My Turn: What planet are they on?

For the Monitor
Published: 11/9/2019 6:30:15 AM

The failure of moderators to ask a single question about the climate crisis during the most recent three-hour-long Democratic primary debate marks a surprising low point in what has so far been an encouraging – if not entirely satisfying – discussion of climate in the presidential primary. It was shameful. The dire circumstances we’re in simply demand more from the candidates and the media covering the Democratic primary.

This glaring omission from the last debate was indeed disrespectful to the almost 80% of Democratic primary voters nationwide who say that a candidate’s position on climate change is very important to them.

More recently, an October CNN/UNH poll found that climate change/the environment is the No. 1 issue, tied with health care, that is “most important to (Democratic primary voters’) vote in the presidential primary.” And two new exclusive questions fielded for the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) as a part of the University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll found that the vast majority of New Hampshire residents support a move to 100% clean energy by 2050 and that many self-identified New Hampshire Democrats and independents don’t think the presidential candidates are talking about climate change enough in the 2020 campaign.

Not addressing the climate crisis at this pivotal moment for our country is dangerous.

In just the past year, the U.S. has experienced climate-change-fueled deadly wildfires, devastating flooding, the hottest month ever recorded, and a terrifying warning from the U.N. that our time left to act is rapidly running out. The current president’s response? Roll back 85 environmental safeguards.

While the last debate was a punch in the gut to voters across the country who care deeply about the climate crisis, we’ve seen glimmers of hope for our country and planet in other arenas this year. The past year has seen climate jump to the top of 2020 voters’ priority issues, and 11 of the 12 presidential candidates who participated in the fourth Democratic debate have released climate plans that match the urgency of the crisis. We welcome these ambitious plans.

That said, there is still much more to do. When I attended the New Hampshire Democratic Convention, the majority of the 12 leading presidential candidates who took the stage did not discuss their proposed solutions for addressing climate change in any depth during their short stump speeches.

We’ve analyzed similar events in Iowa and South Carolina where all candidates were given equal time on the same stage – the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame on June 9 and the South Carolina Democratic Party Convention on June 22. Only eight of 22 speeches by leading candidates touched on the policies that candidates would implement to combat the crisis. These three events are by no means a holistic picture of the way candidates are talking about climate on the campaign trail – but long-standing Democratic Party events are obvious places to lay out campaign priorities, so it’s only fair to evaluate them.

We know the candidates are well-versed on their strong plans, and in order to demonstrate they are truly making this a day-one priority, the climate crisis and solutions must be a consistent and prominent feature of the message they convey to voters.

We should be hearing about the good-paying clean energy jobs these candidates will create as part of a just transition to a 100% clean energy economy at every rally, town hall and diner drop-in. They’ve got the plans – which is a remarkable achievement –now it’s time for the 2020 presidential candidates to prove that climate action is one of their very top priorities.

The media has a critical role to play, too, especially those in a position to moderate Democratic debates – some of the most-watched events of the primary. CNN and the New York Times have both produced laudable in-depth events and coverage in the past, but debate moderators like CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and the New York Times’ Marc Lacey cannot think they’ve checked the box on the issue. Given the scale of the challenge that affects us all, every single debate, town hall, forum, etc., must include a serious discussion of candidate plans to address the climate crisis.

As the primary moves forward, we’ll be watching for each candidate to explicitly state that climate action is a day one priority and an every day priority. We expect to see specific climate solutions become a core part of every single stump speech. We look forward to hearing about each candidate’s meetings and events with the frontline communities most impacted by the climate crisis and those suffering disproportionately from exposure to toxic pollution – and we expect those frontline voices to be prominent in the next administration.

We owe it to ourselves and the young people fueling this movement to be bigger, bolder and more ambitious in our effort to make confronting the climate crisis a central focus of our political discourse. LCV will continue to call on the news media and every 2020 presidential candidate to consistently demonstrate the leadership this moment demands.

(Gene Karpinski is president of the League of Conservation Voters. LCV’s Change the Climate 2020 program is elevating climate in the Democratic primary.

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