During the 2016 presidential campaign, climate change got a measly five minutes and 27 seconds of airtime in the debates. During this primary season, it got seven hours in one night alone. On September 4th, CNN provided the top ten Democratic candidates an opportunity to lay out their plans to deal with the climate crisis. It was substantive. And it was long.
In this episode of our podcast Trump on Earth, we talk about the takeaways with Leah Stokes, a professor of environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. She read all the candidates climate plans, watched all seven hours, and gives credit to the Sunrise Movement for completely transforming the conversation around climate policy.
“For those of us who have been working on this for a decade or more, the crisis that we all see unfolding is starting to find its way into the center of the Democratic Party which is where it needs to be,” Stokes says.
Part of talking about climate change is also talking about the discourse around it. Stokes says the best thing CNN did was hand the microphone over to a diverse set of activists, students and scientists.
“Those were the best moments in the seven hours for sure,” Stokes says. “[CNN] spread a broad net and I think did a good job of tailoring the questions to each candidate’s plans.”
But Stokes says it’s not right to think of the debate in terms of comparing the plans on a scale from least to most progressive.
“The fact is that the hour is running short and we must move quickly,” Stokes says. “We have lost at least four decades to a denial campaign funded by the fossil fuel industry. So I don’t really think of it as moderate versus progressive. I think of it as, ‘is this sufficient to maintaining a stable climate?’”
Stokes points out that we know from peer reviewed research that we cannot build any new fossil fuel infrastructure and stay within a 1.5 degree Celsius warming target.
“So if that’s your goal (to stay within a 1.5 degree Celsius warming target), it means that the positions of Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar are not tenable because they have continued to say that we will support natural gas infrastructure in the United States,” Stokes says.
In defense of both of those candidates, Stokes says that they look at the world as it is and argue that we can’t just shut down the industry tomorrow. She acknowledges that that’s “true and fair,” but points out that if want climate stability, we have to admit that it’s not a viable position.
“So then we have other candidates who are more willing to do the hard work of keeping fossil fuels in the ground,” Stokes says. “And that’s not going to be a simple thing to do. That’s fundamentally about destroying assets of wealthy powerful people in society.”
One place of unanimous support among the candidates is ending the leases of public lands for fossil fuel development, something a president can actually do.
Any plan from a Democrat is going to have to be sold to the public. And one takeaway from the town hall was seeing which candidates were able to communicate their policy goals – and the extent of the crisis – most effectively. Stokes says she was impressed with Elizabeth Warren’s positivity and upbeat energy.
“She really presented this as an economic opportunity and made it clear who the enemies are.” Stokes says. “And you can see that when people start to grapple with the scale of the climate crisis on a personal level, they often go to a place of fear and dread. And I think it was very powerful to see her being so positive and to paint a picture for the future.”
So after reading all ten climate plans, who is Stokes most impressed with? How do we judge which plan is bigger or bolder or more progressive? Listen to the episode for Stokes’ insights.