DETROIT—Climate change turned into a flashpoint at last night’s Democratic debate when most of the 10 candidates jumped into an argument about the best way to fight rising temperatures without wrecking the American economy.

The episode revealed policy divisions on an issue that’s ignited the liberal base of the party. The roughly 10-minute segment in the two-hour debate was also criticized by climate advocates on social media as unrepresentative of the environmental hazards facing the next president.

It started with a question to former Maryland Rep. John Delaney, who favors a carbon tax over the Green New Deal.

Delaney said his problem with the Green New Deal and its aim of fighting climate change with a government-led jobs program was that “it ties its progress to other things that are completely unrelated to climate” such as universal health care.

“That only makes it harder to do,” he said.

The response triggered a back-and-forth among several of the candidates about how ambitious—and liberal—the eventual Democratic nominee should be on the issue of climate change. That argument echoed similar fights during the 2-hour, 30-minute debate over health care, gun control and immigration.

On climate and other issues, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont—who both back the Green New Deal—often found themselves at odds with the more moderate candidates onstage.

“I get a little bit tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas,” Sanders said. “Please don’t tell me that we cannot take on the fossil fuel industry and nothing happens unless we do that.”

He added: “What do you do with an industry that knowingly—for billions of dollars of short-term profits—is destroying this planet. I say that is criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue.”

The line prompted Montana Gov. Steve Bullock to chastise Sanders for his rhetoric, which he argued could repel fossil fuel workers away from the Democratic Party.

“As we transition to this clean energy economy, you have got to recognize there are folks that have spent their whole life powering our country,” Bullock said. “And far too often Democrats sound like they’re part of the problem.”

Sanders countered that his vision for climate change includes help for those workers.

“We are not anti-worker,” he said. “We are going to provide, make sure that those workers have a transition [to] new jobs.”

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg jumped into that argument by arguing that the Democratic field had put out “highly similar visions on climate.”

In that, he’s partially correct. There are several universal themes among the candidates—such as rejoining the Paris climate accord and stopping new fossil fuel leases on public lands. But there are significant differences in scope (Climatewire, July 30).

Warren, for example, has outlined a comprehensive proposal in line with the Green New Deal.

“I have a plan for a green industrial policy that takes advantage of the fact that we do what we do best—and that is innovate and create,” she said last night.

Her vision entails a $2 trillion investment in clean energy research and a commitment to support this sector with federal dollars. She then would have the government promote these products abroad.

“Anyone in the world can use it so long as you build it right here in America,” she said. “That will produce about 1.2 million manufacturing jobs.”

Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan is not a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, but he echoed Warren’s desire to use the climate fight as a way to spur new employment.

“My plan is to create a chief manufacturing officer so we can actually start making things in the United States again,” he said. “China dominates 60% of the solar panel market, so this person will work in the White House—report directly to me—and we’re going to start making things again.”

Leading up to the debate, climate activists tried to pressure the candidates to address global warming. Environmentalists and union workers held a rally yesterday afternoon at nearby Cass Park and then marched several blocks to Fox Theatre, from which CNN televised the debate.

Key themes at the rally were support for workers’ rights and environmental justice. They carried signs with messages like “Help! The planet can’t wait” and “My grandchildren deserve the Green New Deal now” and “It’s not just Miami.”

Antonio Cosme, an environmental organizer, said the debates presented an opportunity for the people of Detroit to make their voices heard. “When the spotlight is on Detroit, we want to make sure the issues that face frontline communities are centered and are part of the narrative,” he said.

One example he cited was a recent effort to spotlight residents of ZIP code 48217, one of the state’s most polluted neighborhoods. “We really wanted to make sure that when the candidates are here visiting downtown [and] getting money from funders ... that they’re talking to us [and] that they’re thinking about us,” Cosme said.

Driving the protest was a mix of local activists, youth organizers with the Sunrise Movement and members of the Service Employees International Union. Also on hand: Michigan Democratic Reps. Andy Levin and Rashida Tlaib.

Tlaib declined an interview request, but Levin said it was imperative for the Democratic field to talk about climate change in the context of jobs and public works. “They need to speak to an infrastructure program that not only fixes our roads and bridges but takes care of our sewers and leads the green energy transformation,” he said.

Levin, who has endorsed Warren for president, added that the stakes are bigger than just the 2020 election. “I’m here because my highest calling is to fight for climate justice and fight to save our planet,” he said. “Literally life on Earth as we know it is at stake.”

The stance echoed the views of many rallygoers.

Adam Bingman of the SEIU said it would be a mistake—politically—for the Democratic field to ignore the ambitions of the Green New Deal.

“Those who don’t pay attention are going to fail to win the election,” he said. “When you come to Michigan, you have to talk about environmental justice, racial justice [and] workers rights... these things matter.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at