A Democratic debate on the climate crisis? Party to vote on urgent idea

Susie Cagle in San Francisco
Photograph: CNN/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

As delegates from the Democratic National Committee (DNC) meet this week in San Francisco to hear from 2020 candidates, hold fundraising events and tend to party business, there’s an urgent issue on the agenda: the climate crisis.

More specifically, should one of the 12 Democratic debates be devoted entirely to the issue?

Calls for a DNC-sanctioned climate debate have been building for months. Now a party committee is expected to vote Thursday morning on competing resolutions to determine whether such an event should go ahead. While most advocates believe the answer will be no, they say this is the latest, but not the last, time the party will debate a climate debate – the issue is simply too pressing to let go.

In poll after poll, climate has been one of the most important issues to likely Democratic voters in the 2020 presidential election. But little time has been devoted to the topic in debates to date: a scant 15 minutes in the first set of debates, and just over 20 in the most recent two.

While pressure has mounted inside and outside the party to hold a climate-focused debate, DNC leadership has pushed back at every turn. The struggle has highlighted divisions between party leadership and a progressive base that is increasingly vocal about the urgent need to address the climate emergency.

“Climate is such an intersectional issue. It allows us to talk about jobs, economics, racial disparities, healthcare, national security,” said Tina Podlodowski, the chair of the Washington State Democrats and the author of the resolution calling for a climate debate. “And then of course there’s that little issue of the very survival of our species.”

Since April, calls for Democrats to hold a climate debate have trickled up from environmental advocates to state party leadership. The resolution has more than 70 co-sponsors from across the country. Last week, Progressive Democrats of America circulated an open letter to the DNC chair, Tom Perez, calling for a climate debate, signed by environmental group leaders and activists alongside party members.

But DNC leadership has held fast to its position against “single issue” debates. Earlier this month, Perez added his own resolution to the San Francisco convention schedule that, while affirming Democrats’ commitment to climate action, stood by the current debate schedule.

In a Medium post, Perez wrote that amending party rules and allowing for a climate debate “would be putting our thumb on the scale”, as the DNC has also received requests for topical debates ranging from gun control to seniors issues.

Activists, however, argue that climate change is not a “single issue”. “The climate crisis impacts every aspect of our lives,” said Sofie Karasek, the deputy communications director at the youth-led Sunrise Movement, which has been pressuring Democrats to spend more time on the problem. “It just continues to show that the leadership of the party is out of touch with what the base wants.”

Related: Adults failed to take climate action. Meet the young activists stepping up

The first four debates were dominated by healthcare, immigration and the economy. What discussion there was on the climate crisis highlighted stark differences between the candidates. John Hickenlooper, who has since dropped out of the race, and John Delaney have both rejected the Green New Deal, in contrast with Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, while Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the race on Wednesday, built his entire candidacy around climate action.

A formal debate “would make for good television, but perhaps not good intra-Democrat party politics”, said Karasek.

The DNC has argued that two televised “climate forums” scheduled to take place in September are a sufficient substitute for a debate. CNN will host a climate forum on 4 September, featuring 10 of the frontrunners. MSNBC, Georgetown University and Our Daily Planet will host another forum from 19-20 September, open to all declared candidates.

However, say advocates, a forum and a debate are not comparable political events, either in form or reach. The forum format will have individual speakers on stage, unchallenged by other candidates. And while the debates have commanded between 10 and 18 million viewers, town halls and forums tend to attract far lower ratings.

And any independently organized climate debate event is unlikely, as DNC rules could disqualify candidates from future official events if they were to engage in one.

Despite low expectations for Thursday’s vote, supporters of a debate say they won’t be deterred. There are plans to bring the resolution to the convention floor for a vote Saturday. And, if that doesn’t work, they plan to continue to raise the issue throughout the long primary campaign, with the hopes that candidates will take up the issue and demand the debate themselves.

“The voters aren’t going to let go of this, and the state parties aren’t going to let go of this,” said Podlodowski. “In an election, if something’s not working, you change.”