Opinion writer

Democrats and climate advocates have thus far failed miserably in their quest to make the accelerating risk of immense future human suffering and dislocation something that sufficiently motivates voters. While polls show majorities now take climate change seriously, they also show it remains low on the list of people’s concerns, which is understandable, since the power of even the most lurid description of the threat it poses is mitigated by how distant that threat feels, both geographically and temporally.

But in this cycle, Democrats have a particularly ripe opportunity to try to drive more public attention to the issue — and, possibly, to make it matter a bit more electorally than it has in the past.

Today billionaire climate activist Tom Steyer is sending a memo to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, the moderator of the first Democratic presidential debate on October 13th, urging him to devote as much of the debate as possible to climate change and clean energy issues, and to try to force the Dem candidates to be more specific about their proposals.

A discussion of climate change is unlikely to create the sort of cable-and-internet-friendly gotcha moments that debate moderators often hope for. But Steyer argues in the memo, which was sent my way, that the issue is very important to Democratic primary voters and elected officials around the country:

Climate change is a top-tier issue for Democratic voters — and in the past few years taking action on climate change has become central to Democratic elected officials’ policy agenda across this country…

From the Clean Power Plan to landmark climate agreements with China and India, President Obama has made transitioning to a clean energy economy a top priority in his second term. Democratic governors are currently implementing bold policies that build a clean energy economy and cut carbon pollution. And just last week, Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would repeal fossil fuel subsidies, create and support at least 3.5 million jobs and cut carbon emissions by at least 34 percent…

In other words, climate and energy issues are an increasingly consequential area in which party doctrine is taking shape. Steyer also argues that a unique confluence of circumstances are coming together to force more public attention to the issue, and that the Dem candidates need to specify how far they are willing to go in their own solutions:

Pope Francis’ moving call to action capped off a remarkable year in which we’ve seen clean energy start to compete head-to-head with fossil fuels and our leaders take dramatic and substantive steps to cut carbon pollution and accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.

Now, the key question is how will our next president build on this momentum…Hillary Clinton, Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders have…all made clear that they oppose the Keystone XL pipeline and drilling in the Arctic, and they all support the full administration of the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan….

But the candidates have yet to discuss their specific plans to comprehensively address climate change….To be a leader of the Democratic Party — and the country — you have to lead on climate change….During the first Democratic presidential primary debate, I urge you to push the candidates to articulate, defend, and refine their plans.

Whether or not climate and clean energy will motivate voters, discussion of these issues in the high profile setting of a Dem debate would make for a compelling contrast with Republicans. At their debate, Republicans remained trapped in a feedback loop where it is now permissible to allow that climate change may be real, but it remains a requirement to assert that whatever Obama proposes to do about it would only destroy the American economy, and to maintain that American action would be futile at any rate, since whatever steps China is said to be taking don’t actually exist.

As Jonathan Chait has noted: “the Republican Party stands alone in its conviction that no national or international response to climate change is needed.”

The thing is, a confluence of factors that are new to this cycle just might conspire to make it a bit harder to sustain that position. As Steyer notes, there is the Pope’s advocacy and the new existence of the Clean Power Plan, which requires states to set up plans to meet targets for reducing carbon emissions or accept a federal plan. It might be easy for the GOP presidential candidates to tell GOP primary voters that they’ll do all they can to undermine or cancel the plan — after all, Obama talks about it as important, so it must be unspeakably horrible — but that might be a tougher case to make to a general election audience.

What’s more, by the time the voting starts in the GOP primaries, we may have a global climate deal. Presumably the Republican candidates will feel compelled to pledge to withdraw the United States from any such deal, which will suddenly ratchet up the real-world stakes — the global stakes — of GOP opposition to climate action. That might also be a tough stance to maintain in a general election.

The more Democrats talk about this stuff, the more there is at least a chance that this contrast will impress itself in some kind of meaningful way on voters. When candidates and/or elected officials talk about issues, it can make a difference, generating more media coverage that can help set the political agenda over time. And Dem primary voters do deserve to know more specifics about the contenders’ solutions: this would help further develop party doctrine on the issue; and promises made by candidates often are kept once in office. The debates are a good place to start. Such discussion might not generate moments that make Twitter go crazy or excite the Morning Joe set, but it might be worthwhile, anyway.