The Democratic debate last night indicated how deeply climate change is coloring the presidential race.
The six candidates on stage told voters that it’s the most pressing issue, with a mostly unified voice. It came as polls show that climate change is a top concern among Democratic voters as the nation races toward primary contests beginning with the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.
Although moderators disappointed some environmentalists and others by devoting just one round of questions to climate, the candidates sprinkled it into answers all night. Several invoked carbon emissions when the discussion turned to trade or the military. Some talked about the National Environmental Policy Act, a law requiring environmental reviews for large projects, and other detailed policies like the methane waste rule and corporate average fuel economy standards.
There were few moments of open disagreement—though one emerged as significant.
Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she supports natural gas as a fuel to transition the nation away from coal. It drew criticism from some members of the Democratic Party, but none from her competitors on stage.
Asked why she doesn’t want to ban hydraulic fracturing, Klobuchar said she wants to restore former President Obama’s regulations on methane venting and leaks, but otherwise cast natural gas as a climate solution.
“When it comes to the issue of fracking, I actually see natural gas as a transition fuel. It’s a transition fuel to where we get to carbon neutral,” she said, before describing all the candidates’ climate plans as substantially similar.
At that moment, CNN showed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders shake his head as he mouthed “no.”
Climate activists and some members of Congress blasted Klobuchar’s kind words for the fossil fuel.
“You could maybe say that ten years ago, but we know so much more now. ... Klobuchar is behind on the science,” tweeted Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank Data for Progress.
Methane, a key component of natural gas, is a short-lived greenhouse gas that’s 82 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Research in the last few years has shown it leaking into the atmosphere at far greater rates than government estimates (Climatewire, Aug. 17, 2019).
“Klobuchar just lost me on natural gas, big time,” tweeted Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.), chairman of a House Natural Resources subcommittee.
“Climate leadership must be a litmus test for the next president and I was ready to believe that all Democratic candidates passed the basic test. I think Klobuchar took herself out of the running tonight.”
Klobuchar did not mention the Green New Deal, which she has co-sponsored, but did say that a price on carbon should fund programs to cushion fossil fuel workers and others affected by decarbonization.
The Green New Deal’s most vocal advocate last night was Sanders, who invoked it twice—once when outlining his climate ambitions and again when pressed on whether his identity as a democratic socialist weakens him against attacks by President Trump’s campaign.
“When Trump talks about socialism, what he talks about is giving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry,” Sanders said.
“My democratic socialism says ... we’re going to have a Green New Deal, and create up to 20 million [jobs] saving the planet for our children and our grandchildren.”
Earlier in the debate, Sanders explained his opposition to a proposed North American trade deal called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, by saying it’s silent on the most important issue—climate—and does nothing to lower emissions. Told that some unions support the deal, Sanders responded that the Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups oppose it. (The Sunrise Movement endorsed Sanders last week.)
As the moderators of the CNN/Des Moines Register debate tried to turn the conversation from climate back to trade, Sanders disputed the distinction: “They are the same in this issue.”
Billionaire activist Tom Steyer echoed Sanders’ opposition to USMCA over climate, while Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden supported the deal as a modest improvement for workers that could be strengthened later.
Warren said she would reverse Trump’s effort to loosen the National Environmental Policy Act by deploying every presidential power available to curb emissions. After naming some of her climate policies, like halting new fossil fuel leases on public lands, she framed climate as one of the many issues that could be addressed by fighting corruption.
“We have known about this climate crisis for decades. Back in the 1990s, we were calling it global warming, but we knew what it was. Democrats and Republicans back then were working together, because nobody wanted a problem. But you know what happened? The industry came in and said, ’We can make big money if we keep them divided and make no change,’” Warren said.
“Priority number one has to be taking back our government from the corruption. That’s the only way we’ll make progress on climate.”
For the second debate in a row, Steyer used climate as an attack line on former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, though he didn’t put forward a specific critique beyond singling out Buttigieg’s plan as insufficient.
Buttigieg, who sidestepped a question in the last debate about managed retreat, was pressed on it again. The best way to help farmers and other hard-to-relocate entities, he said, is to reduce emissions. He also emphasized that the nation needs to devote significant funding to underprotected and overpolluted minority communities.
Biden repeated his go-to line, touting his 1987 climate bill as the first legislation on global warming. He also expressed support for more stringent vehicle mileage standards, carbon sequestration in the agricultural sector, and building out electric vehicle infrastructure.
Steyer said he would end ethanol waivers for oil refiners. He re-upped his promise to declare a national emergency on climate change. And he said managed retreat is “unbelievably expensive, and of course we’re going to come to the rescue of Americans who are in trouble.”
Steyer also fielded questions about his hedge fund’s investments in coal. He said he divested a decade ago when he recognized climate change was a problem.
But he didn’t get the last word.
Shortly after the debate ended, President Trump tweeted: “Steyer is running low on cash. Nobody knows him. Made his money on coal. So funny!”
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.