Image: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Last night was the first night of the second round of the Democratic primary debates where 10 candidates had 2 hours to discuss a full gambit of voter issues including climate change. Which, by our count, got 14 total minutes of the 120-minute debate. The resounding theme for much of the evening was the disparity between progressive and moderate candidates on how they would use federal dollars and government resources to enact climate action policies.

The Divide: Progressive candidates like Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders support bold federal action to tackle climate change, create jobs, and spur clean energy innovation. The centrist candidates like former congressman John Delaney, Montana Governor Steve Bullock, and congressman Tim Ryan called progressive plans like the Green New Deal unrealistic and something that’s merely a wish. Though the centrists all endorsed green principles such as a just transition for fossil fuel workers, energy innovation, and sustainable agriculture (all components of the Green New Deal resolution btw) they were wary that a comprehensive plan that addresses all of the above was not marketable to American voters.

Environmental Justice: This round of debates is taking place in Detroit, MI, a city that has been grappling with gross environmental injustice while in its neighboring city to Flint, residents still do not have clean public water to drink. The only question addressing environmental justice was directed to Senator Amy Klobuchar who has released a $1 trillion infrastructure plan that would also address water infrastructure around the country. Klobuchar did not broach the social injustice aspects of the fact that 1/4 of Americans drink water from systems that don’t meet safety standards but author Marianne Williamson dove right into environmental justice by saying that water issues extend far beyond Flint and that it’s poor and communities of color that are being forced to endure deadly pollution because they don’t have the resources to wage a political fight. That was a big point to be made on national television!

The Surprise: When Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who mentioned climate both in his opening and closing remarks, was asked about climate change by the CNN moderators he punted the issue in favor of talking about his broader advantages over other candidates when it comes to beating Donald Trump. While Buttigieg doesn’t shy away from talking about climate issues he still has yet to release a climate plan that’s on par with the likes of Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

Why This Matters: According to CNN’s own polling, climate change is a top issue for likely Democratic Iowa caucusgoers yet climate questions weren’t asked of the candidates until about 3/4 of the way through the evening. Furthermore, climate change encompasses every other major voting priority like immigration and healthcare and yet when climate questions were asked this interconnectedness was never addressed. For instance, moderators could have asked candidates how they would tackle rising healthcare costs resulting from climate change.

Room for Improvement: When candidates attempted to delve into policy specifics they were often cut off as they had reached their allotted response time. The format only underscored the need for a more substantive climate forum (like the one we’re hosting with GU Politics and MSNBC) where candidates will be given ample time to address a topic as deeply complicated as climate change without overgeneralizing.  Primary debates are great for showcasing personalities but when it comes time for substance, 30-second soundbites don’t get the job done. We’ll see what night 2 brings!

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