Climate at the First Democratic Debate: Who Said What, Who’s Done What, & Where Do We Go From Here?

BY: Ethan Brown

Night one of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami. Credit: Channel 7 Eyewitness News

The following article was written by our intern, Ethan Brown who is a student at Boston University studying Environmental Analysis & Policy. He offers his analysis of the first Democratic primary debates.

Climate change has moved to the forefront of the Democratic primary, and with a historically high number of presidential candidates, voters can choose from a wide variety of climate plans.

82% of Democrats have cited taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change as “very important,” putting it as a higher priority than healthcare access (75%), gun control (65%), and every other issue surveyed.

After the tiny presence of climate change in the 2016 presidential debates, activists across the nation have called on the Democratic National Committee to put climate change at the forefront of the debates. The DNC is currently considering a debate exclusively on climate change in response to pressure from climate activists.

During the first 2020 Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami, climate change had about 7-8 minutes of airtime toward the end of each night, and while the two discussions lacked much context and substance, one thing was clear: the question is not whether climate change is real and manmade, but what candidates would do to fix it. This solution-oriented discussion is considered critical for voters to pick which plan they like the best and which candidates understand and prioritize the issue to the degree that they do.

Here are the five main climate points from the debate and what candidates are saying about them. 


What is it? In the context of this debate, carbon pricing refers to a policy in which polluters pay a tax based on the amount of carbon dioxide they emit. Other carbon pricing mechanisms, such as cap-and-trade, were not discussed. The money raised from the tax can be returned as a dividend to the American people or used elsewhere in the federal budget. For example, the dividends could pay for hurricane and flood damage or climate-friendly infrastructure projects. By taxing carbon emissions, polluters are incentivized to lower their costs by switching to renewable energy. They still have complete freedom to choose what type of energy they want to use, but now, the price of energy reflects the environmental cost as well.

In British Columbia, Canada, a carbon tax was enacted in 2008 and in five years, petroleum consumption dropped by 16.1%, carbon dividends made B.C. drop to the lowest personal income tax rate in Canada, and B.C. raised their GDP by 1.75% (as opposed to 1.28% for Canada overall)

Carbon pricing gives polluters the choice to pay the environmental cost of their emissions or switch to renewable energy.  Credit: Pollution Free Cities

Who discussed it? 

DELANEYAfter Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan seemed to voice opposition or ambivalence to carbon pricing, former Maryland Rep. John Delaney shared his support. “All economists agree that a carbon pricing mechanism works, you just have to do it right,” Delaney said. “You can’t put a price on carbon, raise energy prices, and not give the money back to the American people.” 

Delaney mentions the bipartisan Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act to which he contributed during his time in Congress. The act would set a price of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide and raise the price by $10 every year to gradually reach emissions goals. 100% of the money raised would be given back to Americans as a dividend, split proportionally across households. The act is projected to reduce carbon pollution by 90% by 2050 and, through the dividends, give an average of $500 per person per year and stimulate the creation of 2.1 million new jobs.

Though Delaney was one of five representatives (three Democrats and two Republicans) who first introduced the bill in November 2018, the bill has been in committee since January, and since Delaney is no longer serving in the House of Representatives, his name is not listed as a sponsor on the bill.

The Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act has bipartisan sponsorship. Credit: Citizens’ Climate Lobby


BUTTIGIEGOn night two, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg brought up carbon pricing, presenting the same argument as Delaney. “We need to do a carbon tax and dividend, but I would propose we do it in a way that’s rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole.”

Questions to ask the candidates:

1) Of those who support a carbon tax, would candidates give the money back to the American people as a dividend or spend it somewhere else?

2) Would carbon pricing plan take into account that nuclear energy, though carbon-free, comes with other environmental risks due to the hazardous waste it produces? What are candidates’ views on nuclear energy?


What is it? Unlike the market-based approach where the government sets a price on carbon and polluters choose to reduce emissions or pay the price, command-and-control policies are regulations which simply tell polluters how much they are allowed to emit and do not demand money in return. Many believe that command-and-control policies, which dominate American environmental policy, are a more quick, efficient, and reliable way to accomplish a desired objective, while others criticize them for not including the innovation opportunities, economic benefits, and freedoms of market-based policies.

Who discussed it? 

INSLEE Washington Gov. Jay Inslee launched the climate change discussion by declaring that America needs to follow the footsteps of his state’s 100% clean electrical grid bill.

“My plan has been called the gold standard of putting people back to work,” he said.

Inslee’s clean electrical grid bill in Washington set three targets: coal-free by 2025, 80% carbon-free and 100% carbon-neutral by 2030, and 100% carbon-free by 2045. While carbon-free means zero carbon emissions, carbon-neutral means that polluters can offset their carbon emissions with carbon deductions in other places. In other words, if a polluter plants 100 trees, they can emit the amount of carbon that those trees would capture. Each year, the required percentage of renewable energy in the grid goes up a little bit, eventually hitting the above numbers. 

In addition to its ambitious targets, Inslee’s bill goes above and beyond those of other states, creating utility business model reform and collaborating with the unions to make the plan work for them.

Gov. Inslee’s reaction when moderator Rachel Maddow introduces climate change as the next topic. Credit: Youtube

HICKENLOOPER Former Colorado Gov. (and geologist) John Hickenlooper mentioned his state’s methane regulations, which were the first in the nation. He stated that methane is 25 times worse than carbon dioxide, which is actually a huge underestimate. His methane plan, implemented in 2014, required that oil and gas companies find and fix all methane leaks and install technology to capture additional emissions of volatile organic compounds, another deadly greenhouse gas.

While his plan was the first of its kind for methane, Hickenlooper has been criticized by experts for not putting the same attention toward carbon dioxide, of which there is a significantly larger concentration in the atmosphere. In contrast with most candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary field, Hickenlooper has supported oil and natural gas production in Colorado as well as hydraulic fracking, all of which are large carbon emitters.

Questions to ask the candidates:

1) Who would set federal regulations on the percentage of renewable energy in the United States electric grid?

2) Was Obama’s Clean Power Plan—a command-and-control policy—enough, or is further regulation needed?


196 countries unite in 2015 to sign the Paris Climate Agreement. Credit: Presidencia de la Republica Mexicana via Flickr

What is it? The Green New Deal and The Paris Climate Agreement are both non binding agreements stating the need for immediate climate action. Neither one is a law. These are acknowledgements of an issue and blueprints of a possible solution. The Green New Deal calls for the United States to mobilize in the next decade to move toward 100% renewable energy and revolutionize the building and transportation sectors to pave the way to carbon neutrality by 2050.

The Paris Agreement brought together almost every nation in the world to commit to keeping global warming “well below 2 degrees Celsius,” establishing technology and building frameworks to help developing countries continue to develop sustainably. President Trump declared on June 1, 2017 that the United States would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement, though that will not be complete until November 2020

Who discussed it? California Sen. Kamala Harris and author Marianne Williamson were the only candidates to mention The Green New Deal in the debate. Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, Harris, Buttigieg, and former Vice President Joe Biden all mentioned the Paris Agreement. Biden mentioned it multiple times in the debate as a key achievement of the Obama Administration.

Harris voices her support for The Green New Deal and The Paris Climate Agreement. Credit: NBC News

Questions to ask the candidates:

1) The Green New Deal is an outline, not a plan. How would you propose the United States meet the targets set in The Green New Deal?

2) The Paris Agreement is a nonbinding resolution, and countries that do not contribute their fair share are not punished in any way. Would you try to negotiate a more binding commitment from participating countries?


What is it? Adaptation policy is concerned with coping with present day problems, as opposed to mitigation policies like carbon pricing, command-and-control, The Paris Agreement, and The Green New Deal which are focused on the future. Resilience refers to the ability of a system, or a community, to return to its normal state after a change, like, for example, a flood, drought, hurricane, or other natural climate-induced disaster. As climate changes, so does the frequency of these catastrophes for which communities must be prepared and resilient.

Who discussed it?

O’ROURKE Though he did not go into policy detail, O’Rourke committed to giving federal funding to local communities for resilience efforts, citing Miami, Houston, and Pacific Junction, IA as examples.

CASTRO Castro discussed the National Disaster Resilience Competition (NDRC) which he implemented in 2014 as HUD Secretary, which awarded almost $1 billion in funding for disaster relief and long-term resilience to states and cities across the country. Governments of states and cities that had experienced major natural disasters in 2011, 2012, or 2013 were invited to resilience workshops held by the Rockefeller Foundation that provided them with education and tools to better prepare for disasters in their communities and assistance in forming applications to the NDRC.

Castro’s plan not only put federal funding toward adaptation, but also rewarded the communities who were willing to put in the extra effort to educate themselves and improve their local resilience efforts.

Castro (center) announces the winners of the National Disaster Resilience Competition in 2016. Credit: The Rockefeller Foundation

Questions to ask the candidates:

What is each candidates’ plan for climate adaptation and resilience?


What is it? Electricity and heat production is the number one contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions at 25%. Agriculture comes in a close second at 24%. Individual farmers and ranchers in the Midwest play a very different role than multibillion dollar oil and gas companies, but the question remains the same: climate change is upending their current place in the economy. What role would they play in solving climate change?

Who discussed it? 

O’ROURKE Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke committed to putting “farmers and ranchers in the driver’s seat” in his climate plan, adding that he would pay them for the environmental services they want to provide. 

BUTTIGIEG Buttigieg posited that, “Rural America can be part of the solution instead of being told they’re part of the problem.” He proposed holding a “Pittsburgh Summit” with leaders in local American communities discussing their approaches to climate change was just as important as the summit in Paris.

HICKENLOOPER On the role of fossil fuel companies, Hickenlooper stated, “We can’t demonize every business, we need to bring them together to be a part of this thing,” touting his methane regulations as an example of working with the oil and gas industries. 

SANDERS Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders focused his remarks on the fossil fuel industry and stated, “Taking on the fossil fuel industry is the solution.”

Sanders argues the importance of taking on the fossil fuel industry. Credit: NBC News

Questions to ask the candidates:

1) Can fossil fuel companies be part of the solution to climate change, or must they be the villain?

2) Who else needs to be included in the conversation? Coal miners? Fishermen? Car manufacturers?

3) If meat and dairy products, specifically those from cattle, are the largest greenhouse gas emitters, does America need to change its diet, or can Americans retain the freedom to eat whatever they want?

On the first night, when asked what is the biggest geopolitical threat facing the United States, four out of ten candidates said climate change. For voters who see climate change as the most important voting issue, Democratic candidates are responding to the calls for action.

Read the candidates’ full climate plans and statements below:

Michael Bennett

Joe Biden

Cory Booker

Pete Buttigieg

John Delaney

Tulsi Gabbard

Kirsten Gillibrand

Kamala Harris

John Hickenlooper

Jay Inslee (clean energy)

Jay Inslee (evergreen economy)

Jay Inslee (global climate mobilization)

Jay Inslee (freedom from fossil fuels)

Amy Klobuchar

Beto O’Rourke

Bernie Sanders

Joe Sestak

Elizabeth Warren (climate change and national security)

Elizabeth Warren (green manufacturing)

Marianne Williamson

Andrew Yang (climate change)

Andrew Yang (carbon fee and dividend)

Andrew Yang (wildfires)