Democrats savaged each other during last night’s presidential debate, but their attacks mostly stopped when the moderators shifted to a 15-minute discussion on climate change.
The candidates still distinguished themselves. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont thundered denouncements of natural gas, while Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar sounded ambivalent about the fossil fuel.
Former Vice President Joe Biden threatened China over its coal exports, while media mogul Michael Bloomberg urged a more conciliatory approach.
Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., suggested a climate bill would pass Congress if it emphasized jobs, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts proposed ending the Senate’s filibuster to ram it through.
But the candidates did little to highlight those contrasts last night as they race toward the Nevada caucuses on Saturday.
Instead they used their time to talk up their own climate plans, sometimes rushing to fit as many policies as they could into 60 seconds. That tone contrasted with the insults and personal attacks that characterized the rest of the debate.
Polling shows Democratic voters rank climate as one of their top issues. That’s especially true in Nevada, where 86% of caucusgoers ranked climate and the environment as very important or the most important issue, according to a poll this month by the League of Conservation Voters and Public Policy Polling.
That strong interest could explain why the candidates all but declared a cease-fire when climate came up.
Buttigieg was one of the few candidates to slip a jab into his climate answer — and in doing so, he revealed one reason the attacks weren’t coming harder.
"Let’s be real about the deadline. It’s not 2050, it’s not 2040, it’s not 2030. It’s 2020. Because if we don’t elect a president who … actually believes in climate science now, we will never meet any of the other scientific or policy goals," Buttigieg said, leading into his attack on Sanders and Bloomberg.
"So first of all, let’s make sure we’re actually positioned to win — which, once again, if we put forward two of the most polarizing figures on this stage as the only option, is going to be a real struggle," he said.
Buttigieg then pivoted to policy, essentially portraying himself — and the rest of the field — as identical to the two men he had just attacked.
"Now I’ve got a plan to get us carbon neutral by 2050, and I think everybody up here has a plan that more or less does the same," he said.
Many activists disagree with that assessment, especially progressives who back Sanders and Warren, whose climate plans call for a strong government role while other candidates emphasize market-driven measures.
But even progressives were noting how similar the Democratic candidates were beginning to sound.
"This debate is climate activists’ wildest dreams," said Julian Brave NoiseCat of the think tank Data For Progress.
"The entire field has significantly upped its ambition on climate. Biden just endorsed repealing all fossil fuel subsidies. The legislation that would actually do that in the last congress was called the End Polluter Welfare Act — and it was introduced by Senator Sanders," he wrote on Twitter.
The front-runner for the nomination, Sanders dropped climate into the first answer of the night with a general call to fight fossil fuel companies.
Pressed on whether a fracking ban could cost Democrats votes in Pennsylvania, Sanders said it’s "a moral issue" to halt gas extraction.
"What I tell these [fossil fuel] workers is that the scientists are telling us that if we don’t act incredibly boldly within the next six to seven years, there will be irreparable damage done not just to Nevada, not just to Vermont or Massachusetts, but to the entire world," Sanders said.
Biden took a new, tougher line on two groups: oil companies and developing nations.
Pressed on whether he would join Sanders’ call to criminally prosecute fossil fuel companies, Biden opted for a more modest approach: civil liability — including for the executives themselves.
Biden suggested he would start his presidency with a climate summit.
"On day one when I’m elected president, I’m going to invite all the members of the Paris accord to Washington, D.C. They make up 85% of the problem. They know me, I’m used to dealing with them on international relations. I will get them to up the ante in a big way," he said.
He singled out China’s Belt and Road Initiative as propping up coal power.
"They’re taking the dirtiest coal in the world, mostly out of Mongolia, and spreading it around the world," he said.
In his first 100 days, Biden said he would send a message to Beijing: "If you continue, you will suffer severe consequences because the rest of the world will impose tariffs on everything you’re selling, because you are undercutting the entire economy."
Domestically, Biden said transmission lines and battery storage would get big boosts from his administration.
Biden also touted a Nevada solar plant that would be one of the largest in the world — an apparent reference to the $1 billion Crescent Dunes thermal solar plant, which flopped as cheaper technology came online as it was opening.
The project had won major support from the Obama administration before it folded. Bloomberg made a brief reference to that but didn’t linger on it.
The former mayor of New York touted his work with the Sierra Club to shutter all coal-fired power plants. He said the programs he’s financed have closed 304 plants already.
But he also offered a defense of fracking, saying that it only releases methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases, when companies don’t follow the rules.
He followed that by saying climate models have underestimated warming and action needs to come much faster than previously thought.
"No scientist thinks the numbers for 2050 are 2050 anymore, they’re 2040, 2035 — the world is coming apart faster than any scientific study had predicted," he said.
He also emphasized rejoining the Paris Agreement.
"If we don’t, we’re the ones who are going to get hurt just as much as anybody else," Bloomberg said, adding that the same argument would persuade China to increase its commitments.
Rejoining the climate accord would mean serious cooperation, he said.
"That’s why I don’t want to have us cut off all relationships with China, because you’ll never solve this problem without China and India," he said, calling India the bigger troublemaker.
Warren touted her plan to ban drilling and mining on public lands, making only minor concessions for mining the minerals required for solar panels or wind turbines.
"If we need to make exceptions because there are specific minerals we’ve got to have access to, then we locate those and we do it not in a way that just is about the profits of giant industries, but in a way that is sustainable for the environment," she said.
She also nested climate within her broader agenda of anti-corruption.
"The first thing I want to do in Washington is pass my anti-corruption bill so we can start making the changes that we need to make on climate," she said.
She said candidates who want to preserve the filibuster are giving fossil fuel companies a veto over climate policy.
Warren emphasized environmental justice too, saying the issue deserved "more than a glancing blow." She said she would spend $1 trillion to reverse the disproportionate damage done to communities of color.
"We cannot simply talk about climate change in big, global terms. We need to talk about it in terms of rescuing the communities that have been damaged," she said.
Buttigieg said the next president needs to make climate "the national project that breaks down the partisan and political tug-of-war that prevents anything from getting done."
That could be accomplished, he said, by emphasizing that climate jobs will come quickly while also bringing in sectors that might otherwise be spooked by climate policy, like agriculture and industry.
He took a harder line internationally.
"I’m a little skeptical that ‘convincing’ will do the trick when it comes to China," he said. "America has repeatedly overestimated our ability to shape Chinese ambitions. But what we can do is ensure that we use our tools," as he was cut off by the moderators and other candidates.
In the past, Klobuchar sounded open to the continued use of natural gas, distinguishing her from rivals who want to phase it out immediately. Last night she stepped closer to the rest of the pack.
"I’ve made it very clear that we have to review all of the permits that are out there right now for natural gas and then make decisions on each one of them, and then not grant new ones until we make sure that it’s safe," Klobuchar said, stressing that gas is a transition fuel.
She also called for a carbon tax that pays dividends.