Seven minutes were devoted to climate change in the first Democratic debate

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Friday, June 28, 2019

Democratic presidential candidates spent a total of 7 minutes on climate change at last night’s debate. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Seven minutes.

That’s how much time the moderators dedicated to questions about climate change during the Democratic presidential debate last night.

NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo hosts reserved only a short portion of the two-hour debate to questions on an issue many of the 2020 candidates themselves said was the nation’s No. 1 geopolitical threat.

That brief interrogation came after days of protest in front of the Democratic National Committee in Washington by activists demanding a debate specifically focused on climate change. For them and other environmentalists, Wednesday night only confirmed the need for a forum dedicated entirely to what they see as a crisis.

“Tonight’s debate made it crystal clear that the media and the political establishment are out of touch with our generation,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement. “Our survival is worth more time than vague, irrelevant, and trivial questions posed 80 minutes into the debate to a few minor candidates.”

Adding to the irony is the fact that the venue for the debate — Miami — is one of the U.S. cities most vulnerable to sea-level rises. And this week the city experienced heat extreme even by its own standards while widlfires rages in the nearby Everglades.

“It’s disheartening how little NBC news decided to allocate to the climate crisis that affects not only Miami but the country,” said Drew McConville of The Wilderness Society Action Fund after the debate.

About halfway through the debate, Chuck Todd teased that questions on guns and climate change would be coming up. But just as he started to question Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), there was a microphone malfunction. The candidates couldn’t hear the questions. The network threw the program to a long commercial break, which included one from oil major ExxonMobil.

Once back, the climate question began around the 80-minute mark. Todd teed one up —”you’re going to be happy with where we go” — to Jay Inslee. The Democratic governor of Washington has centered his entire campaign around the “climate crisis.”

Inslee took his swing. “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last that can do something it,” he said. “Our towns are burning. Our fields are flooding. Miami is inundated.”

Similarly, Julián Castro, President Obama’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development, talked about his trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke highlighted his visit to flood-soaked farmland in Iowa while descirbing parts of his $5 trillion plan to address climate change.

And two other candidates who so far have barely registered in the polls, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and former congressman John Delaney of Maryland,  talked about how putting a price on carbon emissions would be paid for.

That was it. Five candidates. Then the moderators moved on to civil rights.

At other points in the debate, candidates weaved rhetoric about energy and environmental policy into their answers on a myriad of other issues. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) often referred to building a “green economy.” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) dinged the giant oil services firm Halliburton for its low tax burden under current law. And Inslee went after President Trump’s inaccurate claim that wind turbines cause cancer.

“We know they cause jobs,” he retorted.

Warren was able to go into the most depth without directly being asked a climate-related question by describing her industrial proposal to invest $2 trillion in federal funding in clean energy programs when asked about creating new jobs.

“There’s a $23 trillion market coming for green products,” she said. “We should be the leaders and the owners, and we should have that 1.2 million manufacturing jobs here in America.”

The frustration among some Democrats was on display afterward. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), who is not running for president, called the questioning “shockingly brief.” And Booker, who is a candidate, told CBS afterward he is “very frustrated I did not get to talk more about my vision for dealing with the crisis of climate change.”

For the past month, the Democratic National Committee has faced intense pressure from climate activists — and even candidates themselves — to host a climate-focused debate, They reasoned that a planetary problem deserves a nationally televised platform where it can get undivided attention.

But the DNC has balked at the idea of any issue-specific debate, arguing if it concedes on this than many other single-issue debates will be demanded by the Democratic base.

Of course, the committee cannot control what — or how many — questions NBC hosts ask. The network returns with the second installment of the debate Thursday evening, with a fresh slate of 10 contenders.