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).