Debatewatch: Judging the Democratic Candidates on the Climate Emergency

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As the Democratic presidential debates begin this week, we need to keep our eyes open for a candidate with the leadership, courage, and charisma to win and then harness the political power needed to implement bold and transformative climate action policies. We have less than a year and a half to build a movement to win the 2020 election — and face the fact that America’s contribution to the global climate emergency threatens the survival of the human species.

It’s going to be a tough job for candidates, activists and voters alike — especially given that historically, until recently, Americans have preferred a certain sunny optimism in our leadership. Nevertheless, the vast majority of Americans of all political stripes are utterly frustrated by our broken political process and the lack of a serious climate response.

While our government dithers, the responsibility falls on us as citizens. The U.S. population makes up just 5% of the global population but contributes nearly 30% of global greenhouse gases each year. We must face the fact that the human species is threatened and that we’ve collectively been complicit and complacent up to this point.

As heatwaves, floods, fires, massive storms, and droughts impact Americans’ daily lives, we are coming to realize that the next decade will determine the fate of future human generations. We are at the precipice.

To meet this challenge, we must urgently mobilize to build a movement that will decisively win the next election and will go on to serve as relentless watchdogs to hold the next President accountable for addressing the climate emergency during his or her term.

Our next President must also go beyond current ambitions for climate action. Besides ongoing mitigation (reducing CO2 emissions) and adaptation (preparing for inevitable consequences), the next President must set a new goal to achieve “climate restoration” — to repair the current damage and proactively ensure a safe and healthy climate for future generations.

The next President must mobilize the full capabilities of the federal government, universities, and the private sector to deploy innovative solutions to return atmospheric CO2 to safe levels of less than 300 parts per million by 2050. In addition, efforts must restore sufficient Arctic ice for eight months of the year to prevent permafrost melt and the resulting disastrous methane emissions. This is an urgent priority.

So far, none of the candidates have committed to this goal.

The next president must lead the rapid acceleration of the three legs of climate action: mitigation, adaptation, and restoration. This will require mobilizing the entire federal government and society on a scale not seen since Americans mobilized to win the battle against fascism in World War II.

So far, none of the candidates have committed to this goal.

Our next President must unify a broad range of constituencies within the Democratic party and demonstrate their skill to mobilize cross-partisan support that attracts Independents, green Republicans, and especially non-voting Americans. A unified political movement is an absolute prerequisite for breaking the political logjam to accelerate federal climate action.

So far, none of the candidates have committed to this goal.

Our greatest presidents have called on shared sacrifice to accomplish broad goals like winning World War II and ensuring “government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” A new president’s mission is a little more succinct: to ensure people shall not perish from the earth.

About Dr. Paul Zeitz

Dr. Paul Zeitz ( is a physician, epidemiologist, and an award-winning advocate for global justice and human rights. He serves as the senior policy advisor with the Foundation for Climate Restoration and is the author of Waging Justice: A Doctor’s Journey to Speak Truth And Be Bold. Dr. Zeitz worked at the U.S. Department of State from 2014–2017 as the Director of the Data Revolution for Sustainable Development. He also led the Global AIDS Alliance from 2000–2011. Dr. Zeitz received his doctorate in osteopathic medicine from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and his MPH in public health and preventive medicine residency at Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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