Democrats Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Climate Change

MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS / SHUTTERSTOCK / THE ATLANTIC

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They did try, though.

I’ll be honest: It was just nice to hear them talk about climate change. Not that they did it very well or entirely coherently. But still—more than eight minutes of discussion about climate policy! Among national politicians! On broadcast TV! What a concept! And they’ll do it again tonight! Climate policy can sometimes feel like, I don’t know, the fiber of American politics: Everyone knows they need more of it, but few actually want to do the work to get it. But for eight minutes on Wednesday, steel-cut oats were on the menu.

That’s about the highest praise of those short exchanges I can give, though. Discussion of climate change largely unfolded in two chunks. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington mentioned it during the first minutes of the debate; during the second hour, the moderators Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow asked a larger group of candidates about their climate policy. The moderators asked some simplistic questions, and—more important—the candidates gave poor answers. And in a broader sense, Democrats still seem unsure of how to talk about climate change. It’s clearly one of the party’s biggest animating issues, but what kind of problem is it?

Warren has the clearest answer to this question. For her, climate change reveals another facet of the corruption of the American economy, her great theme. She brought up the warming climate during her first minute onstage, framing it as one symptom of an economy that’s “doing great for a thinner and thinner slice at the top.”

“It’s doing great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere, just not for the rest of us who are watching climate change bear down upon us,” she said.

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Inslee, who has staked his candidacy on fighting climate change, talked about it as a dangerous event to be headed off. “We have to understand this is a climate crisis. An emergency,” he said. He’s running for president so that “on [his] last day on Earth,” he can look his grandchildren in the eye and say he did “everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of the climate crisis,” he said.

Meanwhile, former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas framed climate change as an assault on a distinctly American way of life. He mentioned his visit to Pacific Junction, Iowa, where he watched record-breaking floods rise. “There were farms outside of Pacific Junction that were lakes,” he said, before connecting local farmers’ ills to President Donald Trump’s trade wars.

Both Warren and Inslee have latched on to a set of proposals called, as a whole, industrial policy. They aim to turn the United States into a net exporter of high-tech hardware. As Warren put it, “Start with a place where there’s a real need. There’s going to be a 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. We need to go tenfold in our research and development on green energy going forward.”

Warren, Inslee, and, to a lesser extent, O’Rourke have all proposed some version of industrial policy. But Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio was the first to actually utter the words. “We need an industrial policy saying 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,” he said. That’s when Warren went off to the races, describing her plan for a new American green-manufacturing sector. Inslee has such a plan too—at this point, he has more than 100 pages of plans about how to remake the government to fight climate change. But Warren’s rhetorical cohesiveness makes her task easier. Because climate change is already linked to the corruption economy in her worldview, a climate fix that reinvigorates the economy makes more sense.

Inslee, meanwhile, has to fight off the unrealistic expectation that he will be able to save the world. (The Onion has started depicting him as a Captain Planet character.) Late in the debate, Maddow asked, “We are here in Miami, experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea-level rise, and parts of Miami Beach and the Keys could be under water in our lifetimes. Does your plan save Miami?”

The fact is that Inslee cannot save Miami. Saving Miami—or at least delaying its inundation—will take heroic efforts from all countries working together. Inslee can lead those efforts, and as president, he would have many tools to encourage that kind of collaboration. His 100-plus pages of plans spell out a way to get there. But when given a climate question, he had to expand his rhetoric to encompass not just Miami but the whole issue, in the 60 seconds the candidates had to answer each question. He affirmed that climate change was an emergency, affirmed his intention to end the use of the legislative filibuster in the Senate, and then said, “We have to do what I have done in my state.” Inslee has many accomplishments in Washington, including on the climate front, but saving Miami is not one of them.

And this underscores a final problem: Climate is such a one-sided issue in American politics that no one is sure how to debate it yet. Political journalists are not finely attuned to the nuances of climate policy. Nor are candidates always at ease with nitty-gritty policy. So what should candidates talk about? How much they care about the issue? But then they are left with only insufficient answers like Inslee’s when challenged to save Miami: “I am the candidate and the only one saying this has to be the top priority of the United States, the organizing principal to mobilize the United States.”

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