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Make Democratic Leaders Pay for Their Climate Cowardice

They're refusing to hold a debate on global warming. Voters have the power to punish them for it.

DNC chairperson Tom Perez (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Climate coverage in the 2020 election is set to reach unprecedented levels this week, with CNN’s seven-hour “Climate Crisis Town Hall” slated for September 4. It will be the most attention ever devoted to climate change in a presidential campaign, far eclipsing the meager (and yet somehow also record-setting) 20-minute discussion of climate change at the second Democratic debate.

But don’t conflate quantity with quality. The seven-hour marathon will in essence be a series of disconnected interviews, featuring generalist CNN anchors like Wolf Blitzer and Chris Cuomo asking individual candidates about their plans for climate action. The structure is almost sure to result in low viewership and superficial answers from candidates operating in isolated, 40-minute silos. Meanwhile, climate change continues to threaten the stability of human civilization. July was the hottest month ever recorded. The Amazon is on fire. Bedrock environmental statutes are under attack from the highest levels of government. Climate change is the defining crisis of our time, and it deserves top billing in the 2020 presidential campaign. The fact that it hasn’t received that so far is the fault of the Democratic National Committee, which voted in late August not only to not hold a climate-specific debate, but also to bar Democratic candidates from participating in independent climate debates.

There are no good-faith reasons to bar a climate debate. The two most common arguments against having a debate, deployed frequently and easily by Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez, are that having a climate debate will take candidates away from the campaign trail and unleash a deluge of single-issue debates. Those arguments, in essence, boil down to the idea that allowing a climate debate will alter the status quo of establishment politics, which makes the DNC uneasy. To which the answer can only be: If solutions to climate change that challenge the status quo make you uneasy, you either don’t understand the magnitude of the problem or you’re too scared to actually do what it takes to solve it.

The absurdity of the national party’s cowardice with respect to the climate crisis becomes even more shocking when one considers just how committed both voters and candidates are to the idea of a climate debate. In July, a CNN poll asked 50,000 viewers what issue they’d like to hear about most in a presidential debate. Climate change was the top answer, eclipsing both the economy and health care—topics lavished with such attention that they essentially have gotten their own debates—by more than a thousand votes. Meanwhile, the majority of Democratic presidential candidates—including front-runners like former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—support the idea of a separate climate debate.

That means that, when it comes to the biggest crisis of our time, the only thing standing between the will of the Democratic voters and a prime-time debate on climate change are the 222 DNC members that voted against a climate debate. Because the DNC is an organizational institution rather than a public-facing political entity, the list of members who voted against the debate has not been made public, making it even more difficult for voters to hold the party accountable for its unconscionable decision. Without the DNC providing a public explanation for why it refuses to let candidates participate in a climate debate, voters are left with milquetoast platitudes and a party apparatus that has accepted tens of thousands of dollars in donations from fossil fuel executives. It’s a very bad look, and a dangerous calculation. The DNC is, essentially, telling voters that it is willing to risk the future of the world for the sake of the status quo, and betting that because voters who care about climate have nowhere else to go, they’ll stay engaged in the party anyway.

Politically speaking, that’s particularly risky given that climate change is such an energizing issue for a big block of voters that the DNC really should care about: young voters. Young people are particularly clued in to the climate crisis because they know that they’ll be the ones dealing with the consequences; most of the presidential candidates and DNC leaders (probably) won’t be around in 2050, but an 18-year old will be.

The reality is that, as long as the U.S. political system is a two-party system, the Democratic Party offers the best chance at national, progressive climate action. If the Democratic Party national leadership isn’t willing to lead that charge, the only option is to change the national party.

As is true of most climate policy, there is likely no silver bullet for turning the DNC from a fossil-fuel-donation-accepting corporate entity into a representative committee responsive to the needs of its voters. It’ll take a multi-prong approach, merging external activism with internal pressure. Already, groups like the Sunrise Movement are promising to continue to push the DNC on its decision not to hold a climate debate. But one group alone won’t be enough; instead, state party leaders like Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party and vocal supporter of a climate debate, should use their platforms to continue to mobilize local voters. State-level mobilization could be particularly important in “purple” states, because one rumor is that Perez balked at the idea of a climate debate out of fear that it would alienate “moderate” Democrats. In that respect, leaders like Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a strong voice in favor of a climate debate, can help show the national party that climate change is an issue that can appeal to both leftist and moderate Democrats. Local voters, meanwhile, should show leaders like Podlodowski and Kleeb their support, whether through organizing or donations. And they should double down on the principle behind the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge and similar state-based initiatives, demonstrating to the DNC with every donation and vote that accepting fossil fuel money now comes with immediate political costs.

Beyond local leaders, voters disappointed with the DNC’s dereliction of duty should capitalize on the national attention surrounding a climate debate. A poll from June found that nearly three-quarters of Democratic voters think it’s “very important” for presidential candidates to talk about climate change. Supporters of a climate debate should take advantage of public sentiment by showing how disconnected the national party really is from the voters it claims to serve.

At the end of September, activists around the globe are set to mobilize for the Global Climate Strike, which presents a ready platform for state leaders to voice their support for grassroots voters and their disagreement with the position of national leadership. And activists shouldn’t limit their justified rancor to just the DNC. They should also be leveraging candidates’ public statements into public action, by pressuring prominent candidates who have said that they support a climate debate to refuse to participate in DNC-sponsored debates until the DNC reverses its previous position.

Activists and leftist voters should also press the DNC for accountability. The decision not to hold a climate debate is a decision that affects all Democratic voters; as such, voters must demand that Perez and the DNC release a full list of the members that voted against a climate debate. So far, Perez has refused calls for transparency into the climate debate resolution and voting process; that’s unacceptable, and voters should let him know that, through any channel available. If and when a list is made public, don’t let the DNC bury the list in another news cycle or quietly release the list to no fanfare: Loudly call out the officials that voted against a climate debate. And, most importantly, support, at the ballot box, local party leaders who understand the importance of climate change to the Democratic party.

Ultimately, the only way to get the DNC to treat climate change like the monumental threat it truly is may be to change the DNC. If the national party is too afraid of establishment politics to change their decades-old debate rules, then it’s not a national party that has the vision or courage to tackle global climate change.