When Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez rejected the idea of a Presidential debate focused on climate change, his explanation was that he didn’t want a single-issue debate.
The flaw in that logic is that what we are talking about isn’t a single issue. Climate change is in fact many issues, from taxes to agriculture policy, from transportation infrastructure to land-use, from national security to public health, just to name a few. It affects every aspect of our government’s investment in America’s future and economy.
Today’s young climate advocates get it. As Garrett Blad, national press coordinator for the Sunrise Movement, put it, “Climate isn't one issue, it's every issue."
For me it’s personal, too. My late father, Gaylord Nelson, former U.S. senator and Wisconsin governor, saw a need for a singular focus on the environment when he created Earth Day nearly a half-century ago. He put it well years later when he said, "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.”
As someone who had called for the president to give a single speech each year on the State of the Environment – akin to the State of the Union – he would have surely endorsed the idea of a debate focused solely on climate change.
I’ve been really impressed with the energetic advocacy of young people pushing for this. And while they haven’t yet succeeded, they are making progress: Recently, the DNC said it would decide whether to host a debate on the climate at its next meeting, in August.
It’s not just climate activists who are making this push – most Democratic presidential candidates are too. In fact, 20 of them have gone on record in favor of holding a debate on climate policy.
It’s crucial that young activists – who have so powerfully shown that they can have an impact – keep the pressure on the DNC. After all, climate change is the existential crisis facing humanity today. We need to shine a light on it with no distractions.
Voters can do their part, too, by signing a NextGen America petition calling on the DNC to host a climate debate.
We can’t count on assurances that climate change will get the necessary airtime at the regular debates. The topic got hardly any attention in the 2016 debates, and even now, at a time when it has grown far more important to voters, there wasn’t a lot to inspire confidence at the first Democratic debates in late June. Over two nights and four hours, just 15 minutes of questions were devoted to climate change.
Our friends at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists had a helpful “Existential Threat Scorecard” for the debates, which included several lines for climate change, but candidates need to be given more opportunities to weigh in on these issues.
This disconnect from the most pressing issue of our time was made all the more jarring given the location of the debates: Miami. That city has been on the front line of climate change, dealing with higher sea levels and warmer temperatures. The impact on Florida is so pronounced that even the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, is seeking to hire a chief resilience officer, to “prepare Florida for the environmental, physical and economic impacts of climate change, especially sea-level rise.”
As Rachel Silverstein, executive director of the environmental research and activist group Miami Waterkeeper, told the New York Times: “Climate change is really the issue that sits on all other issues. It affects security. It affects drinking water. It affects tourism. It affects public health. Property values. It’s a part of the discussion of almost any topic that might come up.”
And yet here was a debate with 20 presidential candidates, of the party that stands for combatting climate change, where the topic took up barely 6 percent of the airtime.
Something is definitely wrong with this picture. We need to ensure that the climate gets better reception next time.