Climate at the Second Democratic Debate: What New Topics Were Introduced and How Did the Candidates Respond?

Night one of the second Democratic debate. (Credit: Vox)

BY: Ethan Brown

The second Democratic presidential debates saw a small increase in climate conversation from the first round of debates back in June. The second round of debates featured points already discussed in debate one, as well as some new topics like green manufacturing and environmental justice. Here are four new climate points that were discussed and what the candidates are or aren’t saying about them.

Click here to read our take on the first Democratic presidential debate which covers carbon pricing, the Green New Deal, the Paris Climate Accord, and more.


What is it? 

In the context of the debate, “green manufacturing” referred to the manufacturing of products used in renewable energy and clean technology industries such as solar panels and electric vehicles. Within the solar panel manufacturing industry, China is the largest supplier in the world. Many suggest that ramping up solar panel and other green manufacturing in the United States would allow for stronger competition with China and millions of new jobs for American workers.

China dominates the photovoltaic solar cell manufacturing industry. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Green manufacturing increases the share of America’s clean energy use via market forces: by flooding the market with solar panels, batteries, electric vehicles, and other such products, these items become cheaper, so more people choose them over fossil fuels. However, barring massive swings in the market, spurring green manufacturing without additional climate policy does not guarantee that a candidate’s deadline for net zero carbon emissions will be met, since fossil fuels would still be on the market.

On a related note, some candidates voiced opposition to the Green New Deal because of a “jobs guarantee” in it. As I wrote in my analysis of  the first debate, the Green New Deal is a non-binding piece of legislation that sets goals, not laws. One of the goals is “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States,” according to a Washington Post article from February 11th. Though the statement is larger than green manufacturing, one could argue that since there is this transition from fossil fuel jobs to green manufacturing jobs, ensuring jobs with fair wages and benefits to all who want them is a possible approach to ensure that coal miners and frackers aren’t left behind. It is completely valid for candidates to support or oppose the job guarantee, but they must remember that the Green New Deal is still a non-binding set of goals and they must have further plans to accomplish their climate targets.

Who discussed it?

Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper both brought up the jobs guarantee in their objections to the Green New Deal, which didn’t see much rebuttal besides a quip from Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren that it was a made-up Republican talking point. On night two, moderator Dana Bash asked New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker about the jobs guarantee in the Green New Deal, but none explicitly explained why the jobs guarantee was necessary or superfluous (beyond advocating for green jobs) in their speeches. As for green manufacturing, most candidates on night one mentioned it in passing through their answers, but two candidates made it the focal point of their speeches.

WARREN — After stating her support for the Green New Deal, Warren shared her policy to advance green manufacturing in America.

“I put a real policy on the table to create 1.2 million new jobs in green manufacturing. There’s gonna be a 23 trillion dollar worldwide market for this. This could revitalize huge cities across this country.”

Warren’s plan also mandates that the U.S. government stock its fleet of vehicles with electric ones, which would immediately spur the growth of that market. In addition to her green manufacturing plan, Warren’s website lists two other comprehensive climate plans, which combined, push the country firmly in the direction of renewable energy, but do not entirely phase out fossil fuel use as the Green New Deal aims to do (though she, of course, still has time to release such a plan).

Elizabeth Warren discussed her green manufacturing plan at the debate. (Credit: Washington Post)

RYAN — When asked about the effects of a green economy on Rust Belt manufacturers, Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan explained:

“My plan is to create a Chief Manufacturing Officer so we can actually start making things in the United States again … China dominates [the electric vehicle market] now, 50-60%. I want us to dominate the battery market, make those in the United States and cut the workers in on the deal. The charging stations, solar panels—same thing. China dominates 60% of the solar panel market so this person will work in the White House, report directly to me, and we’re gonna start making things again.” 

While flooding the market with electric vehicles and solar panels would push the nation toward cleaner energy, Ryan’s website also currently lists no plans to phase out fossil fuels, and unlike most Democratic candidates, no deadline for net zero carbon emissions (but again, that can change).

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. If you oppose the Green New Deal because of the jobs guarantee, would you support the other goals in the Green New Deal, and would you support a differently phrased goal to ensure fossil fuel workers find new jobs?

  2. Spurring green manufacturing alone probably isn’t enough to quickly reach net zero carbon emissions. Do you have plans to supplement your green manufacturing plans to make a complete transition to clean energy?


What is it?

Environmental justice refers to the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people with respect to environmental policy.

“People who live, work and play in America’s most polluted environments are commonly people of color and the poor,” explains a March 2016 article from the National Resources Defense Council website. “Environmental justice advocates have shown that this is no accident. Communities of color, which are often poor, are routinely targeted to host facilities that have negative environmental impacts — say, a landfill, dirty industrial plant or truck depot. The statistics provide clear evidence of what the movement rightly calls ‘environmental racism.’ Communities of color have been battling this injustice for decades.”

In the context of the debates, environmental justice primarily entered the conversation through the Flint water crisis. In 2013, budget cuts led officials to stop piping treated water into the majority African American community and instead  send untreated water from the Flint River through aging lead piping, leading to widespread lead contamination in thousands of homes. This crisis continues to impact Flint to this day. Environmental injustices like these are so important to discuss and remedy, and it was encouraging to see an environmental issue besides climate change (there are many!) get airtime at the debate. For the purposes of this article on climate at the debates, this section will focus on climate justice (and barely scratch the surface).

The consequences of climate change often hit underprivileged communities the hardest, whether it’s the hurricanes in Texas, Florida, the Carolinas, and Puerto Rico or the wildfires in California. Over sixty percent of Americans already don’t have enough savings to cover a $1,000 emergency, and on top of that, disaster relief funds and FEMA aid disproportionately go to higher income communities, further preventing low income Americans from returning to work and school.

Equity mapping shows a correlation between cancer deaths and living near a coal mine. Statistically, these vulnerable communities tend to be low income communities and/or communities of color. (Credit: Vox)

Some of the root causes of climate change also create environmental injustices. For example, African American, Latino, indigenous, and low income communities are disproportionately more likely to live next to a coal-fired plant which emits sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide causing a huge increase in their asthma rates. In the case of natural gas pipeline projects like the Keystone Pipeline, indigenous tribes are fighting to prevent the government from using indigenous land in ways that would have hazardous environmental consequences for the indigenous communities living there. These communities are also more vulnerable to methane leaks which, in addition to exacerbating climate change, can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory conditions.

Who discussed it?

INSLEE — “We also need to embed environmental justice,” explained Inslee when outlining his plan to tackle climate change. “I was in zip code 48217 in the Detroit neighborhood the other day right next to an oil refinery where the kids have asthma and they have cancer clusters and after talking to these folks, I believe this: it doesn’t matter where your zip code is, it doesn’t matter what your color is, you ought to have clean air and clean water in America.”

Zip code 48217 is a predominantly low-income and African American neighborhood in Detroit that is also home to a Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery. In Wayne County, where 48217 is located, asthma rates are more than double the Michigan average, and disproportionately affect African Americans.

Jay Inslee released his climate justice plan last week in zip code 48217—the most polluted zip code in Michigan. (Credit: Common Dreams)

Inslee unveiled his Community Climate Justice plan towards the end of July 2019, making it the fifth detailed climate proposal from his campaign. Among its objectives are: 1) establishing a Council of Environmental Justice in the White House that includes representatives from frontline communities, 2) establishing an Office of Environmental Justice inside the U.S. Department of Justice to prosecute polluters’ environmental law violations, 3) performing research through equity mapping to determine which communities are vulnerable and crafting policy accordingly, 4) helping low income families with their energy bills, 5) strategizing for sustainable urban development within transportation and low income housing, and 6) a nation-wide ban on PFAS—a chemical linked to cancer, stunted childhood development, and female infertility that is a common drinking water contaminant due to its use in fire retardants and teflon. A ban on PFAS could play an impactful role in reducing the higher rates of water contamination present in marginalized communities.  (You can read his climate proposals in full on his website here.)

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. (To the candidates that aren’t Governor Inslee, that is.) What is your plan to include and empower low income, African American, Latino, and indigenous communities in your transition to clean energy?

  2. Why should vulnerable communities trust your administration’s judgment in making policy decisions? How will you rebuild government agencies from their current state to foster a culture where all personnel value environmental justice and include all affected communities?


What is it?

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is a technology that can capture up to 90% of industrial carbon emissions and store it in liquid form up to three miles beneath the Earth’s surface. When used with biomass, CCS can theoretically take carbon out of the atmosphere (the plant would absorb carbon from the atmosphere, then CCS would bury that carbon underground). Supporters of CCS consider it a more realistic alternative or a temporary alternative to a 100% clean energy economy, while critics point out that it takes extra energy to actually capture and store the carbon and a complete switch to clean energy is more efficient.

Direct Air Capture (DAC) is a much newer technology that actually pulls carbon out of the air and puts it back into the ground. DAC is different from CCS—CCS technology needs to be at the source of emissions (in the smokestack, for example), whereas DAC can be anywhere, since it is directly pulling the carbon out of the air. Currently, DAC is way more expensive than just using renewables and not burning the carbon in the first place, and the technology has just started being tested in the last few years.

Zürich, Switzerland’s direct air capture plant takes in air from the atmosphere and sequesters the carbon dioxide. (Credit: Carbon Brief)

Who discussed it?

DELANEY — In a list of policy proposals, Delaney advocated for DAC as a step toward carbon neutrality. “I’m gonna create a market for something called direct air capture which are machines that actually take carbon out of the atmosphere cause I don’t think we’ll get to net zero by 2050 unless we have those things.” On Delaney’s website, he further explains that he would invest heavily in DAC to make America a global leader in the emerging technology, and would also invest in the use of carbon sequestration methods such as CCS with biomass and reforestation.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. Is our money better spent investing in direct air capture and/or carbon capture and storage technologies, or is it better spent speeding up the transition to 100% clean energy?


What is it?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 report attempted to answer the question of whether or not it is too late to curb the worst consequences of climate change. It’s a difficult question because of the nature of environmental modeling: as scientists try to model further into the future, the amount that the model could be inaccurate increases, similar to the way a weather forecast for tomorrow will probably be more accurate than a weather forecast for five days from now. (Remember that climate refers to averages in temperature/precipitation over years and decades whereas weather refers to temperature/precipitation on a specific day. No scientist is claiming to predict the exact weather on a specific day in 2050, just the average conditions.)

Humans have already warmed the planet around 1°C, and we’re already starting to see some extreme heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes as a result . The report concludes that at 1.5°C of warming, which they can predict with high confidence, natural disasters get worse, oceans get more acidic and kill off large sections of coral, swaths of the world become entirely different ecosystems, and more. This world is liveable with the right planning and adaptation, particularly for those living on coastlines vulnerable to sea level rise. At 2°C, which they can predict at medium confidence, there would be massive ecosystem loss and extinction and the ice sheets would melt enough to cause catastrophic sea level rise affecting millions of people. This world is much scarier.

The IPCC report shows a significant difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of warming. (Credit: First Post)

To keep to 1.5°C of warming, the report states that global emissions must be cut from 2010 levels by 45% by 2030 and to net zero by 2050.

So to the question of is it too late, it depends on what we’re too late for. Too late to live in a pre-industrial climate? Yes. Too late to live in Miami, Boston, New York City, or other coastal regions? Debatable, depending on your adaptation strategy. Too late to save human civilization as we know it? Definitely not, if we get our act together now!

Who discussed it?

YANG — Entrepreneur Andrew Yang presented the argument that we are too late, saying:

“This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late. We are ten years too late. We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground, and the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your family.”

No candidates responded to Yang’s assertion that we must move to higher ground.

Other candidates mentioned deadlines in the debate to accomplish climate goals, though none had a message of “we are too late.” Inslee stated, “We have to get off coal in ten years. We have to get off fossil fuels on our electrical grid in fifteen years.” As for deadlines to get America to carbon neutral, California Sen. Kamala Harris set a deadline of 2030, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock set 2040, and Delaney set 2050. Several other candidates have set similar deadlines on their websites or in their policy proposals.

Questions to ask the candidates:

  1. In your administration, by what year would the United States (or the world) be carbon neutral, and why have you selected that year as the target?

  2. How would you deal with the growing impact of sea level rise on coastal communities?

Seeing these new topics introduced at the second debate showed that candidates (and moderators) understand the vastness of the scope of the climate crisis. While there’s so many more topics to raise and policy nuances to hash out between the candidates, debate two seems to signal that there’s more intriguing conversation to come. 

Here’s looking to see what happens at the third round of debates coming up in September!