Climate Change and the 2020 Debates

Climate change is an urgent threat to our nation and our planet. It imperils our children and grandchildren’s future, and it disproportionately affects our most vulnerable communities. That’s why, beginning in 2017, I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn’t happen in 2016 — and it was wrong.

I’m not new to this issue, either. I’m proud of my record on environmental justice as labor secretary and head of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under President Obama. And I’m unwavering in my commitment to tackling climate change and the many other issues it affects.

I’ve continued that commitment as DNC Chair. That’s why I’ve made sure the DNC is constantly talking about climate change. I personally talk about it regularly; we include it as a staple of our messaging to millions of Americans, from social media posts to direct mail; and I have the utmost confidence that, based on our conversations with networks, climate change will be discussed early and often during our party’s primary debates.

These debates are an opportunity to see our candidates engage on a range of issues that matter to the American people and that the next president will have to tackle — from combating climate change and reforming our criminal justice system, to creating good-paying jobs and ensuring access to affordable health care for everyone, protecting Dreamers and fixing our broken immigration system, reducing gun violence and making college more affordable, and fighting this administration’s vicious attacks on voting rights, LGBTQ rights, and reproductive rights.

We have received more than 50 requests to hold debates focused on these important issues and many others. And we knew it would be unfair and unrealistic to ask the candidates to participate in so many. (This is not a new problem; in fact, in past Democratic primaries, candidates were frustrated by unwieldy debate schedules, leading the DNC to make reforms in future cycles.)

That’s why when I ran for this job, I promised we would set out the debate parameters before we knew the field of candidates, so there would be no question of our impartiality. I’ve kept that promise.

When we began engaging with presidential campaigns in February of this year, we articulated the terms of engagement clearly and unequivocally. We outlined a schedule unprecedented in scope, featuring back-to-back nights of debate in primetime, with more than one pathway to the stage. We made it clear that the DNC would hold 12 sanctioned debates this cycle focused on a range of issues, and that candidates participating in unsanctioned debates would not be invited to participate in the next DNC-sanctioned debate. We encouraged candidates to augment discussions of these issues through forums and town halls, and we gave straightforward guidance to campaigns and sponsoring organizations about what constitutes a forum. Every single campaign was informed of these rules at their initial briefing with the DNC; not a single one of them objected.

To amend these rules now, after having enforced them throughout this primary process, would be putting our thumb on the scale. As Chair of the DNC, I am committed to a fair, transparent, and inclusive 2020 Democratic primary process. And I take that commitment seriously. To that end, I concluded the DNC could not allow individual candidates to dictate the terms of debates or limit the topics discussed.

We learned a valuable lesson in 2016 that, in order to ensure the strength of our party and the trust of our voters, the DNC must remain neutral in both practice and perception.

If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had? How do we say no to other candidates in the race who may request debates focused on an issue they’ve made central to their own campaigns?

Already, a number of organizations and networks have hosted their own issue-based forums and town halls — and I hope and expect more of these will take place in the coming months. Nobody is prohibited from participating in a DNC-sanctioned debate because they participated in a climate change forum or town hall. And combined with our unprecedented debate format, our candidates have more opportunities than ever to communicate their values and vision to the American people.

Over the past year, we’ve taken many actions to grow our party, restore people’s faith, and return power to the grassroots. We’ve expanded the use of primaries, made caucuses more accessible, reduced the influence of superdelegates, and increased the transparency of the DNC’s budget and operations.

When all is said and done, I’m confident that we will meet our North Star test of ensuring that the primary process was fair to everyone, that our debates focused on the key issues, and that the American people will know the Democratic Party has their back. I’m equally confident that climate change will receive more attention than ever before — and deservedly so.

We have shared values and shared goals, and we must never lose sight of our number one priority: defeating Donald Trump. As I said when I took this job, our unity is our greatest strength and Trump’s worst nightmare. And the DNC will continue to provide a fair and critical platform for voters to evaluate our exceptional candidates and their visions for the future.