Scott Olson / Reuters

How should Democrats even debate climate policy?

It’s a harder question than it may seem. Climate change is a sprawling, scary, cinematic problem, and its remedies involve the less-than-inspiring technical undergirding of society: stormwater management, the electrical grid, dirt. And dirt management will never be as engrossing as, say, Medicare for All. The party may also benefit, in a sort of shallow but undeniable way, from its monopoly on climate concern. Since any Democrat would do more to fight climate change than the current president, what’s the point of airing dirty laundry about it in public?

“We have all put out highly similar visions on climate,” South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said on Tuesday night. “We will deal with climate if and only if we win the presidency.”

Of course, there are lots of reasons to talk about it. Debates can inform the public about vital issues, as much as about the candidates, and on this topic, the Democrats running for president have real disagreements. This primary has taught them how to talk about those disputes in a way that is accessible, useful, and urgent. (And Buttigieg’s claim that they share “highly similar visions” on climate, for instance, is more than a little self-serving: His campaign has been less specific about its own climate plans.)

The biggest fissure last night had former Vice President Joe Biden on one side and Washington Governor Jay Inslee on the other. Biden’s climate proposal aims for a “100 percent clean-energy economy” by 2050. It asks Congress to spend $1.7 trillion on new climate-friendly programs. Inslee’s plan, by contrast, requires most of the economy to go 100 percent clean by 2030, and it calls for $9 trillion in investment.

“We have to have a bold plan. And mine has been called the gold standard,” Inslee said last night. (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, specifically, called his plan the gold standard.) “Middle-ground solutions like the vice president has proposed or sort of average-sized things are not going to save us. Too little, too late is too dangerous,” he added.

Biden, who has proposed a legitimately ambitious climate policy, seemed thrown. The United States is responsible for only 15 percent of global carbon emissions, he said. For the other 85 percent, the world needs something that “I helped negotiate … the Paris climate accord.” He promised to “rejoin that accord, and I would make sure we up the ante. I would be able to bring those leaders together that I know and convene them in the White House, and I would raise the standard.” His plan would also spend $400 billion on clean-energy R&D and build half a million charging stations for electric cars by 2030.

Most of the candidates onstage then sided with Inslee. “I have to agree with Governor Inslee,” Senator Kamala Harris said at the start of her answer. She then quoted a line from his stump speech. A few minutes later, Senator Cory Booker made the same move. “I want to take a step back and say that I agree wholeheartedly with Governor Inslee,” he said. “Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten.”

Booker then argued that every aspect of the U.S. government, from its trade deals to its economic policies, must center on climate change. (Inslee has already proposed plans advancing similar ideas.) “The majority of this problem is outside the United States, but the only way we’re going to deal with this is if the United States leads,” Booker said.

Pursuing ambitious climate policy would have repercussions, and across the two evenings of debate, one of the clearest disagreements was about the right status for the fossil-fuel industry. Inslee argues that the oil and gas industry is the primary obstacle to taking climate action. Any attempt to reduce carbon emissions, he says, must address Big Oil’s power head-on. Siding with him most clearly are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Sanders went even further than Inslee on the first night of the debates. “What do you do with an industry that knowingly—for billions of dollars of short-term profits—is destroying this planet?” asked the senator from Vermont. “I say that is criminal activity. That cannot be allowed to continue.”

Not everyone was won over by that antagonism. Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, warned that demonizing fossil-fuel companies could also demonize their employees. John Hickenlooper, Colorado’s governor, was skittish too.

Biden, meanwhile, seems like he’s trying to split the difference. A moderator asked, “Would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?” Biden quickly replied: “No.”

Then he immediately amended that answer. “We would work it out,” he said.

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