Thinking About Over-Thinking: The Democratic Climate Debate Debate

June 19, 2019

Rob Meyer in the Atlantic:

For the past week, the Democratic Party’s presidential candidates, grassroots organizers, and national committee have fought over whether it would be a good idea to have a “climate-change debate.”

Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, whose presidential campaign is focused on climate change, started the fight a few weeks ago, when he demanded that Democrats devote one of their dozen scheduled primary debates to climate change—both to what it will mean domestically and internationally and to what candidates presume to do about it. Last week, the Democratic National Committee responded by telling Inslee that it wouldn’t hold a climate debate—and that if he appeared in one, it would block him from all future officially sanctioned debates.

Inslee responded with outrage, and since then the DNC has been trying to defend itself. Tom Perez, the DNC chair, has tried to justify the DNC’s decision in a few different ways. He published a Medium post titled “On Debates” earlier this week. “If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had?” he pleaded. The tone demonstrates how poorly the DNC has fared here: Almost nobody has ever published a hyper-earnest Medium post from a position of strength.

The DNC actually has a fine reason for declining Inslee’s request: Adding a single-issue climate debate would be against its rules, which it wrote to account for, and avoid, the bitterness left over from 2016. But the DNC ispretty weak here. Polls suggest that climate change is a top-tier issue for the party’s primary voters. At this point, 14 candidates have expressed some interest in a climate debate—15, if you include Joe Biden’s quick assent to the idea, captured on video by a Greenpeace activist. If five of them, including Elizabeth Warren, go rogue and hold a climate debate of their own, will the DNC really bar them from its official debates?

All of this is political tactics—forgettable and kind of whatever. (Though maybe it should concern the DNC that a candidate polling at 1 percent could play it for a week straight.) What’s more interesting is the loose consensus among climate and energy experts that a climate debate would do more harm than good. When three writers at New York magazine discussed “Should Democrats hold a climate-change debate?” they concluded that Inslee was right on the substance and wrong on the politics. A climate debate would be lousy television, they said. It would be too wonky to interest voters. And it could ultimately endanger the party’s general-election hopes. “The deeper candidates get into the weeds about actual policy, the likelier they are to say something that backfires in the fall,” wrote David Wallace-Wells.

I understand this argument. Climate-change policy, as I have written in the past, can be staggeringly boring. But it’s not all dull, and voters seem to care about it. A climate-change debate is a swell idea. It just requires rethinking much of what’s accepted about climate politics and about debates.

New York Magazine:

Intelligencer staffers Benjamin Hart, Eric Levitz and David Wallace-Wells discuss the Democratic National Committee’s decision not to make climate change the singular subject of one of its candidate forums.

Ben: Washington governor Jay Inslee, the self-styled climate change candidate in the 2020 primaries, recently urged the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate focused solely on climate. The organization turned him down, and warned that if he participated in an unofficial event that focused on the issue, he would be banned from official debates in the future. Some are not happy about this development. For example, New York Times opinion writer Justin Gillis wrote today that “people are roasting alive in California towns hit by the deadliest wildfires in the state’s history. Midwestern cities are reeling from deluge upon deluge. Coastal communities are starting to drown from a relentlessly rising sea. None of that is enough, apparently, for the Democratic Party to choose to put this issue front-and-center in the primary campaign.” What do you make of the DNC’s decision?

David: There’s a lot of anger and frustration on the environmental left, with people frustrated that the party doesn’t “get it” on climate, which … they may not. But for me, a lot depends on what goes into the other debates. Is concentrating a discussion of climate on one night better than making it a big chunk of every debate? I don’t know. I’m pretty deep into the weeds on climate change, and I’m not sure what would happen over 90 minutes. Would they be debating the particular details of how to make the grid more efficient? Or about carbon pricing?

Eric: I have no idea what the DNC’s motives are here, or whether their objection is rooted in concerns about holding a climate-only event, or in ones about restricting discussion to any one issue for an entire debate. Though I could see some Democratic operatives noting that climate still does not (to my knowledge) rank as the top issue for most voters, and therefore arguing that giving climate such exclusive focus might make the party look out of touch.

And yeah, I also think it would probably be bad television. Inslee aside, most of these candidates are cribbing their climate policies from a similar pool of policy wonks. I’m not sure how eloquent Biden is at describing his own plan, let alone arguing whatever minutia distinguishes it from Beto O’Rourke’s. Candidates would inevitably start pivoting away from climate questions to hit the broader themes they want to advertise.

David: I agree. The plans are quite close to one another, and without a ton of detail, which means the distinctions to be drawn would be at the rhetorical level and about whether, say, a certain amount of decarbonization can be achieved with $3 trillion, or would require $5 trillion.

It would have the effect of making those candidates who hadn’t released plans come up with something, presumably.

Eric: The more I think about it, the less sense a climate-only debate makes from any angle besides a civic one. Signaling that we are facing an ecological catastrophe is very important, and would probably be good for the country. But the debate itself would probably be a mess.

David: That said, I do think it’s a bad look for the DNC to say, “And don’t do an event with anyone else on this … hugely, existentially important issue, or else we’ll boot you from the other debates.”

Eric: Yeah. I don’t understand what that’s about.

David: I can understand the calculus that the DNC doesn’t want to devote one of their sessions to climate — though at a substantive level, the subject obviously deserves that attention and more. But if Inslee wants to gather together some of the other candidates for a town hall on CNN, I mean, more power to him.

Ben: Another possible downside: I think we all agree that climate change is an existential crisis that, in the long run, dwarfs the importance of any other issue. But would dictating that only climate change gets its own forum, and not, say, health care, actually run the risk of alienating, or at the least annoying, people?

Eric: Yeah. I just think the bigger problem is that candidates simply wouldn’t respect the rule.

You have a few minutes of free national airtime — whatever the theme of the debate, or the particular question, the candidates are going to prioritize conveying their big selling points to the audience over engaging in a nuanced discussion of precisely how government procurement rules should be changed to incentivize renewable investment or what have you. I agree, though, it would force everyone to put together their own plan, which would be good.

David: I think there’s probably also a legitimate concern about such a debate providing ammunition for GOP attacks. Politically speaking, I think the best message here for Democrats is, “We care about you and your future, and they don’t.” But the deeper candidates get into the weeds about actual policy, the likelier they are to say something that backfires in the fall.

Eric: Yeah. I mean, they are all currently trying to pretend that establishing an “enforcement mechanism” to meet carbon-emission goals is not code for a carbon tax. Which would be difficult to sustain over 90 minutes.

David: That all said, maybe I’m naïve, but I think there might also be some political wisdom, not to mention principle, in saying, “Whatever, this really is this fucking important. We’re paying attention, so much we’re going to devote a whole night to it, no matter how boring you think that is.”

Ben: Isn’t the bigger issue here forcing the national media and candidates to focus on climate in the general election? Democrats are almost guaranteed to spend a lot of time on it in the primaries, but there wasn’t a single climate question in the 2016 debates.

David: I think that goal is much likelier to be achieved by how the Democratic nominee chooses to campaign.

Eric: I mean, I don’t think that’s going to happen again.

Ben: I don’t either.

Eric: Thanks to climate activists (of all stripes — from Sunrise to Bloomberg), along with ecological events, climate change feels more salient in mainstream discourse now than it was in 2016.

David: Don’t forget that U.N. report from last October.

Eric: Right, right. And I do think David is right — Democrats really only want enough climate questions in the general election to convey that they are serious about this issue that worries a majority of the public, while Republicans are not; not so many questions that the Democratic nominee has to level with the American people about the need for urbanization policy, or taxing carbon, or anything else controversial. (Which isn’t to say that’s what they *should* want, necessarily.)

David: In summary, on the substance, Inslee is very much right. On the politics …. ???

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10 Responses to “Thinking About Over-Thinking: The Democratic Climate Debate Debate”

  1. jimbills Says:

    The DNC sets the rules – they can easily change them. They won’t, and their history of setting policies to further favor more mainstream candidates may suggest why.

    A debate devoted to just climate change is more than justifiable. Most of the candidates are on record saying it’s the most important issue of our time. At best as it is, each debate will have just 1-2 questions about it, and it will be very difficult for voters to see the differences between the candidates on climate change in that format. A full debate on just climate change would allow policies to be discussed rather than just slogans and promises. It would also give the issue the focus it deserves and help make up for the dismal history of it being virtually ignored in past debates.

    Perez’s main argument is that they don’t want to give Inslee a home field advantage – as if they don’t do that with their preferred candidates all the time, as if Inslee actually has a shot at winning the nomination, and as if he’s the only candidate who is making serious proposals about it. It’s no sure thing that he would come out of such a debate as the clear winner.

    A second argument is that they can’t devote other debates to issues like gun violence, reproductive rights, and health care. Those are important topics, but climate change is on a much higher level of importance. It’s a failure of perspective to not understand that. Instead, it’s just a convenient excuse.

  2. jimbills Says:

    On the New York Magazine part, here’s the crux:

    ‘I think there’s probably also a legitimate concern about such a debate providing ammunition for GOP attacks. Politically speaking, I think the best message here for Democrats is, “We care about you and your future, and they don’t.” But the deeper candidates get into the weeds about actual policy, the likelier they are to say something that backfires in the fall.’

    But – that’s the bleeping JOB of the candidates. Be clear about what you want to do and communicate it well. Then, it’s the voters’ job to select the candidates based on what they want.

    If the DNC feels policy towards fighting climate change is a losing issue, and it’s better to obfuscate the issue and limit discussion of policies, that’s one thing. I suppose that could be considered the ‘safe game’. But, this is the perfect time, a potentially historic moment, to play it as an issue that will fully distinguish the Democrats from the Republicans – more than a trite and potentially disbelieved answer that they “care about you”.


  3. The first and only priority for the Democrats should be to win the 2020 presidential elections. If they lose again they will have nothing to say at all over climate change policies.

    • jimbills Says:

      100% of that relies on how to win. Is it better to avoid or limit talk about climate change as a topic in the debates? Will that appeal to the Democratic base, for one, and will it cause independents and moderates to believe more in a Democratic candidate in the general election? Wouldn’t it be better to weed out the candidates who don’t know how to talk about this issue convincingly when it comes to the general election?

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      The first and only priority for the Democrats should be to win the 2020 presidential elections.

      The Republicans are offering a measuring cup to bail out our leaky, sinking boat. The Democratic candidates are offering a one-gallon bucket, a two-gallon bucket, and a more expensive bilge pump solutions. At best I see us electing one of the “viable” bucket candidates, reducing the rate at which we sink. Nobody wants the wonk candidate who wants us to pay for the expensive solution necessary for the job.

      From Peter’s videos, I learned that permafrost researcher Dr. Anton Vaks (Oxford U) estimates +1.5°C is enough to pass the permafrost melt tipping point, at which point human politics (IMO) could not possibly keep up with the runaway warming.

      • jimbills Says:

        ‘From Peter’s videos, I learned that permafrost researcher Dr. Anton Vaks (Oxford U) estimates +1.5°C is enough to pass the permafrost melt tipping point, at which point human politics (IMO) could not possibly keep up with the runaway warming.’

        That sounded like too easy an answer, and it is. I’m not sure you watched the second part of the full Vaks interview:

        Dr. Vaks makes a very important point that the timescale for the melt is unknown, and potentially unknowable using his research. So, we could be talking decades or millennia. Also, his research isn’t about the total amount of carbon that would be released at 1.5 degrees – just that one study of one cave at 60 degrees latitude shows signs of permafrost melt at 1.5C warmer than pre-industrial. Certainly bad – there will likely be significant carbon release at 1.5C – but you’re taking an assumptive leap at “could not possibly keep up with the runaway warming”. That Vaks study at least does not support that leap.

        Dr. Vaks mentions that he intends to do further research in the permafrost area since that 2013 video, but it looks like he has moved to the Negev Desert in Israel instead:
        http://www.gsi.gov.il/eng/?CategoryID=28&ArticleID=556

        • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

          I feel a little better, then.

          I also wondered whether the 1.5°C referred to global warming or arctic warming, since we know that the arctic is warming a shipload faster than the rest of our planet.

          [HTML note: ° makes the ° symbol.]

          • jimbills Says:

            ‘[HTML note: ° makes the ° symbol.]’

            Gracias. I’ll try to use that in future comments.

            Also, notice I didn’t talk about the first part of your comment – I pretty much agree with you on the political part.

  4. mboli Says:

    Think back to 2016, when there were a pile of Republican candidates.
    Imagine the Republicans had decided to hold a an abortion-themed debate.

    That’s the problem. A debate isn’t a thoughtful policy-making discussion. It’s a boxing rink, a small area where candidates fight each other for visibility and sound bites and the heartstrings of the potential voters and the press and pundits.

    Throw more people into the rink to fight it out, each of them needs to stand out to the watchers and each needs to make the others less desirable. It will become weird and destructive very fast. Multiple candidates will say multiple, very quotable, very dumb-sounding things.

    The entire time from that debate until the election we climate-concerned Democrats will be mopping up. “But they are misinterpeting that remark. Unfair! Yes it was tone deaf, but in the context of blah blah it makes sense! Help!”

    The DNC is absolutely right to assert that the results will be damaging to the candidates and the party.

    I’ve been a “climate hawk” for decades, a geek who keeps a spreadsheet with his home carbon footprint updated every month. And I think the “climate debate” thing is a bloody awful idea.

    • jimbills Says:

      ‘Multiple candidates will say multiple, very quotable, very dumb-sounding things.’

      Well, that’s a big reason why I’d want it. Weed out the dummies and incompetents before we get stuck with one in the general election, and they end up saying stupid things right before the vote.

      The 2016 debates completely avoided climate change as a topic. I doubt you want a repeat of that, but a question or two about climate change in these debates is guaranteed to be just ‘sound bites and heartstrings’. It will also reduce climate change to being just another topic of debate – seemingly equivalent to the public in importance, when it’s not.

      Here’s an example:

      Any individual policy debate in the 2016 Republican primaries would have been fantastic – Trump would have completely floundered in that. I say – weed out the dummies and incompetents before it’s too late.


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