The first two Democratic debates show it was a mistake to reject a climate debate. It’s badly needed, and there’s still time to add it to the schedule.
A few weeks ago, the Democratic National Committee rejected hosting a debate among 2020 presidential candidates on climate change. DNC Chair Tom Perez made the case for his opposition: Climate change will feature prominently in this campaign’s debates; the DNC shouldn’t hold debates on single issues; and certain candidates would be put at a disadvantage.
As a former Democratic National Convention chairman and party vice chairman, I know Perez has a difficult job, and I empathize. But on these points, he is wrong.
The first debate took place just a few days before the start of July, which turned out to be the hottest month on record since 1880. And it was held in Miami, one of the world’s cities most vulnerable to sea-level rise. Yet that two-night event made it clear climate change would get short shrift in the general debates.
More focus §on climate change
Candidates spent fewer than 15 minutes out of four hours on the topic. Climate policy received more attention in the second presidential debate in Detroit, but the 21 minutes on the topic over two nights still only accounted for a small fraction of the entire debate. The sound bites from only some of the candidates barely scratched the surface of the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced, and it is unlikely viewers gained much understanding of how candidates plan to address it.
The good news? Following an uproar over the lack of attention to climate change during the Miami debate, the DNC is now revisiting its earlier decision. Its members could vote Aug. 23 on whether a climate debate should move forward.
In September, candidates can take part in CNN’s town hall on the climate crisis and MSNBC’s Climate Forum, just as they will participate in forums on other topics. But these are no substitute for a true debate sanctioned by the DNC. These other events won’t allow candidates to challenge each other or give voters an opportunity to directly compare the passion and knowledge each candidate brings to the issue.
The DNC should absolutely host a debate on the climate crisis.
Inaction already felt
The climate crisis is not a “single issue” – it is unique in that it affects every facet of our society. Care about jobs? With coal in rapid decline, how can we grow the clean energy market to provide rural Americans well-paying careers? Care about the economy? How will America compete for the $26 trillion that can be gained by taking bold climate action between now and 2030? Care about health? How will we prevent up to tens of thousands of Americans from dying each year from extreme temperatures?
In my home state of New Mexico, we’re beginning to see the costs that inaction will bring. Two of the largest wildfires in New Mexican history occurred this decade. Since the 1950s, the snowpack has been decreasing in New Mexico, and future projections show substantial further drops due to climate change. This will take a major toll on the state’s multibillion dollar agricultural industry. New Mexico has always been hot, but like the rest of the country, it is getting hotter – dangerously so.
According to a report mandated by an act of Congress, extreme heat is projected to reduce Americans’ ability to work outside by two billion hours a year, costing the U.S. economy $160 billion per year by late this century.
Journalism must do better: We need news to use about climate. Give us a daily carbon dioxide count with the weather.
New Mexicans are also recognizing the economic opportunities from taking bold action. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham recently signed a bill committing the state to get 50% of its electricity from renewables by 2030, and 100% from carbon-free sources before mid-century. That makes good economic sense considering that renewable energy is now cheaper than fossil fuels in most cases.
Big questions remain
The science and economics are clear: To address the climate crisis, the United States must immediately reduce greenhouse gas pollution across all sectors and invest in infrastructure to adapt to warming that our emissions have already locked in.
What is the right mix of policies and measures to handle this crisis and keep our economy robust? What infrastructure investments should the federal government prioritize? How should the next administration work with states and cities to address the challenge? How will it help communities suffering from climate impacts, as well as those adversely affected by transitioning away from dirty fuels? And how will the government lead in protecting wildlife, domestically and abroad? These are big, meaty questions that deserve airtime on the debate stage.
This op-ed orioginally appeared in USA Today. Follow Bill Richardson on Twitter: @GovRichardson.