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Why Democratic Presidential Candidates Should Make Climate Change Their #1 Issue

Walter G. Moss: One reason for not jumping in yet to support a specific candidate is that it is still too early to tell who will have the best chance of defeating Trump and who will develop the best environmental policies.

If you’re a progressive and look at all the Democratic candidates for the 2020 presidential election, you might wonder which one to support. (I realize some progressives may not support any Democrat, but that’s another issue.) Personally, I’ve decided to wait and see how things develop—for primary voters in many states, including California and Michigan (my own state) we still have almost a year to decide.

climate change issue

But I do know one thing: for me the top issue is climate change, and I would argue that it should be for progressives generally. The most important reason is that nothing else—including medical care, the economy, income inequality, immigration, racism, or the gender or race of a candidate—is more important. I say this as a grandfather of six, who is thinking not only of the welfare of my generation, but also of our children’s and grandchildren’s generation.

Here I will refrain from trying to convince doubters that it most certainly is the #1 issue. 36 years ago, I wrote that “the increased burning of fossil fuels might cause an increase in global temperatures, thereby possibly melting the polar ice caps, and flooding low-lying parts of the world.” For an update on that situation, see the 2015 Time article, “New Orleans and Miami Are Doomed to Be Swallowed by the Sea, Says New Study,” or the April 2019 PBS Newshour segment that proclaimed that the ice on Antarctica (a continent larger than the U.S. and Mexico combined) is melting much faster than expected and that continued rapid melting could imperil low-lying cities (like New York, Boston, and Miami), and countries like Bangladesh. My first global-warming essay on this site was posted almost a decade ago, and since then there have been many more, including “Trump’s Worst Sin,” which identifies it as his anti-environmental policies. Interested readers can view some of these works for why I think climate change is, and has been for some time, our most pressing crisis.

So given the importance of the issue, we’re back to the question of which Democratic candidate would it be best to nominate in 2020. A recent New Yorker essay mentioned that Washington Governor Jay Inslee is running for the nomination “on what is essentially a single-issue platform. ‘If we don’t solve climate change, we won’t be around to solve anything else,’ he said.” That’s right on, and I’m glad Inslee is in the race. Yet, though climate change is the most important issue, it is not the only one. Numerous other factors must also be considered, as must the personal qualifications of the various candidates—as Trump has inadvertently reminded us, character and competence matter.

Although it is a tricky problem to consider, electability also matters. Several of my friends have said to me that they could support any one of several Democratic candidates and are likely to back the one they think has the best chance of defeating Trump. I have some sympathy with that position because Trump has been an utter disaster for the environment.

One reason for not jumping in yet to support a specific candidate is that it is still too early to tell who will have the best chance of defeating Trump and who will develop the best environmental policies.

But one reason for not jumping in yet to support a specific candidate is that it is still too early to tell who will have the best chance of defeating Trump and who will develop the best environmental policies.

Yet, at this stage, I do have a favorite, and it is Bernie. A recent Time article, “How the Green New Deal Is Forcing Politicians to Finally Address Climate Change,” compares his record with that of other Democratic candidates (and senators) such as Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Kamala Harris and finds it superior to theirs. Ditto for Beto O’Rourke. Inslee’s main problem, at this point, is that he still has not generated much support. Several other candidates, such as Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg, recognize the climate-change crisis, and “Gabbard can arguably be considered as one of the most aggressive Democrats when it comes to climate policy.” Her congressional bill, Off Fuels for a Better Future Act, “has been cited as one of the pieces of legislation that could feature in a Green New Deal”—a congressional resolution that many of the Democratic candidates support.

Yet, heretofore, it has been Bernie Sanders that has demonstrated the most leadership on the climate question. A 2011-2015 ranking by the liberal climatehawksvote.com site, based on a variety of criteria, lists Sanders above all other Congressional candidates now running for the 2020 nomination. The Time article mentioned above notes that he has “has a long record of introducing climate legislation big and small in the Senate, [and] plans to unveil a broad environmental plan. It is expected to include massive investment in infrastructure, the elimination of fossil-fuel subsidies and a ban on fossil-fuel extraction on public lands.”

In addition, Sanders has been supported by one of the most ardent climate activist in the world, the founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben. In 2016, Bernie appointed him to the committee charged with writing the Democratic Party's platform, and in a video on the current Sanders’ web site the two men discuss climate change. In early December, 2018, the senator hosted a climate-change town hall, on which McKibben appeared. So too did one of the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who had campaigned for Bernie in 2016. She proclaimed that the Green New Deal was “going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation.”

Although Republicans and conservatives have criticized many aspects of the resolution, it does at least signal the increasing public awareness of climate change. As a December 2018 Mother Jones article stated:

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climate change issue

There are a number of reasons for the increased prominence of the issue: Recent reports from both the United Nations and the federal government that have recast climate change in the public eye from a niche, future-tense issue to an urgent problem. Record-breaking fires, extreme weather, and repeated hurricanes have given the public clear examples of what had previously been only warnings from scientists. Plus, there’s a stronger movement of youth activism than ever before, reacting to the Trump administration’s complete contempt of global warming,

Given all this, 2020 is shaping up to be a perfect storm for climate change to take on a central position in the Democratic debate.

Other observers agree that the U. S. public finally seems ready to acknowledge that climate change is important. The Time article mentioned above states: “That reality has resonated with the public: more than 70% of Americans now understand that climate change is taking place, according to data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. A February NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey found that two-thirds of Republicans believe their party is ‘outside the mainstream,’ on the issue.”

Thus, my second main reason for arguing that Democratic presidential candidates should make climate change their #1 issue: It is where Trump is most vulnerable and clearly in the wrong. No other matter provides such a golden opportunity to hammer and hammer and hammer away at Trump’s failures—his ignorance; his denial of reality; his disdain for the future, for global opinion, and for common people (including all the victims of extreme fires, floods, hurricanes, etc.); and his preference for gas, oil, and coal corporations. Of all the issues that will be contested in the 2020 elections, climate change most clearly favors the Democrats.

In her 1967 essay “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt suspected that politics may “be at war with truth in all its forms.” But she also stated that truth possesses a stubborn staying power that lies lack. “This is the reason that consistent lying, metaphorically speaking, pulls the ground from under our feet and provides no other ground on which to stand.”

Her comments are especially appropriate when applied to our liar-in-chief. He may be able to obfuscate, exaggerate, and flat out lie, but truth has more lasting power. Republicans and Trump may be able to point out deficiencies in the Green New Deal resolution—it is after all not proposed legislation but more an aspirational statement—but they cannot not escape the truth that they have been terrible laggards on the most important issue of our time.

Political leaders need not only to read polls and be attuned to the concerns of voters. They also need to lead. In 2020 they, especially the Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination, need to emphasize, forcefully and imaginatively, that climate change is the #1 issue. It is so for people in coastal and low-lying cities; it is for drought and flooded areas; it is for farmers and urbanites; it is for grandparents and grandchildren; it is for our citizens and those of other countries (including some Central Americans who are fleeing their countries for reasons connected with climate change), and it is for Republicans, as well as Democrats.

In a previous LA Progressive essay, I mentioned how Trump and the Republicans will attempt to scare 2020 voters with the cries “socialism” and “socialists,” and how Sanders (the only major “socialist,” but also Democratic, presidential contender) might deal with that tactic. We still have many months to see how effective his and other contenders’ campaigns will be.

My hope is that all of the Democratic candidates will emphasize that climate change is the #1 issue, and that they will help most voters to see that such is the case. We also need them to “keep their hand on that plow,” keep their “eyes on that prize,” and develop concrete steps (legislative and otherwise) so that we will not have to say (as I indicated four years ago), “Sorry Kids: We Were Too Stupid to Deal with Global Warming.”

By the beginning of 2020, we should have a better idea which Democratic candidate has best addressed the climate-change challenge and which one has the best chance of defeating Trump and reversing the horrible legacy he has left us.

walter moss

Walter G. Moss