By Jamison Foser, political consultant and writer
The seven hours of thoughtful conversation between voters and 10 of the Democratic presidential candidates about climate change on CNN on Wednesday drove home the seriousness gap between the two major political parties. The Democrats have a deep, impressive field, full of people who take public service seriously and at least try to grapple with weighty matters.
By comparison, shortly after the town halls, Anderson Cooper reported — bemused — about the current president of the United States allegedly using a Sharpie to alter an official hurricane projection: a fundamentally unserious person whose policies are actively making climate change worse even as our window for dealing with it is closing. And the 2016 Republican primary field featured an “ideas candidate” who mocked "something called ‘volcano monitoring’" as an example of wasteful government spending. (Less than a month later, Mount Redoubt erupted less than 100 miles from Anchorage.)
This country is in a hole when it comes to science and how it affects us, and one day of substantive discussion of climate change won’t get us out of it.RRelated
The urgency of the climate crisis means we don’t have time to spend years trying to pick up enough Republican votes or Republican seats to overcome every filibuster on any major climate change bill, and it means that a partisan Supreme Court blocking the implementation of any law that does pass would be a devastating setback from which the world's recovery might be impossible.
But even if advocates need to continue pressing Democratic candidates to go further, it’s worth pausing to appreciate what happened on Wednesday night.
CNN deserves credit for airing seven hours of largely substantive discussion of an existential crisis. It was the precise opposite of what cable news viewers are accustomed to, and in the best possible way. This is what campaigns, and coverage of politics, should be: Serious people speaking seriously about serious topics. Instead, in most other cases, interviewers and debate moderators have proven stubbornly resistant to actually asking candidates what they’ll do about climate change, which nearly every expert on the subject describes as an “existential threat.” (There hasn’t been a single question about climate change in a general election debate since 2008, and there has been a total of only three in the last five presidential elections combined.) OPINION
Given that shameful track record, there’s a danger that the news organizations that host future debates will consider the climate box checked by Wednesday’s town halls and MSNBC's two-day climate forum on Sept. 19 and 20 and go back to ignoring the issue. So the climate activists who helped make these town halls happen — particular credit goes to the Sunrise Movement — can’t let up the pressure now.
More than simply candidates discussing their plans, a debate about their climate policies and how they will enact them is essential to ensuring that the Democratic nominee has a strong climate plan. The extended health care debate between Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in 2008 helped ensure that whoever ultimately became president would make the issue a priority upon taking office. The climate town halls must be a starting point, not the final word.
Regardless of whether there is ultimately a climate-focused, DNC-approved debate, climate should be a central topic at every debate. That is not only because of its importance, but because of the breadth of its importance. The damage that climate change will do to our health, our economy, our safety and our security unless we act quickly means that candidates who don’t have a plan for climate change don’t have a plan for health care, or jobs, or deficits, or national security. And whatever plan they do have for those issues isn't very good.
Jamison Foser is a political consultant and writer with more than two decades of experience in national politics. He was senior advisor at NextGen Climate and NextGen America for the last two cycles and previously has worked with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as well as helping to create Media Matters for America.