Don’t Overthink a Climate-Change Debate

Of course Democratic candidates should square off on the issue. Here’s what a moderator should ask.

The Democratic presidential candidate and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee campaigns during the SEIU California Democratic Delegate Breakfast in San Francisco, California, on June 1, 2019.
Governor Jay Inslee, who wants a climate debate, has also qualified for the first Democratic primary debate, later this month. (Stephen Lam / Reuters)

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 is pretty 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.

What’s the point of a presidential debate? More than 20 years ago, in a story for this magazine, James Fallows pointed out a fundamental divide between the kind of information that journalists create and the kind of information that most helps voters. Journalists try to generate news: gaffes, scoops, novel data, interesting interpretations of who’s up and who’s down in the political game. But voters ask about the what of politics: “the effects of legislation or government programs on their communities or schools.”

As we hold them today, moderated by television journalists and broadcast live, debates seem designed to generate that first kind of news. Recently, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes noted that a straightforward question a voter posed to Warren—“What are you going to do about the opioid crisis? It’s affecting everyone.”—was “the kind of question a journalist … almost certainly wouldn’t ask.”

This is not an atypical critique of political journalism, and Americans have partly absorbed it since the 1990s. Yet it still infects our debates, which are one of the best opportunities to inform voters about the actual policy stakes of an election. A 2016 report from public-policy researchers at the University of Pennsylvania recommended a number of improvements to the televised-debate format. (Vox made a good video about it.) One of their recommendations that has stuck with me the longest: “Enlarge the pool of potential moderators to include print journalists, university presidents, retired judges and other experts.”

In that vein, a climate debate could do plenty of good. Climate is a top-tier issue for voters in the Democratic Party, yet voters remain somewhat underinformed about it. This is … exactly what a debate could address. Moderators could start by asking the following questions, proposed on Twitter by David Hawkins:

1. What concerns you most about climate change?

2. What areas would you prioritize for federal funding?

3. How much federal spending would you propose for next decade?

4. How would you get support for this spending?

5. What steps would you take to reduce the ideological divide?

We already know the candidates disagree about some of these: Biden has proposed $1.5 trillion in climate spending; Inslee has proposed $3 trillion; most candidates have proposed nothing. Why are those numbers the right choice? Where should the money be spent?

After that opening, moderators could pose questions that have legitimately tricky answers. Questions such as:

To all candidates: Dozens of economists say a carbon tax is the best and cheapest way to fight climate change. But they’ve had little success in the United States, both in state legislatures and at the ballot box. Do you support a carbon tax?

Governor Inslee, you say that America has to lead in fighting the climate crisis. But China already emits more carbon pollution than the United States, and India will soon outrank us as well. Why is this America’s battle to fight? What can the United States do about other country’s greenhouse-gas emissions?

Vice President Biden, you have discussed the importance of fighting climate change. President Barack Obama also said fighting climate change was important in 2008, but he failed to pass a climate bill through the Senate, and he didn’t help complete a climate treaty until the end of his second term. Why will you be different?

Senator Warren, you have proposed dozens of plans to bring about “broad structural change” in the United States. Some of these plans mention climate change, but many don’t. In your flurry of reform, where will you rank fighting climate change?

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke, you have released an aggressive plan for fighting climate change. Your home state of Texas is undergoing an economic boom due to increased oil and natural-gas drilling. How will you weigh the benefits of fighting climate change—which will require keeping many of those fossil fuels in the ground—with this burst of short-term economic prosperity?

I am curious about their answers to these questions! I bet many voters are, too.

And anyway, look, the candidates will not be arguing over the nuances of soil-carbon maintenance. Take the two hours of debate a night, subtract at least 20 minutes for intros and interstitials, divide it among the 10 candidates onstage, and you get at most 10 minutes a person. Ten minutes is a lot, but it’s not enough time for Bernie Sanders to explore the pros and cons of negative-emissions technologies. The candidates are going to spend most of the time describing their plans (or lack thereof).

Some experts argue that candidates will overpromise in a climate debate. Candidates might, say, claim that they can decarbonize the United States by 2030, when in fact that is technologically impossible. But—again—why is that a good reason to avoid a debate? Candidates will overpromise anyway, and it’s not like voters will automatically believe the most radical climate plan they hear. (Some polling suggests the opposite may happen.) Right now, across a whole range of issues—health care, student-loan debt, immigration—the main argument in the Democratic Party is between radicals who want broad structural change and moderates who argue that such an overhaul is unrealistic. Why can voters understand a debate about reforming Obamacare versus adopting Medicare for All, but not understand one about climate change? To presume that voters aren’t ready for a climate debate strikes me as low-key antidemocratic. And if climate change is a problem that affects everyone, addressing it is going to take everyone’s involvement, too.