Democrats Need to Unlearn Everything They Think They Know About Climate Change

Kamala Harris at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate.
Kamala Harris at Wednesday’s vice presidential debate.
Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP (Getty Images)

For the second debate in a row, we were treated to an entire section on climate change. Well, “treat” might be too strong.

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It was great to see climate appear so early. It was not great to see how the questions were framed and how poor the answers were. As with President Donald Trump’s first debate performance, Vice President Mike Pence showed old-fashioned climate denial is on life support, trotting out a few tired old lines and then attacking the Green New Deal. Disappointing to be sure, but it just reiterated the death-cult vibes emanating from the Republican Party for a while now.

More disappointing was Democratic vice presidential nominee Sen. Kamala Harris, who went into a defensive crouch. That’s become a familiar pose for Democrats, particularly on climate change. But a growing body of polling and research shows it shouldn’t be. Instead, Democrats need to unlearn 40 years of operating under the framework of Reaganism lite, and firmly embrace policies a wide swath of Americans support.

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During the debate, Harris fended off Mike Pence’s lie that former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, would ban fracking (Biden has explicitly said he wouldn’t multiple times) and refused to even say the words “Green New Deal.” Seriously, there are 15 mentions of the widely popular climate policy and all of them were either Pence trashing it or moderator Susan Page using a frame ripped straight from primetime Fox News. And while Pence pointed out Biden’s climate and infrastructure plan cost $2 trillion as if it was a bad thing, Harris said nothing about how that price far outweighed the cost of inaction and would help Americans still reeling from the Trump administration’s failed coronavirus response. Instead, she mentioned jobs and that “Joe believes, again, in science.”

It was, as Justice Democrats’ Waleed Shahid pointed out on Twitter, a very “tactical framing” approach to talking about climate change rather than one that teed-up the issue for what it is: an existential crisis that will require government investments to make people’s lives better. As someone who has covered climate change for nearly a decade, it’s beyond frustrating to see Democrats still struggle to make it a winning issue.

Republicans’ only plan is to sacrifice people’s lives for corporate profits under the auspices of shrinking government. The coronavirus response has been a proof of concept we’ve all had to live through. Democrats could literally point to the present—to how Republicans have punted on addressing the coronavirus as a disease and economic disaster—and ask voters if this is the future they want because this is the Republican climate plan in action. The wealthy have pocketed $845 billion while everyday people suffer, and the Republican plan of inaction on climate will cause radically more suffering and inequality.

Yet Democrats continue to operate under the rules of Reaganism and the idea that people are afraid of a better-funded and more aggressive federal government. The reality is that climate change will require just that. Federal funding into R&D can help spur more innovation in how energy is generated and transmitted cleanly. Regulations can help retire the internal combustion engine. Massive infrastructure programs could protect vulnerable coastal cities from flooding and clean up polluted frontline communities. A federal jobs guarantee can help put Americans back to work and be part of the clean energy future and ensuring the country is ready for future climate shocks.

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Republicans have hand-waved about multi-trillion dollar estimates to deal with climate change. It’s a cheap stunt from an economic standpoint for many reasons, not the least of which is that the cost of inaction is so much greater. A Nature study released this summer found that each year the world puts off reducing carbon emissions will end up costing an extra $500 billion. The damages associated with climate inaction are also staggeringly high. Tropical cyclones alone could cause $9.7 trillion damage over the next century. Sea level rise could come with a $14.2 trillion price tag. Then there’s the immeasurable toll of human suffering, conflict, famine, displacement, smoke-clogged air, and uninhabitable heat-baked swaths of the Southwest U.S. and Middle East. Republicans like to pretend the Green New Deal is radical, but really the status quo is the most radical climate policy imaginable.

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Not only are these types of investments and work needed, they’re popular. Elected Democrats have operated in the fog of neoliberalism and the misguided belief that cutting and outsourcing government services are necessary and what the people want. Nothing could be further from the truth, though. Polling from Data for Progressive shows the Green New Deal is popular outside of Fox News circles. Polling from Yale and George Mason also shows support for the Green New Deal among Democrats and independents even after the relentless misinformation campaign Republicans took up in response. The bottom line is Democrats can use it to go on the offensive to show they are the only party serious about dealing with climate change.

Joe Biden has said he sees the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework,” but even if he isn’t willing to endorse it, his fine but less ambitious climate plan still polls very well. Again, Data for Progress polling shows voters trust him to address climate change more than any other issue. Fifty-three percent of voters in Arizona, Iowa, Maine, and North Carolina—all swing states—approve of his climate plan, even after learning Republicans hate it. And a plurality of voters, including majorities of Democrats and Democat-leaning voters, support a green coronavirus stimulus. Other polling also shows that Pennsylvanians favor a fracking ban, despite it being the second-largest natural gas producer in the U.S. trailing only Texas.

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For too long, Democrats have gotten away with saying they’re the party of science while doing nothing to actually act in line with the urgency of that science. That changed dramatically with the rise of real people politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez over the past two years and relentless pressure from young climate activists.

Look, we’re all grown-ass adults here. The impacts of climate change are blindingly clear, and the solutions are far cheaper than dealing with the mounting costs of inaction Republicans are offering. Investing in them and the American people is a winning message and will position the country well as we move further into the climate century.

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Managing editor, Earther

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DISCUSSION

Harris’ whole strategy that debate was to take a defensive posture, and avoid saying anything that might hurt the lead Biden has over Trump. I’m not surprised she did that on climate change.