Democrats are talking a lot more about climate change compared to past presidential campaigns.
And increasingly, they have a new demand: They want the chance to do it in front of a national network audience.
A growing number of Democratic politicians and environmental activists are demanding a live televised primary debate dedicated to climate change. The calls are coming as Democratic voters — especially young ones who stand to see significant global warming in their lifetimes — are increasingly revved up about the foreboding environmental crisis.
Such a debate, in which White House hopefuls would try to outdo each other in their commitments to tackle climate change, would also be a way for Democrats as a group to further distinguish themselves from their main opponent, President Trump, who often dismisses climate change as a hoax.
But those pushing for a climate-centric debate have yet to convince one key group — the Democratic National Committee, which officially sets the terms of the party's dozen primary debates.
Still, at least 11 of the presidential candidates who could participate in those debates have endorsed, to varying degrees, the notion of a climate-centric debate. That group include front-of-the-pack candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and long shots such as entrepreneur Andrew Yang and former senator from Alaska Mike Gravel.
“We don't just want a sound bite,” said Karla Stephan, a 14-year-old activist from Bethesda, Md., with the U.S. Youth Climate Strike, one of the environmental groups pushing candidates to support a debate. “We want to hear actual solutions.”
The pressure for them to do talk about climate change is coming from both the bottom up and top down within the Democratic Party.
A petition on MoveOn.org calling for some sort of debate or forum on the issue has garnered 53,000 signatures. And on the campaign trail, activists with the U.S. Youth Climate Strike have hounded candidates to support a climate debate.
“The answer is yes,” said Sanders when asked by activists whether he supported a debate. “There are very few issues more important than the survival of our planet.”
When asked if he supports a climate debate and our petition, @BernieSanders was very straight forward.— US Youth Climate Strike (@usclimatestrike) May 6, 2019
“The answer is yes... there are very few issues more important than the survival of our planet.”
Thank you for supporting the movement Senator Sanders! pic.twitter.com/MbKxn5b7S2
And when former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.) was similarly cornered in Nevada by activists, he said: “We want to look at the details of the debate that you propose, but I like that idea . . . I can’t see why we wouldn’t want to participate in that.”
Breaking! @BetoORourke is asked by one of our national organizers if he would support a #climatedebate!— US Youth Climate Strike (@usclimatestrike) May 6, 2019
His response: “I like that idea... I can’t see why we wouldn’t want to participate!”
Thanks Beto! We hope you come out in full support! pic.twitter.com/vlaxSVtV6B
And the Sunrise Movement, the grassroots group that brought the idea of a Green New Deal to the fore in Washington only to see Senate Republicans force a vote to defeat the progressive measure, is turning its attention toward getting presidential candidates to pledge their support for a climate debate by the end of July.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, three Democratic senators not running for president want to see a climate debate even sooner. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island and Martin Heinrich of New Mexico wrote to the chairman of NBC News, Andrew Lack, asking him to make a pair of back-to-back debates happen in late June in Miami — parts of which already regularly flood even on sunny days — that would be focused on climate change.
“Voters deserve a vigorous debate with an informed moderator that can press candidates for detailed answers and hold them accountable,” the trio of senators wrote in their letter last week.
The senators, and others, make their case for a climate-centric debate with the 2016 election in mind. During that contest, not one question about climate change was asked of either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton during the three general-election debates. The omission still rankles climate activists.
“Big fat zero,” Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash told a crowd of activists at Howard University this month. “And that is not okay, because what gets talked about in these presidential debates defines what's the priority for the next administration.”
But NBC News has given no indication it will heed their call. The news bureau has not replied to the letter, Whitehouse's office said. NBC News did not reply to a request for comment from The Washington Post.
The DNC, which sets the rules for the Democratic debate across all networks, has been noncommittal, as well. “The DNC is currently ironing out the details for all 12 debates and will work with the networks to ensure that Democrats have a platform to discuss these issues directly with the American people,” DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said in an emailed statement.
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