By: Kate Galbo, Policy & Research Fellow
Climate change took the stage at this year’s first Democratic presidential primary debate on Tuesday, with four of the five candidates raising the issue in their opening statements. This is in stark contrast to the Republican candidates who over the past two debated took to dismissing the idea, denying that it even poses a threat.
Of those who took the stage Tuesday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley confronted the issue head on, citing it as a policy priority. When asked what is the country’s biggest national security threat, Sen. Sanders cited climate change as the biggest issue, “If we do not address the global crisis of climate change … we’re going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren [a planet that] may not be habitable” he said. He called for the acceleration of wind and solar power production as well as a carbon tax to encourage the shift away from fossil fuels.
Gov. O’Malley also mentioned climate change as one of the greatest threats facing the country and emphasizing his plan several times over the night. He called for a “100 percent clean energy grid by 2050” and has the most detailed plan for tackling climate change than any of the Democratic candidates so far.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton cited her role at the 2009 United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen. While Hillary praised herself on her willingness to work with foreign governments (particularly China) on the issue, most accounts of COP15 show the US administration worked assiduously to preemptively undermine China. The Clinton delegation made China out to be reactionary during the summit, leaving the US free to carry on polluting. Clinton also took the classic “we can’t do this alone”, putting pressure on other major emitters to take action. “There will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India act,” she said.
Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb was on the same page as Clinton when it came to working with other countries. However, he called for an “all of the above” energy strategy that would allow a slow decline of fossil fuels and expansion of nuclear and renewable power. Sen. Webb was the only candidate on stage who supports the building of the Keystone XL pipeline. He has also stated in the past his desire to limit EPA power to regulate emissions and his support for offshore drilling. Webb was the only candidate that failed to mention climate change in his opening statement.
Finally, former governor of Rhode Island Lincoln Chafee mentioned climate change as “a real threat to our planet” and listed the coal lobby as his favorite enemy that he’s made during his time in politics. Although his overall performance in the debate proved to be awkward and embarrassing, Chafee remains with the pack on the issue of climate change.
Climate change for the first time in democratic politics was among the hottest topics of discussion alongside gun control, Syria, and income inequality. In the past, climate change has barely received more than a passing mention from candidates of either party. The fact that the Democratic candidates chose to highlight climate change illustrates just how far we’ve come in the past few years.