Climate change at critical moment in White House race

Source: By Mark K. Matthews, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, August 26, 2019

This week’s political maelstrom on the presidential campaign trail has triggered a new round of debate about the role global warming will play in the White House fight.

When it comes to climate change, the last few days have been among the most dynamic of the 2020 cycle. The roller-coaster ride has the potential to reshuffle the Democratic field — even as significant questions remain about how much it will affect President Trump’s bid for reelection.

Consider the following:

  • On Wednesday night, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee dropped out of the race. Despite his inability to catch fire, his absence leaves the field without an undisputed climate champion, as Inslee was the first major presidential candidate in U.S. history to build a campaign around the fight against global warming.
  • Hours after Inslee folded up his tent, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) released an ambitious plan for climate action that calls for $16.3 trillion in government spending to address global warming — a jaw-dropping figure that has earned accolades from climate activists. But it’s unclear whether it’s an approach that will appeal to voters in a general election.
  • Environmentalists fought for — and lost — their bid yesterday to force Democrats to hold a presidential debate solely on the issue of climate change. They’ll likely get one more shot this week, but the fight has revealed a real rift between climate activists and the Democratic establishment.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) initially declined to attend a Sept. 4 forum on climate change but was forced to change course after taking heat from the environmental community. Now she’s expected to attend the CNN event with nine of her Democratic rivals.

Taken together, the events paint a topsy-turvy picture of the strength of climate politics.

For environmentalists, losing Inslee is an obvious setback. So is their failure to convince Democrats to hold a climate-only debate. But the ambition of Sanders’ plan and the flip-flop by Harris shows they still have some muscle — at least in the Democratic primary.

Kyle Kondik, a political analyst and managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, said the recent flurry of activity over climate change is a sign that global warming now is a “litmus test issue for Democrats, just like being pro-choice on abortion or supportive of same-sex marriage.”

But only to a point, he added.

He highlighted Inslee’s campaign, which barely made a dent in the primary polls.

“I don’t think voters are truly comparing and contrasting specific candidate positions on this issue, and Inslee got no traction at all running with climate change as a centerpiece of his campaign,” he said.

Leah Askarinam, an analyst with Inside Elections, came to a similar conclusion about Inslee, whose campaign bragged about releasing a climate platform that was 213 pages long.

“As a sole issue, it doesn’t seem like it’s enough to motivate Democratic primary voters to coalesce around a candidate,” Askarinam said.

Climate change is still likely to play some role in the Democratic primary, she added, but only as one issue among many. And that punch will diminish once the Democrats choose a nominee.

“The general election is most likely going to be about Donald Trump,” she said. And in that race, global warming simply will become “one bullet point that’s part of a larger argument” against Trump’s reelection. “There’s not much oxygen left for anything else,” she said.

That potential means the Democratic primary remains the best avenue for climate activists to make an impact. And so far, they’ve had a mixed record on influencing the discussion.

The foremost example is how the Green New Deal — which wasn’t even on the radar a year ago — now is a regular part of the discussion. It has the support of six of the senators running for president.

“You’ve got to place this in historical perspective,” said Evan Weber, political director of the Sunrise Movement, the environmental group that has been most active in championing the Green New Deal. “Climate change has never been an issue that has broken through in our politics like it has right now.”

Case in point: Harris walking back her initial decision to skip the climate forum.

Politicians and the media are “reckoning with the growing power of the climate movement,” he said.

It’s notable at this early stage in the Democratic primary that so many candidates have released comprehensive climate platforms with planks that often include a ban on new drilling on public lands and a vow to oppose federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry (Climatewire, July 30).

Indeed, there’s been an auction of sorts of how much the candidates have promised to spend on climate action — with the totals often reaching the trillions of dollars.

Sanders, in the rollout of his plan yesterday, pushed the envelope even further by vowing to spend a whopping $16.3 trillion on a Green New Deal to combat global warming.

It’s enough to compel Weber to call Sanders’ plan “the most bold and the most ambitious and the biggest” in the Democratic field.

“I think this is a really big deal and a really important addition to the conversation,” he said.

David Turnbull, a spokesman for Oil Change U.S., was similarly impressed. “It’s ambitious as any plan out there, that’s for sure.”

Even so, he said, the climate mantle in the Democratic primary was still “up for grabs.”

A main competitor for Sanders, he added, was Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who also has called for a massive federal effort to deal with global warming. What’s different about her approach is how she weaves climate change into other issues, such as international trade.

“I don’t know I have a judgment on which one is quote unquote better, but it’s an indication of understanding on her end that you have to take on climate action in everything you’re doing,” Turnbull said.

When it comes to the general election, though, Askarinam of Inside Elections warned that trillion-dollar climate promises — when coupled with other proposals such as “Medicare for All” — could give Republicans a chance to paint Democrats as pie-in-the-sky politicians.

The risk for Democrats is that “the Green New Deal becomes a punchline about Democrats being out of touch,” she said.

It’s a concern that has sparked a battle within the Democratic Party, as leaders of the Democratic National Committee have fought back against efforts by activists to force a debate exclusively on climate change.

They stymied such an effort at a major party meeting yesterday in San Francisco, and it looks unlikely that the idea will advance much further.

The loss prompted a backhanded compliment from an unlikely source: the conservative group Heritage Action for America.

“The fact is, a climate-only debate or a new policy proposal would not be must-see TV for most Americans,” said Jessica Anderson, vice president of the group. “They’re worried about the border, their paychecks and their families, not trillion-dollar fantasy climate plans.”

But Tina Podlodowski, chairwoman of the Washington state Democratic Party and a leader of the climate-only debate idea, said it would be a mistake for Democrats to buy into that kind of thinking.

She said DNC Chairman Tom Perez and his allies, who oppose the idea, have “deeply disappointed and disrespected a whole generation of Democrats who care about the issue of climate.”

“I think people are scared about how [climate change] is portrayed to different kinds of voters,” she said. “We are letting Republicans hold the narrative.”