Environmental activists are expecting their advocacy will pay off and that climate change will take a starring role in the first debates of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
The top 20 of the more than two dozen candidates hoping to take on President Trump next year will face off, 10 at a time, in two debate events in Miami tomorrow and Thursday evening.
The events come after months of advocacy by environmental groups such as the League of Conservation Voters, the Sierra Club and 350 Action for climate change to get top billing in the party’s debates, either through a forum dedicated to the topic or through questions at other events.
"There isn’t really a case that this shouldn’t be prominently featured in the debates," Pete Maysmith, LCV’s senior vice president for campaigns, told E&E News.
"The voters are demanding a conversation about how we’re going to tackle the climate crisis."
For green groups, it’s part of a bigger strategy aimed at ensuring the party’s eventual nominee presents a clear climate contrast to Trump, with aggressive and serious plans to fight global warming.
"It’s a bold plan that matches what the science demands of us to solve climate change. And it is the sense of urgency and, critically, prioritization," Maysmith said.
The debates are being sponsored by sister news networks NBC News, MSNBC and Telemundo, and moderated by a team of on-air hosts from those networks: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow and Chuck Todd.
South Florida, which knows all too well the effects of climate change from flooding, extreme weather and other events, provides a key venue for the climate discussion.
Even before the debates, climate has had an unprecedented role in the Democratic primary campaign. Numerous candidates have presented detailed or general climate policy proposals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.
At the same time, Trump is picking up his pace in fighting against climate policies. EPA just finalized its industry-friendly replacement for the Clean Power Plan. It is working to release final versions in the coming months of its plans to roll back greenhouse gas emissions standards for cars and methane emissions standards for oil and natural gas drilling.
Meanwhile, climate is closer than ever to the forefront outside of politics. Recent months have seen numerous dramatic reports on the issue from the United Nations and the federal government, while polling shows Americans more and more concerned.
Josh Gellers, a political science professor at the University of North Florida, said the debates could help Democratic contenders set themselves apart from one another on climate policies.
"Questions about climate change will tap into key differences among the candidates on related policy issues and speak to broader ideological fissures," he said, pointing to the Green New Deal as a concept that could signal progressive bona fides or opposition.
Gellers said climate could also become a key factor in the rise or fall of particular candidates. Inslee, for example, has made himself out to be the climate change candidate and could use the issue as a wedge in the debate tomorrow he was placed into, where Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will be the only top-tier candidate.
On the second night, two front-runners — Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Biden — could clash on climate.
"Biden has been criticized for being too middle-of-the-road on climate change, whereas Sanders has adopted a stance that will resonate with progressives but might be too far to the left for more moderate Democratic voters," Gellers said.
Inslee, backed by more than a dozen other candidates and numerous outside groups, tried in recent months to get the Democratic National Committee to dedicate an entire debate to climate change.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez rejected the request this month, arguing it would favor one candidate over others, but promised he’d press debate moderators to make climate a priority.
"Beginning in 2017, I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn’t happen in 2016 — and it was wrong," he said in a Medium post.
In recent days, green groups have ramped up the pressure, hoping the debates would provide an ideal forum for climate.
The Environmental Defense Fund’s affiliate EDF Action said it’s putting nearly $90,000 toward an advertising campaign centered around the debates, including billboards, transit ads and digital ads calling for 100% clean energy, in both English and Spanish.
The Sierra Club put out a poll yesterday commissioned by Morning Consult showing 85% of Democratic voters want a debate dedicated to climate change.
Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) wrote to the networks hosting the first debates in May, asking them to devote "a significant amount of time" to climate. LCV had made similar pleas.