Democratic voters really care about climate change: poll after poll shows the issue neck-and-neck with health care as their top priority. In turn, Democratic presidential candidates almost universally describe climate change as an existential threat. But you wouldn’t know any of that from watching Wednesday’s primary debate in Atlanta, during which candidates received just one question about the threat.
One of the primary justifications I hear for the dearth of climate questions on the debate stage is that the candidates agree on the fundamentals, so why bother boring the audience with the nuance? A Democratic strategist explained it to me like this earlier this year: candidates need to “draw a clear distinction between themselves and Trump,” but “the point at which we’re debating a carbon tax, a renewable fuel standard or whatever the policy is, that’s not going to be a winner.”
It may not be wise to bore the audience with wonky policy details, but that’s not how we should be talking about climate change anyway. Climate change shapes every political issue, and, accordingly, a well-constructed climate debate would look at the same political issues as an ordinary debate but through a climate lens. I’m not going to rehash the arguments for a climate debate in this newsletter. Realistically, I gave up hope for such a production long ago. Instead I’m using this newsletter to show how—with slight tweaks—last night’s debate could have been a climate debate.
Crafting “climate” questions
One of the early highlights of the debate was an exchange about Elizabeth Warren’s proposed wealth tax. Taxing wealth in addition to income would be a profound change, certainly one worth discussing in a debate. It’s also probably worth talking about how we might reshape the tax code to address climate change. To start, discussions about a carbon tax gets both supporters and opponents excited in policy circles. And then there’s a range of ways to design tax incentives to foster clean-energy innovation.
Later, a moderator asked if, were Trump to ever actually get his border wall built, taxpayers should pay to take it down. Research has shown that many of the migrants that Trump decries first left their homes as a result of drought and changing climatic conditions that kept them from making ends meet. With that in mind, perhaps a more urgent question would focus on how a future president would help vulnerable countries adapt, thereby stemming the surge of migrants on our border. In particular, moderators might have asked whether candidates would restore U.S. support for programs like the Green Climate Fund, which helps developing countries adapt to the effects of climate change.
Towards the end of the debate, a moderator asked about “the issue of race in America.” There are undoubtedly many factors that have contributed to racial justice issues in the U.S.; environmental justice should not be overlooked. From poor air quality in urban areas to persistent lead poisoning, environmental issues are also very often racial issues. Climate change is only expected to exacerbate historical inequities, from the vulnerability of minority communities to extreme weather, like we saw during Hurricane Katrina, to the emerging practice of climate gentrification , where the effects of climate change raise the cost of living in previously undesirable places. Candidates have plans to address these issues; a debate should provide a venue to discuss them.
I could play this game with basically any question. (Please, feel free to try to stump me). To get broader audiences to understand the scale of the climate challenge, we need these kinds of questions on the national stage beyond this newsletter.
Candidates get it
The crazy thing about this week’s debate was how eager candidates were to discuss climate change even though they weren’t asked. Instead of pivoting away from climate, they pivoted into it.
In response to a question about military service, Warren talked about Americans serving their country by working on public lands to fight climate change. In response to a question about farm subsidies, Pete Buttigieg talked about the opportunities for farmers to reduce emissions, part of his plan to compensate farmers for changing agricultural practices to tackle climate change. And Bernie Sanders managed to answer a question about chants of “lock him up” with a comment about taking on the fossil fuel industry.
This is a remarkable development. Jay Inslee, whose campaign made climate change its central issue, dropped out of the race in mid-August. A few weeks before that, he gave me his pitch for why we need a climate debate, seeking to differentiate himself from his opponents. “We need a full-scale debate so that the candidates can really expose their differences in their answers,” he said over a beer in Iowa. “It’s impossible to really do that in just one 60-second answer.” If last night was any indication, it seems the other candidates have come to agree.
IMAGE OF THE WEEK
Over the past few days, bushfires have been raging in the Australian state of New South Wales, blanketing Sydney and surrounding areas in hazardous smoke. Amid the bushfire, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has maintained that there is no direct link between Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions and the severity of this and other fires that have raged across the country in recent years. Local politicians, however have been critical of Morrison’s response. The science is clear, they say (and they’re right): Australia’s emissions are rising, and so are bushfires in the country.
ProPublica’s Lisa Song takes a compelling deep dive into the struggles of California’s cap-and-trade program to actually reduce emissions, looking at everything from the role industry played in constructing the program to the regulatory tradeoffs that resulted. As the U.S. prepares for a potential change in power in 2021, the piece indirectly poses an important question: is just any climate legislation better than no legislation?
…POLITICS & GOVERNMENT
Investors joined activists to continue a campaign to pressure the International Energy Agency (IEA) to align better with the goal of the Paris Agreement. Reuters explains the development in an exclusive report on the investors’ latest complaint to the agency. The IEA’s annual World Energy Outlook guides investment decisions by businesses across the globe, and some investors, scientists and activists say the agency has underestimated the expansion of clean energy sources and needs to do more to show how the world can meet the goals of the Paris deal.
CHART OF THE WEEK
Getting rid of coal as an energy source is absolutely essential in meeting the goals necessary to keep global warming below 2°C. However, the affordability of coal relative to other power sources in the 2000s and early 2010s (today, renewable energy is cheaper in much of the world), made it key to fueling the rapid economic development of India and especially China in the past decade. And while the two countries are slowing their coal trains down, they are certainly still running at a fair pace. In 2018, for example, China built about 33.5 GW of new coal power capacity while only decomissioning some 8 GW worth. And, according to a report published this week by Global Energy Monitor, a non-profit that monitors coal plants, some 148 GW of coal capacity is either being built or are about to begin construction.
Meanwhile, the rest of the globe is largely abandoning coal these days; in 2018, the world outside of China and India decommissioned about 22.8 GW of coal power capacity was while only adding 8.6 GW.