with Paulina Firozi


During two nights of Demorcrats who want to be president facing off against each other in the first 2020 debates, climate change wasn't really part of the debate.

It wasn't just that NBC moderators gave the issue of global warming, which has animated Democratic politics for the past several months, only about 15 minutes of questioning during the first debates, which were split between Wednesday and Thursday night in Miami. Climate activists, complaining about the scant questioning on what they see as a worldwide crisis, are calling on the Democratic National Committee to create a single televised forum dedicated solely to the issue.

It was that when the 20 candidates on stage did talk about global warming, they did not do much to distinguish themselves from one another. 

Most of the 2020 hopefuls kept things safe. As a group, they spoke in soaring terms — sometimes vaguely, at other times with specifics — about the need to confront what they alternately called "climate chaos" and a "climate crisis." They recounted trips to places impacted by disasters amplified by climate change — often either in swing states and within their own states.

"First of all, I don't even call it climate change," said Sen. Kamala Harris, the star of the second night of the first debate. "It's a climate crisis. It represents an existential threat to us as a species."

Harris talked about visiting wildfire-ravaged towns in California "while the embers were smoldering." Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., talked about Midwestern floods forcing him to "activate the emergency operations center of our city twice in less than two years." 

And on Wednesday night, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke talked about visiting flooded farmland in Iowa while former housing secretary Julián Castro mentioned that his first campaign stop was hurricane-hit Puerto Rico.

But none of the candidates butted heads specifically over any details about how they would address — or have already tried to tackle — climate change, despite doing so at length on issues of race, health care, immigration and police shootings elsewhere during the four hours of debate.

That wasn't for lack of effort on the part of some candidates. No one took the bait from John Hickenlooper, the former Colorado governor, when he put down the Green New Deal, a broadly outlined proposal from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and others to drastically reduce carbon emissions all while guaranteeing access to health care and high-quality jobs.

"If you look at the Green New Deal, which I admire the sense of urgency and how important it is to do climate change — I'm a scientist — but we can't promise every American a government job," Hickenlooper said. "If we want to get universal health care coverage, I believe that health care is a right and not a privilege, but you can't expect to eliminate private insurance for 180 million people, many of whom don't want to give it up."

Three co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution in the Senate — Harris, Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) — stood on stage with Hickenlooper. But none of them responded to his swipe at their proposal.

If the role of debate moderators is to bring into relief differences between the candidates — and get the contenders themselves to go after one another over policy proposals — the NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo did not do that when it came to climate change.

At one point, "Meet the Press" anchor Chuck Todd confused the idea of climate mitigation, which are efforts to reduce climate-warming emissions, with efforts to prepare for those effects. At another point, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow asked Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is centering his campaign on climate change, "Does your plan save Miami?"

“It is such a huge broad systemic issue and you can’t just say, 'Is Miami gonna exist in 50 years?' We need to say what are you going to do about this," Ocasio-Cortez said during an interview on "The Late Show with Steven Colbert."

The two candidates who came closest an actual disagreement were those who lead in polling: former vice president Joe Biden and Sanders.

After Sanders went into a stump speech line calling for "a political revolution," Biden retorted, "I don't buy that." He went on to defend the creation of the Paris climate accord during the Obama administration, under which the vast majority of the world's nations agreed to voluntarily lower heat-trapping emissions. 

"I think you're so underestimating what Barack Obama did," Biden said. "He's the first man to bring together the entire world, 196 nations, to commit to deal with climate change, immediately."

At least one big TV personality said the debates proved a climate change-focused faceoff is necessary:


— The Democratic debate happened at “ground zero” for rising seas: And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has pitched himself as the climate candidate, took advantage of the trip to further that agenda. The day after he arrived in Miami, which happened to be the hottest June 23 ever recorded there, he toured the Everglades and announced a plan to phase out fossil fuels. He called South Florida the “ground zero in the attack on America” from climate change, as The Post’s Dan Zak writes in this scene-setter.

Even the debate location was symbolic: “The debate venue, built on the landfilled waterways of yore, is across the street from a private college called — get this — Atlantis University,” Zak noted. The issue got less than 10 minutes of questioning during the first round of the debate on Wednesday, and Inslee had the least amount of speaking time of all the candidates, which he chalked up to a “recognition of my efficiency.” “Forced optimism? Real optimism? Maybe when it comes to climate change — or a campaign for the presidency — there’s no difference,” Zak writes.

The climate candidate is still calling for a climate debate: After the first night of the debate devoted just minutes to the issue, Inslee doubled down on his demand for a debate focused solely on the climate. He is urging the DNC to change its rules and is calling on other 2020 candidates to back the call, HuffPost reports. “Today, I urge all of you to join me in demanding the DNC allow a climate debate, and eliminate its gag rule that punishes candidates for participating in an outside climate debate,” Inslee wrote in a letter. DNC spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa told HuffPost that after the DNC shared details of its debate rules to candidates back in March, “no one objected.”

— Meanwhile, at the G-20 summit: Climate change is not expected to be a major focus of the conference set to begin Friday in the city of Osaka in Japan. While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has vowed to lead on climate action, “experts worry that no notable action will be taken by the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations,” The Post’s Claire Parker reports. “Experts on climate change say the Trump administration’s climate skepticism, coupled with President Trump’s readiness to start trade wars, has caused world leaders to carefully avoid running afoul of Washington’s position on the issue,” she writes. “A meeting of G-20 environmental and energy ministers earlier this month produced a carefully worded statement that notably had few mentions of the Paris climate accord. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler pledged ahead of time to steer that conversation toward ocean litter instead — and trash is indeed what made headlines coming out of that meeting." 

Still, European leaders may push Trump on the issue: In a letter ahead of the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker cited climate change as an “existential threat” and called for leaving a “healthier planet behind for those who follow,” reiterating support for the Paris climate agreement. And French President Emmanuel Macron has already said this week he “might not agree to a joint statement — or communique — at the end of the G-20 meetings if it does not include strong language addressing climate change,” The Post’s Seung Min Kim, Damian Paletta and Simon Denyer report.

— More on the closing refinery in Philadelphia: Top EPA officials – including former agency chief Scott Pruitt and outgoing agency air official Bill Wehrum – worked to bail out Philadelphia Energy Solutions when it went bankrupt last year. The company is now closing a Philadelphia refinery after an explosion erupted there last week. “In January 2018, the month the refinery company Philadelphia Energy Solutions went bankrupt, Pruitt and EPA leaders held three previously unreported meetings with or about PES, agency documents show,” E&E News reports. “…The culmination of those discussions was an EPA settlement in March 2018 that waived half of the refinery's outstanding renewable fuel standard blending credits — a deal worth some $175 million to PES.” Legal experts are now questioning whether these efforts point to “how far the agency will bend the rules to prop up the century-old refinery again.”  


Coming Up

  • The House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on the Environment hold a hearing on hurricane resiliency on July 22.