The climate crisis is not just the biggest issue of the 2020 election, or the biggest issue of our time — it is the biggest issue that human civilization has ever faced. We are talking about the basic operating system of the entire planet. If we fuck it up too badly, we’re goners, and so is much of the other life on this planet.
Given how much is at stake, you might think the climate crisis deserves a debate of its own among Democratic candidates, especially given the fact that Democratic voters identify it as a top issue this year. But the Democratic National Committee nixed that idea. In a Medium post, DNC chairman Tom Perez reassured climate activists that he understands the urgency of the climate crisis very well…although not well enough, apparently, to give it the debate time it deserves.
That means that during the upcoming Democratic debates, the climate crisis will not be treated like what writer Alex Steffen rightly calls “a planetary emergency.” In a two hour debate, the climate crisis will likely get maybe 10 minutes of discussion (Washington Senator Jay Inslee, who has released by far the most aspirational climate plan of all the candidates, will undoubtedly do all he can to keep it rolling as long as possible).
Let’s say you’re the moderator of one of these debates. And let’s say you really do care about giving the climate crisis the kind of thoughtful discussion it deserves. What are the right questions to ask?
First, as David Roberts at Vox pointed out, it is long past time to be asking about whether climate change is “real,” or whether candidates “believe” in climate change.
2. The rule for moderators: ***Do not ask if climate change is real.***
We know it's f'ing real. Asking whether it's real just introduces doubt to a settled question & gives the candidates a chance to blather. No basic science questions. Focus on policy specifics!
— David Roberts (@drvox) June 24, 2019
It is also true that the primary goal of the debate should be not just to force candidates to articulate their climate policies in a way that will help voters discern the differences between them, important as that may be. It is also to help voters discern who knows their shit, and who is just absorbing notes from a policy briefing.
To help with that, here are eight questions that might elicit an answer that goes beyond a canned sound-byte:
Question 1: Describe a moment in your own life that woke you to the risks of climate change.
Question 2: You are standing on what amounts to ground zero for the climate crisis in America. No matter how fast we cut carbon pollution, rising seas will present a profound threat to the future of Miami, as well as to many other low-lying cities in the US and the world. Is it time to begin thinking about a managed retreat from the coastlines? If so, what role should the federal government play?
Question 3: There is abundant evidence that big oil companies like ExxonMobil have long been aware of the impacts that burning fossil fuel would have on the earth’s climate. And yet these companies not only hid this research from public view, but spent decades deliberately and knowingly undermining climate science and working to delay action to limit the consumption of fossil fuels. Do you think oil, gas, and coal companies should be held liable for damages caused by burning fossil fuels?
Question 4: How would you compare the risks that the climate crisis poses to American’s security with the risks posed by, say, Iran?
Question 5: There’s a strong case to be made that greed and materialism are basically destroying the planet. Do you think dealing with climate crisis will ultimately going to require rethinking the basic tenets of capitalism?
Question 6: To avert the worst of the climate crisis, scientists tell us that the world needs to cut carbon emissions in half by 2030, then go to zero net carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve this, it’s not enough to rely on market forces and the continuing decline in prices for renewable energy. We have to essentially ban fossil fuels in the coming decades. And that means taking on some of the richest, most powerful, most politically-connected corporations in the world. What can you tell us tonight that will convince viewers that you have the courage and political skills to accomplish this?
Question 7: We can talk about the urgency of the climate crisis all we want, but when it comes down to it, there is always some more urgent crisis that comes along, whether it is immigration or health care or a school shooting, that delays action on climate change. As president, how would you keep the focus on the climate crisis long enough to accomplish the profound changes that must be implemented?
Question 8: The basic fundamentals of the climate crisis have been known for more than 30 years now. And yet the level of carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere — the only real metric that matters — continues to go up and up and up. In effect, we have done nothing to avert this crisis, despite having all the time, money, and knowledge we need. What can you say that will convince viewers tonight that it will be any different when you are president?