Why We’re Challenging the 2020 Democrats to a Climate Summit [Updated]

Brian Kahn and Emily Atkin
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Illustration: G/O Media/Getty

It’s been said before, but it bears repeating: The first round of Democratic presidential debates failed the planet. In a combined 240 minutes of discussion—at an event held in city poised to sink into the ocean—the moderators devoted a combined 15 minutes of airtime to the biggest existential threat humanity faces.

We were hardly surprised. In fact, we’ve been anticipating this outcome for months—which is why back in April, we had a thought: What if we just planned a candidates’ exchange on climate issues ourselves?

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As two climate journalists with a combined decade of experience covering the issue, we knew we could convey the immense stakes of the unfolding crisis. We could ask the indispensable questions about how to end our dependence on fossil fuels and what that means for society. We could put the communities most damaged by the climate crisis at the center of the discussion, where they belong. And we could compel the candidates to talk about climate change with the urgency and seriousness it deserves.

We’ve accomplished a lot since April—and on September 23, 2019, The New Republic and Gizmodo will host a presidential climate summit in New York City. We’ll be joined by the League of Conservation Voters, giving us a leg up on the candidates’ environmental voting records and 2020 climate plans. We’ve also brought on Columbia University’s Earth Institute, ensuring our questions will be in line with current climate science.

Other organizations are supporting our effort, too. The Climate Group has made our presidential climate summit an official part of Climate Week NYC, and Earthjustice Action, the Union of Concerned Scientists, the NRDC Action Fund, and the Center for American Progress Action Fund have agreed to be sponsors. We’re hoping to work with the Climate Justice Alliance, to ensure frontline communities and youth are well-represented. And legendary New York political anchor Errol Louis will be the main moderator for our event, which will take place the same day world leaders will be in town for a United Nations climate summit.

We hope all the candidates in the 2020 Democratic field will find a way to take part, because the climate crisis deserves to take center stage in the 2020 primaries. For now, this will be a forum-type event; candidates will appear on stage one by one, to be asked questions by our moderator and others. During that time, they’ll be asked to respond to key policy statements and claims now shaping the emergent Democratic climate agenda.

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We are, however, prepared to change our summit to a debate if the DNC changes its rules, which bar candidates from participating in non-DNC hosted debates. We are also willing to work with the DNC to make our event the officially sanctioned Democratic climate debate of the 2020 election.

Either way, we intend to host a robust discussion with and among the candidates. There’s clearly ample room for such an exchange: the candidates who’ve released climate plans have taken vastly different approaches to the crisis, all involving specific policy choices and tradeoffs. In order for voters to grasp the true options involved in remediating the climate crisis, they need to know, in comprehensive detail, just how candidates would go about countering the devastating effects of global warming from the Oval Office.

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It’s imperative to get these discussions in motion now, because climate change will be the defining issue of the twenty-first century, and the next president will have an outsized impact on the shape it takes.

For too many years, climate change has pigeonholed as an “environmental” issue. But in the United States alone, rising seas are already causing chronic and acute flooding, and ocean floodwaters will likely claim some coastal communities in the not-too distant future. For a host of reasons, climate change is also likely to upend agriculture as we know it. To remediate the effects of climate change in any serious way, the next president will have to remake the entire energy sector, decouple the economy from fossil fuels, and ensure workers and frontline communities aren’t abandoned in the process. Abroad, the climate crisis will ratchet up inequality, cause some small island nations to disappear entirely, and require less developed countries to forgo the pathways to development forged in the twentieth century, all issues the next American president will have to deal with and plan for.

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None of this is a drill. Last year’s bombshell report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that if we are to have any hope of avoiding the worst impacts, we must act now. The choices that world leaders make over the next 11 years will in all likelihood define the fate of Earth for generations to come. And the policies set in place by whoever wins the 2020 United States presidential election will play a crucial role in curbing—or compounding—the potential damage of the climate reckoning before us.

The United States represents roughly 14 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but because of our leading role in the global economy and political order, our influence extends well beyond that. The next president will either set the world on the path toward limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius—or the more stringent (and safer) 1.5 degree Celsius threshold—or he or she will send the world sailing past these already risky thresholds. As scores of studies have warned us, the all too plain cost of inaction on this front is to consign millions to suffer and die on American and foreign soil.

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Climate change, in short, deserves far more than 15 minutes of airtime.

Voters already understand just how urgent the crisis is. Polling done for LCV and CAP Action last month shows that addressing the climate crisis is a top priority for Democratic primary voters, and polling from the think tank Data for Progress shows that nearly two-thirds of Democratic and left-leaning independent likely primary voters support holding a debate focused on climate change. Two-thirds of Democrats also view climate change as a “critical threat,” and most Democrats regard it as the most important issue to discuss in presidential debates, according to polling from Morning Consult.

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For all sorts of compelling reasons, the Democratic electorate has decided that this is the climate change election—and they want to know what candidates are going to do if they win the White House. We look forward to furnishing the platform for this crucial exchange of ideas in September.

Brian Kahn is a senior reporter at Gizmodo. Emily Atkin is a climate staff writer at the New Republic.

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Update 7/13: The New Republic is withdrawing its participation from this event following publication of an offensive article that Gizmodo and others have condemned. More information can be found here.

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