Democratic candidates fail to challenge opponents or convey scope of climate crisis in debate

Presidential hopefuls mostly reiterated campaign talking points and policy proposals during seven minutes on climate discussion

The first Democratic presidential debate on Wednesday night spent around seven minutes on a discussion around climate change, exceeding the total time spent on the crisis during all of the 2016 general election debates.


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    Climate change is expected to feature more in the 2020 election than ever before, as experts offer unsparing warnings that the escalating crisis will deprive the poor of basic human rights. Still, it is not being discussed by most as a top-tier political issue.

    The first debates which feature 20 candidates across two nights and kick off the 2020 election race in earnest are being held in Miami, a coastal city that is already seeing the effects of climate change.

    But the candidates mostly reiterated their campaign talking points and policy proposals, rather than challenging their opponents or conveying the full scope of the problem.

    The climate questions did not come until the second half of the debate, when NBC Moderator Chuck Todd asked several contenders how they would address the dangerous effects of rising temperatures.

    Rachel Maddow asked Washington governor Jay Inslee if his extensive plan could save Miami, the coastal Florida city watching as oceans creep inward, increasing inland real estate costs and exacerbating flooding. Current science shows that even a significant global effort to stall rising temperatures would not prevent the huge disruptions beginning in Miami and other shoreline communities.

    To my surprise, Im the only candidate who has made the commitment to make this the top priority, Inslee said in his concluding comments. We can save ourselves. We can save our children. We can save our grandchildren. We can save literally the life on this planet. This is our moment.

    He also took a jab at Donald Trump, who denies manmade climate change, saying he says wind turbines cause cancer we know they cause jobs.


     

    Inslee, who has made climate change the central pillar of his campaign, is not among the top candidates in the polls.

    One of the frontrunners in the debate tonight, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, was not asked about the climate crisis but worked it into her response about income inequality.

    Theres going to be a worldwide need for green technology, ways to clean up the air, ways to clean up the water. We can be the ones to provide that, Warren said.

    She also named climate change as one of the biggest geopolitical threats facing the US, along with former Texas congressman Beto ORourke, New Jersey senator Cory Booker and former San Antonio mayor and Housing and Urban Development director Julin Castro.

    Climate activists are demanding the Democratic National Committee hold a climate-focused debate, to force candidates to engage in more policy specifics.


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    Q&A

    Why is the Guardian changing the language it uses about the environment?

    The Guardian has updated its style guide to introduce terms that more accurately describe the environmental crises facing the world. Instead of ‘climate change’, the preferred terms are ‘climate emergency, crisis or breakdown’ and ‘global heating’ is favoured over ‘global warming’.

    The scale of the climate and wildlife crises has been laid bare by two landmark reports from the worlds scientists. In October 2018, they saidcarbon emissions must halveby 2030 to avoid even greater risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. In May 2019, global scientists said human society was in jeopardy from the accelerating annihilation of wildlife anddestruction of the ecosystemsthat support all life on Earth.

    Editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner says ‘We want to ensure that we are being scientifically precise, while also communicating clearly with readers on this very important issue. The phrase climate change, for example, sounds rather passive and gentle when what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.’

    Other terms that have been updated, including the use of ‘wildlife’ rather than ‘biodiversity’, ‘fish populations’ instead of ‘fish stocks’ and ‘climate science denier’ rather than ‘climate sceptic’.

    Damian Carrington, Environment editor

    In Washington, youth advocates with the Sunrise Movement watched the debate from a projector screen in front of the DNC headquarters, where they have been protesting.

    A second round of debates with 10 more Democratic candidates on Thursday night will feature Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who frequently bashes the fossil fuel industry and has long supported broad policies to reduce climate pollution. It will also include former vice president Joe Biden, who is considered the frontrunner in the Democratic primary race, and initially came under criticism for suggestions his climate plan would rely on continued natural gas use. He has since said he wants to neutralize US greenhouse gas levels by 2050, in line with many other candidates.

    The only policy solutions discussed during the first debate highlighted how politically intractable the issue can be focusing on what people might be willing to sacrifice to stall rising temperatures and more extreme weather.

    Todd asked former Texas congressman Beto ORourke how he would respond to Americans who feel like the government is telling them how to live in pushing for renewable energy and electric cars.

    I think youve got to bring everybody in to the decisions and the solutions to the challenges that we face, ORourke said, mentioning talking meeting farmers suffering from recent flooding along the Mississippi River in Iowa.

    He said he wants the US to spend money on those communities and others dealing with the climate crisis, mobilizing $5tn of spending on renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and carbon capture.

    Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, asked about proposals to tax carbon pollution, said Democrats arent connecting to the working class enough.

    Former Maryland congressman John Delaney followed up that all the economists agree a carbon pricing works you just have to do it right. Delaney has a proposal to tax carbon and return the revenues to taxpayers.

    There was no mention of the Green New Deal a blueprint for the climate crisis and inequality that has captivated progressives imaginations.


     

    Wendy Wendlandt, Environment Americas senior vice-president and political director, said her group is grateful the candidates gave some airtime to climate but will continue to watch closely.

    Words are nice, but we need actions to truly address our environmental problems, she said.

    Kassie Siegel, climate director of the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, said the night highlights the need for a dedicated climate debate to understand which candidates are willing to tackle the root of the problem: fossil fuel production and the dirty influence of the worlds largest polluters.

    Spending only seven minutes on climate questions was absurd, Siegel said. But kudos to governor Inslee and Senator Warren for recognizing the all-encompassing nature of the climate emergency and emphasizing it during other questions throughout.


     

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