay for it?”

Moderators shouldn't wait roughly an hour and 19 minutes, as they did at last night's debate, to ask the first question explicitly about climate change—and Democratic candidates shouldn't wait for them to do so either. Climate change shapes every other political question. It does not belong on a laundry list of topics, because we can’t build a better world without a livable planet.


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Thea N. Riofrancos is assistant professor of political science at Providence College and serves on the steering committee of the Democratic Socialists of America’s ecosocialist working group. Her forthcoming book is Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-Extractivism in Ecuador.

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