Up for Debate

words by Willow Defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

This week marked a seminal moment in what will someday be looked back on as the story of how our nation handled itself in the face of crisis.


On Wednesday night, against the backdrop of a hurricane strengthened by our changing atmosphere, CNN hosted a climate crisis “town hall,” in which 10 democratic presidential candidates answered probing questions about how they will handle this issue if elected. At seven hours, it was the longest and most significant discussion of climate policy ever broadcast on primetime television. Let that sink in.


Among the many factors that made the event a milestone was the fact that it was born of the people and the media working together, outside of our dysfunctional political system. The Sunrise Movement, the group of political activists who helped create the Green New Deal, campaigned for a presidential debate on climate change. Despite fifteen of the candidates saying they supported this idea, the Democratic National Committee rejected it—so CNN decided to take the matter into its own hands.


With hard-hitting questions that addressed the more complex aspects of climate change, the network more than made up for its lost opportunities during the second presidential debate (in which Wolf Blitzer wasted one climate question on asking Andrew Yang if we would all have to drive electric cars in the future). Before it became a profit-driven business of its own, the press was created to be a watchdog for the people, looking out for society’s best interests—and this week, it fulfilled that role.


And the involvement of the people didn’t stop at campaigning for the event: some of the evening’s most impactful moments came from the audience itself. It is widely agreed that most effect method for getting people to care about climate change—or any issue—is to make them realize that it is personal. From refugees to those who have lost loved ones, the questioners weren’t necessarily experts on climate change, but rather something more powerful: they were survivors of it.


The event also pushed the candidates to step up their policy pledges; this week saw the release of a number of comprehensive plans, which would become the subject of the debate. Senator Bernie Sanders put forward the most radical proposal, inclusive of a plan to make 20 million new jobs with a 100% renewable transportation and electric grid by 2030. In fact, almost all of the candidates’ plans include a goal of carbon neutrality in the US by 2050, with differing ways of getting there.


It’s also worth noting that almost every candidate consulted the advice of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the race last month after making climate the bedrock of his campaign (Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan even takes a page out of Inslee’s own plan). They all expressed gratitude for the Governor having fought so hard for this issue to take center stage—proving the effect that one politician can have on a race, even if they aren’t the winner of it.


The only candidate who did not have a strong night was, ironically, the frontrunner in the polls: former Vice President Joe Biden, who appeared caught off guard when questioned about his plans to attend a fundraiser hosted by Andrew Goldman, a cofounder of Western LNG, a natural gas company. While Goldman does not have major executive responsibilities there, it’s worth mentioning that Biden went to the fundraiser anyway, despite receiving flack for the association.


All in all, the candidates succeeded in speaking to a complex topic without attacking one another, focusing instead on forward-thinking solutions. It was fitting that the event was framed as a town hall rather than a debate, because it felt the way politics should operate: a convening of individuals, in this case agreeing that the climate crisis is no longer up for debate, who are committed to making the next chapter in American history a brighter one. With the media, the people, and the politicians themselves working in concert with one another, the real victory comes from the discovery that there might still be tillable ground here—and that a healthier democracy might yet bloom.

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