It was with dismay and great frustration that I read news reports earlier this month that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) rejected the idea of dedicating a presidential debate specifically to the topic of climate change. This is a decision that all of us climate warriors need to pull together either to overturn or to engineer an effective work-around.
The ostensible reason given by the DNC was that, notwithstanding that climate change polls as issue of concern number one amongst progressive voters, a dedicated climate debate would be unfair to constituencies more focused on other pivotal societal issues like health care, education and immigration.
I suspect the real reason was that the DNC has figured out that while voters think and talk about climate change, they vote on other issues.
So, they reasoned, why have a televised session on an issue which is becoming ever more polarizing amongst progressives? The group dynamic of a climate debate will push all the Democratic candidates further to the far left and, by so doing, scare blue-collar and union swing voters in the non-coastal states that the Democrats need to win back in order to secure the 2020 election.
These actually are pretty valid concerns of the DNC since beating Donald Trump has to be item number one on every Democratic candidate’s climate plan, and a Democrat cannot become President without winning back at least some blue collar votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Nonetheless, we can’t afford to let climate concerns be swept under the rug as they in past presidential campaigns. If we count on climate change being raised as an issue by the journalists who will moderate the presidential debates, forget about it. There were no climate questions in either 2012 or 2016 in the general election debates and precious few in the primaries
We are well into the eleventh hour in terms of the future health of our planet with the immediate imperative of reaching “peak carbon” in 2020 or 2021. We need thoughtful solutions, from both an environmental and political standpoint, in pursuit of solving the climate crisis.
First and foremost, we need to see if we can bridge the gap between the laudable, but perhaps aspirational, goals of the Green New Deal-advocating climate purists and the pragmatic, but perhaps insufficient, ambition of the climate realists, whose plans are shaped by the notion that they will never have the power to get climate legislation through Congress without some support from moderates and lawmakers from traditional energy-producing states.
In my opinion, if the climate movement becomes divided, we all lose.
So this is what I propose: Not a debate, but rather a televised “solutions session” on the climate issue featuring those of the Democratic candidates — Governor Inslee and five or six others — who are deemed to have come closest to making climate action a central pillar of their campaign.
The climate solutions session could be a roundtable discussion; the moderators would not be grandstanding journalists but knowledgeable climate experts from eNGOs, government and the private sector. The audience could be seeded with technology experts who could be called upon should one of the candidates try to get away with a whopper.
To distinguish it from a Democratic Presidential debate you could even invite one or two Republicans — think William Weld, Larry Hogan or John Kasich — to participate. Indeed, perhaps the entire event could be billed as bipartisan, co-hosted by the Schwarzenegger Center and Bloomberg Foundation.
For this to happen, it will have to receive the DNC’s blessing. As long as the DNC is threatening elimination from future debates against any candidate who dares to participate in a multi-candidate forum and format that resembles one of their official debates, we are going to need political muscle to make it happen.
So I ask: Where are the major environmental groups on this? Aside from a brief outcry from the Sierra Club and Tom Steyer, I heard crickets when the DNC decision was disclosed. Where are all the other environmental big guns? Why are they still hedging their political leverage?
There are roughly 20 million American voters who are dues-paying members of one or more of the established environmental organizations. You have to imagine that the DNC deems those 20 million to be a core constituency of the Democratic Party and they must be shocked and appalled, as I am, that environmentalists apparently voted in no greater percentages in 2016 than the general populations. Millions more, given a stark choice on environment between Trump and Clinton, chose to cast their vote for third-party candidates (in numbers that were greater than Trump’s margin of victory in two of the three upper Midwest states that swung the election to Trump).
If environmental groups band together and demand that the DNC allow a televised climate solutions session to go forward under different sponsorship, without threat to the candidates who choose to participate or the TV networks which choose to carry it, wouldn’t that be an offer that the DNC would have to accept?
We won’t know unless candidates and environmental groups get together and make “the ask."
David Crane is a clean energy investor, climate change advocate, and former CEO of U.S. power company NRG Energy.