Even if there isn’t a climate debate, the issue is firmly in the political conversation

Ross Sherman
Jun 17 · 5 min read

5 minutes, 27 seconds.

Think about what you typically do in that amount of time. It’s probably about how long it takes to trim my beard every couple of weeks, or — as often happens — the time I have to wait for all invited participants to jump on a work conference call.

If you’re more musically inclined, it’s about the same length as Eminem’s “Lose Yourself,” or slightly less than two typical pop songs played one after the other.

With all due respect to Eminem, I think we can all agree that 5 minutes, 27 seconds is not enough time to dedicate to anything of vital importance — you know, those life or death, existential types of problems.

Keeping that in mind, I’m was deeply alarmed to learn that 5 minutes, 27 seconds was the total amount of time that then-candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent discussing climate change during the course of four debates leading up to the 2016 presidential election. What’s more, the moderators didn’t ask a single question about climate policy.

Washington Gov. and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee has called for a climate debate. Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Considering how little climate was discussed during the 2016 race, it’s worth asking what sort of bandwidth the topic will get heading into 2020. On the one hand, 15 Democratic candidates, most vehemently Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, are clamoring for a debate focused solely to the issue of climate. On the other hand, the Democratic National Committee has rejected that plea.

While the media is focusing on the climate debate conflict, they’re missing the bigger picture. Even if a climate debate doesn’t take place, there are many reasons to believe that the issue won’t be ignored this time around. Over the last two and a half years, global warming has gone from a near afterthought to one of the top motivating issues. Here’s how.

Given what we know about the climate crisis, the fact that the debates ignored the topic in 2016 is almost incomprehensible. You’d think such a meaningful issue that touches all of our lives — from rising sea levels and hotter summers to the increased risk of tornadoes and even insect-borne diseases — would merit more than a brief exchange between the two people vying for the most powerful position in the world.

This perplexing result didn’t occur because the candidates lacked distinct opinions on the topic. In fact, Clinton wanted to talk about the subject so much that she had to pivot away from an unrelated question to bring it up at all.

It also wasn’t necessarily the fault of the moderators or cable news channels running the debates. After all, they’re basing their questions at least partly on what issues they perceive their viewers want to hear about. (Apparently, climate change is not historically a ratings winner at presidential debates.)

Simply put, the problem was that even though climate change was widely seen as an important issue, it wasn’t the issue. Two and a half years ago, we (environmental advocates) clearly hadn’t convinced enough of the public — left, right and center — that we needed to demand big, bold climate plans and a robust conversation around them from candidates.

Things are different in 2019, and not a moment too soon. Climate change has been hard to ignore lately: The federal government released two reports predicting catastrophic consequences if we don’t dramatically slash carbon emissions; Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Maria, Florence and Michael have devastated coastal and island communities; and unprecedented rains are inundating the Midwest.

Driven in part by those increasingly tangible and immediate impacts, as well as sustained efforts by Environment America and allies, climate urgency is starting to break through at the state and local level. In less than a year, statewide commitments to 100 percent renewable energy, once seen as a pie-in-the-sky result, have been signed into law by California, New Mexico and Washington. Colorado and Nevada also passed bills dramatically cutting carbon pollution this session, and Maine is poised to do the same.

In the most recent major national election, the 2018 midterms, global warming featured more prominently than ever before. Several pro-environment candidates won, in part because they ran on a strong climate message. While, again, it wasn’t the issue, it was a factor. That also signaled that public sentiment is shifting when it comes to making decisions at the ballot box.

We still have work to do at the national level, where the administration and Congress are actively working to roll back or stall existing climate action plans. But even in that environment, since the beginning of the year, we’ve seen climate legislation pass the House and be introduced in the Senate.

Looking ahead to the 2020 election, even if there isn’t a climate-only debate, there’s good reason to believe that it will be featured more prominently in these televised events. Climate change now ranks as a top issue (if not the top issue) for Democratic primary voters.

The candidates have taken notice. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke all made sure to release bold, detailed climate plans as one of their first proposals. Inslee has made it the central issue of his campaign. Most (if not all) of the others are bringing it up regularly on the campaign trail.

Even President Trump, whose scientifically inaccurate views on climate are well-documented, knows he needs to have a compelling message on the issue.

Why? Because they recognize that in 2019, not coming to the table armed with a serious plan to stave off the worst impacts of climate change is not only irresponsible (as it always was), but it’s also bad politics. We have all the tireless work done by environmental advocates to thank for that. And with the future of the planet at stake, we all need to keep demanding it.

So when the debates come around this presidential campaign cycle, you’ll probably hear a lot more than 5 minutes and 27 seconds of discourse about the climate emergency. In honor of that, I think I’ll go listen to a couple of my favorite pop songs.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

Ross Sherman

Written by

Communications associate for Environment America, U.S. PIRG, TPIN.

The Public Interest Network

The Public Interest Network runs organizations committed to our vision of a better world, a set of core values, and a strategic approach to getting things done. https://publicinterestnetwork.org/

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