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Blink and you’ll miss it: Where was climate change in the Democratic debates?

Did the Green New Deal make an appearance in the debates? Not really!

Blink and you’ll miss it: Where was climate change in the Democratic debates?
[Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images]

Confession: I did not watch night one of the Democratic Debates in real time. I had a conflicting obligation, so I figured I’d get home and watch after it had aired. After spending this whole week publishing a series for Fast Company on the Green New Deal, I was obviously scanning for the climate discussion first.

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But I could not find it. I’d heard it happened in the second hour of the debate. I navigated through multiple different time stamps, only to strike out again and again. Finally, I found it: less than nine minutes of rather milquetoast discussion agreeing that climate change is bad, but less certain on a clear way to tackle it. Not one candidate in the first night of the debates name-checked the Green New Deal, which has been instrumental in shaping the discussion around both climate change and economic inequity since it emerged as an idea last fall. (Senator Elizabeth Warren was not really included in the climate discussion—one of the failings of these debates was the sheer volume of people who needed to talk—but did tweet out support for the Green New Deal and her Green Manufacturing Plan after the fact.)

The second night of the debates was not much better. Senator Kamala Harris, however, did declare outright support of the Green New Deal—she was the only candidate to do so on stage. Former Colorado John Hickenlooper mentioned the policy, but as an example of unworkable “socialism.” But as a scientist, he added, “I admire the sense of urgency.”

But despite its relatively blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment in the actual debates, the Green New Deal worked its way into the discussion in more subtle ways. On night two, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg endorsed a carbon tax and said that we need a “dramatically more aggressive” approach to fighting climate change. “Rural America can be part of the solution with the right kind of soil management,” he added. Due to time constraints, there was no opportunity for him to elaborate, but soil management—especially through regenerative agricultural practices, which restore the land and trap carbon in the ground—is a crucial part of what the Green New Deal calls for.

Beto O’Rourke, former Texas congressman, also drew obliquely from the Green New Deal during his comments on night one: “You’ve got to bring everyone in to the decisions and solutions to the challenges that we face,” he said, saying that he wants to “put farmers and ranchers in the driver’s seat on renewable and sustainable agriculture and keeping carbon in the soil.” That nods to both the importance of jobs in the agriculture industry, and a carbon-capture approach in farming, and it’s very Green New Deal, even if he didn’t say so overtly.

Other candidates, including Washington governor Jay Inslee (who’s made climate the key focus of his campaign), Warren, and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio drew the connection, however briefly, between the need to decarbonize the economy and create jobs. “We’re going to dominate building electric vehicles—there’s going to be 30 million made in the next 10 years; I want half of them made in the United States,” Ryan said. “There is going to be worldwide need for green technology—ways to clean up the air, ways to clean up the water. And we can be the ones to provide that,” Warren said. “We need to go tenfold in our research and development on green energy going forward,” adding the U.S. needs to own the production of this tech. A rapid acceleration of both clean energy tech and U.S. manufacturing is clearly highlighted in the Green New Deal resolution.

And San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro—in a welcome antidote to candidates like Hickenlooper and Biden, who somehow still seem comfortable characterizing climate change as a future issue—highlighted the disaster in Puerto Rico following the hurricanes of 2017. He noted the urgency in shifting to renewables and a more resilient grid network now, not just in the future.

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Even so, these small tidbits are cobbled together not from a coherent discussion around climate action and tangible steps to accomplish it, but from comments made without adequate follow-up or a sense of priority throughout the nearly four hours of debate. Even though the Democratic National Committee has said it won’t host a debate dedicated specifically to the climate crisis, the lackluster discussion around it in the first two nights of debate might encourage a change of mind. Many of the candidates have more thoughtful ideas on both the urgency of climate change and how it interacts with other issues in the economy. They deserve a chance to air them, and voters deserve a chance to hear them.

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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