Opinion: Who to blame for the lack of climate-change discussion at Democratic debates

It’s up to the media, candidates, and voters to make the climate crisis a top priority this campaign cycle.


David Harmantas

Protestors fill the intersection of Iowa Ave and Dubuque St. to hear Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg speak at the Iowa City Climate Strike in downtown Iowa City on Friday, Oct. 4, 2019.

Elijah Helton, Opinions Editor

After three hours of full big-ticket policy discussion on areas such as health care, firearms, and foreign policy, the October Democratic debate concluded with hardly a word about the most important issue: climate change.

Even before the debate ended, many people were already expressing their grievances on Twitter. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who previously ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, called the lack of questions on the issue  “completely inexcusable.” Iowa City climate striker Yardley Whaylen responded with an exasperated “come on!!!”

While many complained about the moderators lack of questions, the ignorance of the climate crisis goes even deeper than just a few disinterested media figures. Let’s examine how three groups are to blame for the lack of talk on the environmental emergency.

It’s on the moderators

Before we dig into other reasons the climate crisis went ignored on Tuesday night, we should take a look at the internet’s main targets. And yes, there’s plenty of blame to put on the media’s questions.

Health care dominated the debate as has happened in previous debates. The moderators asked about the merits and shortcomings of Medicare for All. The perpetual proposal ping-ponged from its supporters — Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. — to its detractors — basically everyone else.

Of course, health care is an important issue. However, it’s less helpful to reiterate the same talking points after four debates of the same arguments and counterarguments.

The moderators’ role should be to facilitate public discourse. Inquiries about the worldwide threeat of climate change would serve voters more than bickering about “how are you going to pay for it” for the umpteenth time.

Saying something about ‘fighting climate change’ has been a requisite line in left-leaning politics for a long time, but the Democratic Party needs to become much more committed much faster.”

It’s on the candidates

Even if the dozen presidential hopefuls on stage didn’t get a direct question on climate crisis, they could have at least brought it up in their answers.

According to a debate transcript from the Washington Post, the issue was only mentioned six times. Five of those were offhand remarks, such as when businessman Andrew Yang sandwiched climate change between cybersecurity and nuclear waste as examples of how the government needs a tech upgrade.

Another businessman, Tom Steyer, was the only one who really dug in on climate change. 

“We can’t solve the climate crisis in the United States by ourselves,” Steyer said when asked about foreign policy. “It’s an international crisis.”

Saying something about “fighting climate change” has been a requisite line in left-leaning politics for a long time, but the Democratic Party needs to become much more committed much faster.

The aforementioned Inslee is the only one who seemed to really get this. He ran on a platform to “make climate change every issue,” but dropped out in August due to lack of support. And that brings up the last group to blame for the lack of climate change in the primary race.

It’s on all of us

If the climate crisis was treated as such an essential threat by the public (or at least Democrats), then that clamoring would trickle up to the debate stage. But even with the success of climate activism such as such as Greta Thunberg’s appearance in Iowa City, it’s still not the top political priority for the vast majority of the country.

In a September poll from FiveThirtyEight and Ipsos, only 6.5 percent of Democrats said climate change is the most important issue. The number is even lower for independents and Republicans.

For an Inslee-style, climate-first bid to be successful, the electorate would also have to become climate-first. That simply isn’t happening.

Serious talk about climate change has been lacking throughout the party’s way-too-long presidential-nomination campaign. Tuesday night’s silence on the climate crisis exemplifies just how little attention is being given to the issue.

No matter where the finger is pointed, there’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone.

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