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Climate change gets 10 minutes in Democrats’ 2-hour debate

Climate change got little debate time, but that didn’t stop some candidates from weaving climate messaging into their answers

Chuck Todd of NBC News greets Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), former housing secretary Julian Castro, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke and other candidates after the first night of the Democratic presidential debate on June 26, 2019 in Miami, Florida. A field of 20 Democratic presidential candidates was split into two groups of 10 for the first debate of the 2020 election, taking place over two nights at Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Climate change is a priority for Democratic primary voters, but the issue got little debate time Wednesday night. But that did not stop some of the candidates.

Senate Democrat Elizabeth Warren came out of the gate calling out “giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere” while the rest of the country watches “climate change bear down on us.”

[On the campaign trail, climate change can no longer be ignored]

And Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who has made addressing climate change the fulcrum of his campaign came ready to tout his climate change plans too.

But opportunities to talk about climate change were few and some of the 10 presidential candidates at the first Democratic debate stage had to find ways to weave their climate messaging into their answers to other questions.

In all, moderators dedicated less than 10 minutes of the two-hour debate to climate change, a segment that came in the final quarter of the session.

The debate was held in Miami, Fla., a city that is being inundated by coastal waters because of rising sea level and one of the areas most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change in the United States.

“We are here in Miami which is already experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea level rise... Does your plan save Miami?” MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow asked Inslee.

[Trump denies climate change as his Pentagon prepares for it]

Inslee, apparently assuming Democrats win control of the Senate in 2020 or that some Republicans might support climate action, said he would first get rid of the filibuster from current Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican whom Democrats have partly blamed for holding up climate legislation.

“We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last that can do something about it,” Inslee said, repeating a refrain he frequently uses on the campaign trail. “I am the candidate and the only one who is saying this has to be the top priority of the United States, the organizing principle to mobilize the United States so that we can do what we have always done — lead the world and invent the future and put eight million people to work.”

Activists’ demands

The first of a planned two-night event came as young activists demand an entire debate dedicated to climate change. The activists with the youth-driven Sunrise Movement had spent Tuesday night and much of Wednesday outside the Democratic National Committee’s Capitol Hill headquarters demanding such a climate debate.

The DNC didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry on whether it will plan a climate debate, but party Chairman Tom Perez has indicated opposition to the proposal.

“A measly 9 minutes about the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes, with lame questions and mostly non answers from 4 out of 10 candidates,” Sunrise Movement cofounder Varshini Prakash, said in a tweet Wednesday night. The youth activists will be continuing their occupation of the DNC steps, where they plan to watch the second debate Thursday night.

While climate change still isn’t the top issue for voters across the country, it is more important for Democratic primary voters and the party’s candidates have not shied away from including it in the campaign manifestos. The issue got little attention in the 2016 and previous election cycles.

The candidates were asked whether they can bring back manufacturing jobs, a promise that helped endear candidate Donald Trump to voters in industry-heavy regions of the country.

Ohio Representative Tim Ryan called for creating manufacturing jobs by building more electric vehicles and equipment for renewable energy.

Warren said future jobs were in green technology that the U.S. can sell around world.

“There's going to be a worldwide need for green technology, ways to clean up the air, ways to clean up the water and we can be the ones to provide that,” Warren said. “We need to go tenfold in our research and development on green energy going forward.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, spoke little about climate change but said she would fix the wage gap by taking “your hard-earned taxpayer dollars” and investing them in programs that include “a green economy, good-paying jobs, protecting our environment, and so much more.”

Inslee also used the question on income inequality to highlight his $9 trillion climate plan that includes boosting labor unions, saying he would “put people to work in the jobs of the present and the future”.

‘Jobs of the future’

“Look, Donald Trump is simply wrong,” Inslee said. “He says wind turbines cause cancer; we know they cause jobs, and we know that we can put millions of people to work in the clean energy jobs of the future.”

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said one of his first actions if he became president would be to sign an executive order recommitting the U.S. to the Paris agreement on climate change.

Ryan and former Maryland congressman John Delaney called for a carbon tax.

“This is going to be our way forward if we're actually serious about this issue,” Delaney said.

Former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke called for a plan that brings “everybody into the decisions and solutions” including putting farmers and ranchers “in the driver’s seat” to reduce carbon emissions, and to fund resiliency programs in flood-prone towns.

When asked what the biggest geopolitical threat is to the U.S., O’Rourke, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Castro cited climate change, along with China and nuclear proliferation

“We have to confront it before it's too late,” O’Rourke said.

Inslee, the climate candidate, had a slightly different take.

“The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump. There is no question about it,” the Washington governor said.

Inslee used his closing statement to make an impassioned call invoking the future of his three grandchildren.

“And when I was thinking about whether to run for president, I made a decision. I decided that on my last day on earth I wanted to look them in the eye and tell them I did everything humanly possible to protect them from the ravages of the climate crisis,” Inslee said. “And I know to a moral certainty, if we do not have the next president who commits to this as the top priority it won't get done.”

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