The second Democratic debate: Return of the Green New Deal


As could be predicted, the first mention of climate change in the second presidential debate did not come from Rachel Maddow or Chuck Todd of NBC News. Instead, it came from John Hickenlooper, who in his first few breaths took a swipe at the Green New Deal, stating that while he “admired the sense of urgency” around the issue, that “we can’t promise every American a government job”.

This was par for the course of the second Democratic debate, wherein climate change, and responses to it, were subordinated to increasing divisions within the party. Enabled by the leading questions of moderators, the old guard of the party pounced on the anti-Left rhetoric of the Cold War to attack the the party’s new Social Democratic wing, which has been increasingly prominent following the 2018 elections.

This included attacking the Green New Deal, which Hickenlooper referenced before any mention of climate change, indicating that centrist Democrats intend to join Fox News in using the ambitious social and economic aspects of the plan as a wedge.

The Left of the party did not take the bait, preferring to go to bat on economic issues, and it was not until the second half of the debate that climate policy actually appeared again; with moderators waiting until 10:18 PM Eastern Time to address the issue. The first question gave U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) a chance to take up the torch.

First of all, I don’t even call it climate change. It’s a climate crisis. It represents an existential threat to us as a species. And the fact that we have a president of the United States who has embraced science fiction over science fact will be to our collective peril.

Harris came out openly in support of the Green New Deal in the debate, as did author Marianne Williamson. This is not a new position; Harris was one of three presidential candidates who endorsed the idea in January, following U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York).


Re-hashing of policies

In general, in contrast to the first debate there was a marked lack of specifics on climate policies, and besides the Green New Deal the other ideas that get rolled out were neither very ambitious nor new.

As the front-runner in this race, Joe Biden did offer some rare details, promising 500,000 recharging stations throughout the country, as well as giving a dollar amount for investments in science and technology. But as is the case in much of Biden’s campaign, he relied heavily on the actions of the Obama Administration.

I would make sure that we invested $400 million in new science and technology, to be the exporter not only of the green economy, but economy that can create millions of jobs. But I would immediately join the Paris Climate Accord. I would up the ante in that accord, which it calls for, because we make up 15 percent of the problem; 85 percent of the world makes up the rest. And so we have to have someone who knows how to corral the rest of the world, bring them together and get something done, like we did in our administration.

This statement was more articulate than what Biden has previously come up with on the issue, with his campaign accused of plagarizing sections of the climate plan on his website.

There is a bit of an irony that U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) did not address climate much, given that he was perhaps the first major candidate to describe climate change as the greatest threat to the nation and world during the 2016 election. But while Sanders spent most of the debate hammering on his core economic and social issues, his single mention of the issue showed a seriousness, if not much in the way of policy details:

Look, the old ways are no longer relevant. The scientists tell us we have 12 years before there is irreparable damage to this planet. This is a global issue. What the president of the United States should do is not deny the reality of climate change but tell the rest of the world that, instead of spending a trillion and a half dollars on weapons of destruction, let us get together for the common enemy, and that is to transform the world’s energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. The future of the planet rests on us doing that.

Besides the Green New Deal and rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement – which both Harris and Buttigieg pledged to do as well – the only other climate policy which made a significant appearance in the debate was the concept of pricing carbon.

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, called for a carbon tax and dividend approach in response to Chuck Todd’s question.


Working with the oil companies?

Along with the attack on the “Socialism” of the Green New Deal, John Hickenlooper also proposed that the way to address greenhouse gas emissions was to work with the oil and gas companies. This and his reference to reducing methane emissions instead of more substantive policy proposals earned Hickenlooper scorn by much of the climate and energy community:

The issue of which candidates are receiving funding from the oil and gas industry has become a hot one, with Joe Biden and U.S. Senator Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) as the latest to sign onto a pledge to not take money from the fossil fuel industries.


Not enough time

And while the questions asked were less leading than in the previous night’s debate, in general there was significant frustration at climate again being relegated to the second hour of the debate, and again receiving only eight minutes of time.

“Despite some candidates’ attempts to tie in the climate crisis to questions on other topics, the mere fifteen minutes of debate directly focused on the climate crisis of 240 minutes total — a paltry six percent of debate time — didn’t scratch the surface of the robust discussion that the crisis deserves,” stated David Turnbull, strategic communications director of Oil Change U.S.

The proposal for a climate-specific debate is gaining steam, with MSNBC’s Chris Hayes coming out in support of the idea less than an hour before the debate.

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