Why Democrats Are Eager To Make Climate Change A Central Issue In The 2020 Campaign

Apr 23, 2019
Originally published on April 23, 2019 5:15 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Heading into the 2020 election, a majority of voters say climate change is a very important issue. Democratic presidential hopefuls are talking about it more than in previous elections. NPR's Scott Detrow has more on what they're promising.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: The past few presidential campaigns, climate activists like Bill McKibben have been left begging for climate questions to be included in debates and have ended up disappointed.

BILL MCKIBBEN: This time around, I'm not worried in the least. I think it's going to be one of the central topics in the primary. And then I think whoever wins the Democratic nomination is going to try and ram the issues straight down Trump's throat.

DETROW: So far, Democratic candidates have mostly talked about climate change through the framework of the Green New Deal, an ambitious but vague plan put forward by freshman New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

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ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Even the solutions that we have considered big and bold are nowhere near the scale of the actual problem that climate change presents to us, to our country and to the world.

DETROW: That's why she proposed shifting the country to clean and emission-free energy over a relatively short timespan. As challenging and politically unlikely as the framework is, Elizabeth Warren and every other U.S. senator running for president have co-sponsored it.

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ELIZABETH WARREN: I support a Green New Deal that will aggressively tackle climate change, income inequality and racial injustice.

DETROW: Still, climate change policies have taken a bit of a backseat. Candidates talk about it, but not as much as they talk about health care, student loans or jobs. The exception - Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who's campaigning on climate change and pretty much nothing else. He recently explained why to New Hampshire Public Radio.

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JAY INSLEE: Defeating climate change has to be the No. 1 priority of the United States. If it is not job one, it won't get done. And we need to make it the first and foremost priority of the next president.

DETROW: Bill McKibben is optimistic about what he's seen so far. The climate activism group he co-founded, 350.org, is grading candidates on three key criteria - support for the Green New Deal, opposition to new drilling and turning down financial support from oil and gas companies.

MCKIBBEN: Pretty much all the candidates have checked at least one of those boxes, and a bunch have checked all three. And we keep seeing really good and aggressive policy.

DETROW: One platform McKibben singled out - Elizabeth Warren's recent proposal to not only ban drilling on federally owned lands, but to build enough new wind and solar projects on them to produce 10 percent of the country's electricity. Every Democrat running for president would rejoin the Paris climate accord, the international pledge to lower carbon emissions that President Trump took the United States out of.

Trump and most Republicans in Congress have long dismissed climate as a serious issue. They frame the Green New Deal as a socialist, big-government power grab. National polls show more than 7 in 10 Americans think there's solid evidence of climate change. Democrats like Warren see those numbers as a sign Republicans are out of step with voters.

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WARREN: They routinely dismiss the impacts of climate change and deny clear evidence that we must take action. They refuse even to say the words climate change. That's not leadership.

DETROW: Christopher Borick of Muhlenberg College has been polling on climate-related questions for a decade. He says even if voters want to hear more about things like health care from candidates, climate change is gradually becoming something more and more people think about as they make up their minds.

CHRISTOPHER BORICK: And I think that is, in part, driven by individual experiences with climate change as they see it more in their daily lives. It's starting to become a bigger priority in terms of their voting strategies.

DETROW: That's why more and more Democrats like South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg keep framing the climate conversation around recent natural disasters.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: We've seen it in the floods in Nebraska, the tornadoes in Alabama, the hurricane in Puerto Rico and the fires in California.

DETROW: What activists like McKibben will be looking for - whether Democrats keep talking about climate change once the primaries are over. Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.

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