At a party conference Thursday in San Francisco, the DNC’s resolutions committee voted 17-8 against a resolution that has become a cause célèbre for activists and for more than a dozen presidential contenders who felt the traditional debate format failed to adequately address the looming threat of catastrophe. The issue could resurface during the full committee’s general session on Saturday.
It was a predictable outcome. Top brass at the DNC opposed the climate debate from the get-go, fearing it could sow discord in the base and hamper the eventual nominee in the general election. CNN and MSNBC announced plans last month to host forums on climate change in September. DNC Chair Tom Perez affirmed the forums in a resolution introduced earlier this month, which some activists saw as setting the stage for voting down the climate debate.
Symone Sanders, a senior adviser of presidential candidate Joe Biden, was among those who urged the DNC on Thursday to vote down a climate debate, saying it would be “dangerous territory in the middle of a Democratic primary process.”
That contrasts with what Biden had earlier said during a campaign stop in Iowa this summer. The former vice president had endorsed having a climate debate, telling Greenpeace, “I’m all in.”
The influential youth-led climate group Sunrise Movement, a driving force behind the climate debate push, filled the room where the vote took place with as many as 100 activists on Thursday.
“We deserve a chance at a livable future,” one Sunrise activist shouted after the vote. “We deserve a climate debate.”
The nonprofit vowed to hold protests over the next day intended to shame the DNC for voting down the measure. At the same time, it applauded the committee’s vote to advance a resolution reversing a ban on 2020 candidates participating alongside one another at climate forums not sanctioned by the DNC.
“This partial victory shows the strength of the grassroots movement and the power of young people,” Sunrise Movement spokesperson Sofie Karasek said in a statement. “In the coming days and months, we’ll keep fighting to make sure the DNC and Tom Perez treat the climate crisis like the emergency that it is, and give it the airtime and attention that it deserves.”
Adding to the string was Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee’s departure from the 2020 race. The Washington governor, who pegged his entire candidacy to a sweeping climate plan, dropped out late Wednesday night as his low polling numbers disqualified from the next full debate in September.
Climate change was virtually ignored in the 2016 presidential election ― a symptom as much of the widespread denial of the scope of the threat as the lack of popular policy ideas to curb emissions. That changed over the past year.
In October 2018, the United Nations issued a dire report that projected warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) ― roughly half-a-degree hotter than average temperatures today and widely considered the brink of a safe climate ― unless global emissions are roughly halved in the next decade. The findings electrified the climate movement internationally.
In the United States, as Democrats celebrated a new majority in the House of Representatives after the November midterm elections, youth activists with Sunrise Movement occupied incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, demanding the party make sweeping climate policy a priority. The protests fueled a nascent movement for a Green New Deal, an unprecedented plan to eliminate emissions and provide millions of high-wage jobs to workers in industries that need to be phased out.
As the election cycle shifted to the 2020 presidential primary, the Green New Deal became the animating force behind the proposals candidates began releasing. But only some plans offered firm details. Other top-tier candidates neglected to put out climate plans at all. Given the single-digit airtime devoted to climate change in the 2016 debates, the fight turned to demanding a televised candidate event on climate change alone.
Inslee championed the cause, and he rallied more than a dozen candidates behind him, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and former Vice President Joe Biden. A poll in June found 64% of Democratic-leaning voters supported the idea.
Perez took a firm stance against the debate, arguing it would unfairly favor Inslee’s campaign. The DNC has said it would open the gate to a flood of requests for single-issue debates on abortion rights, health care and other hot-button issues. But some speculated that the DNC was mostly worried that a debate that incentivized the eventual nominee to declare war on the fossil fuel industry risked ceding gas-producing states like Pennsylvania to Trump in 2020.
Still, the activists pressed on. Sunrise Movement protesters camped outside the DNC headquarters in Washington for days during the first debates in Miami in June. In July, a coalition of environmental groups staged a march through Detroit to the theater where the second debates were held, demanding a climate debate and calling for a Green New Deal.
That same month, advocates within the DNC introduced the resolutions voted on this week.
This story has been updated with additional details about Thursday’s votes.