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.

Thea N. Riofrancos

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.

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)

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.

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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