Why Won't the Democrats Hold a Climate Change Debate? - Rolling Stone
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Why Won’t the Democrats Hold a Climate Change Debate?

Democratic National Committee faces backlash after it rejects calls to highlight climate crisis

Tom Perez, Chairman, Democratic National CommitteeNational Action Network convention, New York, USA - 03 Apr 2019Tom Perez, Chairman, Democratic National CommitteeNational Action Network convention, New York, USA - 03 Apr 2019

Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez is facing a backlash for rejecting the idea of a 2020 primary debate focused on climate change.

Erik Pendzich/Shutterstock

WASHINGTON — The Democratic National Committee is facing a growing backlash in the wake of its refusal to host a 2020 presidential debate focused solely on solving the climate crisis.

Last week, the DNC not only dismissed the idea of hosting a debate on the existential threat of our time but vowed to bar any 2020 candidate who participates in a non-DNC climate debate from participating in future official debates, according to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was the 2020 Democratic candidate to call for a climate-only debate. Inslee called the DNC’s decision “extremely disappointing” and the blacklist “totally unacceptable.”

Confronted by party activists in Florida over the weekend, DNC Chair Tom Perez defended the committee’s decision by saying that it was “not practical” to hold a debate on a “single issue” like climate change. He said the candidates knew the rules going in at the start of the campaign, which included not devoting any of the DNC’s 12 sanctioned debates to a single topic.

“Once you have one single-issue debate, then every debate leads to become a single issue debate in order to address the concerns,” Perez told the activists. “And frankly, as someone who worked for Barack Obama, the most remarkable thing about him was his tenacity to multitask, and a president must be able to multitask.”

But Perez’s justifications have only inflamed an increasingly agitated group of liberal activists, environmental leaders and several 2020 candidates who say Perez is badly misguided.

Climate change and other environmental issues received a pathetic five minutes of discussion in the three 2016 general-election debates and pressure has been building since the start of the 2020 race to elevate the issue, especially as more and more voters (of all parties) rank climate change as an issue of great importance to them.

Before Perez’s latest comments, 53 of the DNC’s voting members — a group that includes nine state party chairpersons — sent the chairman a draft resolution to force the DNC to host a climate-specific presidential debate. And more than a half-dozen 2020 contenders (and counting) have backed the idea: Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Michael Bennet; ex-Obama cabinet secretary Julián Castro; and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.

The loudest proponent among the 2020ers is Inslee, who has built his campaign around a massive overhaul of the U.S. economy to fight climate change while creating millions of jobs in the process. In an interview with Rolling Stone on Monday, Inslee slammed Perez’s comment that it was “not practical” to have a climate-focused debate. “What’s impractical is trying to plant your crops under 8 feet of water in Iowa or trying to rebuild your home after it’s burned to the ground in Paradise, California,” Inslee says.

He adds that an issue as complex and consequential as the climate crisis deserves its own dedicated debate, and that the DNC was “shielding candidates” who don’t yet have a detailed climate plan beyond “how to spell the word existential.”

“We need an honest debate on this, where people can actually show what they intend to do rather than offer bromides and bumper-sticker comments in 60 seconds,” Inslee says.

Inslee said he’d heard from activists and voters who were infuriated about the DNC’s vow to bar any 2020 candidate who participates in a non-DNC climate debate from participating in future official debates. Despite the DNC’s threat, he said he wouldn’t rule out appearing in an unofficial climate debate, daring the committee to effectively blacklist him.

A DNC spokeswoman tells Rolling Stone that climate change is one of the party’s top issues and Perez has said that it “must be prominently featured during the debates for the 2020 cycle,” but added, “The DNC will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area because we want to make sure voters have the ability to hear from candidates on dozens of issues of importance to American voters.”

As for Inslee’s blacklisting complaint, she replied that “the ground rules on unsanctioned debates were made clear with all the candidates, including Governor Inslee, and media partners months ago.”

Inslee is joined in his criticism by many of the leading environmental grassroots groups and activists demanding immediate and far-reaching action on the climate crisis. Several petitions demanding a DNC-approved climate debate have racked up tens of thousands of names.

Varshini Prakash, a co-founder of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said Perez’s “not practical” comment was “outrageous.” “Almost every major candidate has supported the call for a Climate Debate,” Prakash said in a statement sent to Rolling Stone. “We hope that all candidates, especially those who joined us in calling for a climate debate, will speak out against this disastrous decision and demand the DNC reconsider.”

“The longer I think about @DNC insisting no-one hold a climate debate, the sillier it seems,” Bill McKibben, the influential environmental writer and activist, tweeted on Sunday. “We’ve literally never talked about this issue in a presidential debate, and we literally have to deal with it immediately. I don’t understand why we shouldn’t devote a night to it.”

Numerous other climate activist groups have blasted the DNC’s decision:

Inslee, for his part, says the DNC stands to miss an opportunity for Democrats to distinguish themselves even more forcefully as the party of science and of the future.

“Our party needs to demonstrate that we’re the party totally committed to this solution,” he says. “All of America will see who has the chops on this and that the Republican Party is still hiding from it. This would be a significant statement of our party’s intention to solve this problem.”

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, tells Rolling Stone that he and Perez have traded voicemails about a potential climate debate. Brune says he’s confident the DNC will reverse course. “They are going to have to allow Democratic candidates to have a debate about the most important issue facing our generation,” he says. “To deny that is to declare that the DNC will be irrelevant for the next decade or two.”


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