By Alex Durham
Now more than ever, climate debates need to be brought to the forefront of political campaigns. The Democratic candidates must be the ones to make this issue their priority in the 2020 presidential race. Not until climate activists publicly attacked the debates for giving too little time to climate change did CNN finally host a seven-hour town hall in September centered on candidate plans for climate change. Instead, candidates at the debates have spent most of their time discussing healthcare. Perhaps healthcare receives the most attention because Democratic candidates have decided that it may be the topic for voters when deciding who to support.
It is not difficult to understand why healthcare would be the topic to fill those shoes, either. For Democrats, healthcare has been a hill candidates have made it clear they are willing to die on, especially since former President Barack Obama’s drastic push for the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010. This time around, candidates are taking a more progressive stance than even Obama did, advocating for massive changes to the current healthcare system that include the abolishment of private health insurance altogether. Clearly, with plans of this magnitude being floated across the debate stage, people will want to understand the details of the plan, whether it is feasible and the path the candidates plan on taking to implement their ideas, which has resulted in an average of 93 minutes spent talking about healthcare in each debate.
But what about climate change, the issue that threatens our very existence?
In comparison to healthcare, climate change may seem like a less immediate problem — however, it is anything but that. Reports from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the White House show global temperatures will rise by more than 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit in the near future, with a UN report stating we are likely on course for a warming of at least 5.4 degrees. Just this past summer, a heatwave in Europe spread into the Arctic, melting some 40 billion tons of Greenland’s ice sheets and showing European nations some of the highest temperatures in their histories. These are extraordinarily alarming events and are a small sample of what is to come in the next decade if global warming is not addressed now.
To make matters worse, since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. has begun backpedaling in climate policy both nationally and internationally, while the problem continues to get worse. Pulling out of the Paris Agreement and rendering the Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) practically useless via massive budget cuts have served to set the U.S. back in the goal to address climate change — making it imperative that solutions to these setbacks are at the forefront of debates. So while arguments about the details of healthcare plans are important, the discussion of collective action across the nation and globe to work to mitigate the effects of climate change is even more urgent, and needs to be given equal or more time on the debate stage than any other topic.
Perhaps people do not believe climate change deserves space on the debate stage because Democratic candidates profess such strong, unified support for defeating climate change, and the goal of debate is to highlight differences among the candidates.
That argument is problematic. On the surface, every candidate may say they are aware of climate change and pledge themselves to fight it, but each could have very different ideas on how to execute change. Do they support a nationwide carbon tax? What are their thoughts on nationwide incentives for buying fuel-efficient vehicles? How do they plan on changing existing environmental legislation? The CNN town hall showed us that candidates are already proposing vastly different solutions to climate change, including trillion-dollar plans with big promises to defeat Big Oil and eliminate fossil-fuel usage entirely. These plans should be just as debated as healthcare plans are. Every candidate’s resolve to reduce global warming does not imply they agree on how.
I am not saying that healthcare should be shunted to the side in favor of discussions about climate change. Healthcare is still an extraordinarily important topic of discussion that requires extensive debate, but more time should be allocated to hold detailed discussions about the plans candidates have proposed to direct the U.S. in a more climate-friendly direction — especially since audacious climate plans have been proposed by several candidates already. Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders pitched climate plans that would cost north of $10 trillion, and other candidates have toyed with ideas of nuclear energy, cap-and-trade systems and geo-engineering inventions. These plans are as audacious as some of the healthcare plans, in cost and the magnitude of changes that candidates want to make, yet they have barely been broken down and debated by candidates. These plans might guide future U.S. climate policy, which will prove crucial in how climate change develops in the coming decades.
Bringing these climate issues to the forefront is essential to generating innovative, plausible policy solutions to the planet’s destruction. This is the first election in which massive plans to improve U.S. climate policy have been put forth by so many candidates. It can and should be viewed as an opportunity to spur action, thought and reflection on how the U.S. government can work to solve this sobering problem.
Contact Alex Durham at ahdurham ‘at’ stanford.edu.