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Op-Ed: The Missing Question From Last Night’s Democratic Presidential Debate

The shifting target placed on Elizabeth Warren’s back, clash on foreign policy between ex-veterans Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg and an uncomfortable but anticipated question about Bernie Sanders’ physical fitness— these were all talking points from last night’s Democratic presidential debate, co-hosted by CNN and the New York Times. On a crowded stage, routine disagreements over healthcare and gun control broke out as expected, but the diverse cohort of presidential hopefuls also diverged on newly broached topics, including court packing, the existence of billionaires and unlikely friendships. 

The dynamic and lively discussion traversed contentious topics in the American sociopolitical hemisphere, and yet, one glaring question remains in the end — why was no one asked about climate change? 

Within the entire three hours of political posturing, time-limit violations and targeted attacks, climate change was nowhere to be found. Not one question regarding candidates’ stance on tackling global warming was squeezed into moderators’ scripts, and few candidates opted to go on a tangent and direct the conversation towards a subject currently weighing heavily on the hearts of many Americans. 

Steve Bullock, Governor of Montana and Democratic presidential candidate, made climate justice a centerpiece of his campaign and would have seemed a beacon of hope for climate activists tonight, but he didn’t meet the requirements to qualify for the debates. Jay Inslee, a former presidential candidate who also vowed to prioritize climate action, suffered a similar fate, having dropped out of the race in August. He took to Twitter to criticize the disappearance of the climate crisis from the conversation. 

In a transcript of the debate from the Washington Post, the words “climate change” only made an appearance five times. It is mentioned briefly by Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg, but only as buzz words that are not allotted any more elaboration. The only two candidates who appeared to offer some redress were Bernie Sanders and Tom Seyer. Bernie, who noted that “we’re forgetting about the existential threat of climate change”, also iterated that he hoped to discuss the issue at length later — ultimately a futile request. 

Tom Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and new-comer in the debate, performed far better than his more politically savvy opponents in acknowledging climate change. He recognized the need for multilateral action on the crisis and capitalized on the last question to talk about a woman named Deanna Berry, who is “fighting for clean water and environmental justice in her community”. However, given that Mr. Steyer is barely a blip in the polls, other candidates did not engage with him, nor would his promises to prevent the climate crisis be of much weight, given that his bid for the presidency is a long shot. 

Although significantly upstaging a majority of his counterparts who resorted to the silent treatment on the issue, Bernie Sanders’ response was still short at best, and meek at worst. At the end of the night, an ominous and fateful conclusion emerges — the candidates (at least the ones who have a fighting chance at winning the presidency) don’t seem eager to make climate change a priority. And if it’s already being overshadowed on the debate stage, a place where candidates make as many grandiose and impractical promises as politically sensible, who’s to say that if elected president, they won’t sweep rising temperatures, worsening air quality and massive deforestation right under the rug? 

In light of recent climate strikes protesting government inaction throughout the country, of which turnout was astonishing, it’s dumbfounding that moderators and Democrats did not bother to ration even a meager minute of their time to rally for arguably the most consequential cause of our time. This indifference is not an outlier — the Democratic Party this year has disappointed voters on climate change once before, evident in the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to hold a debate exclusively on the issue of climate change.

What Democrats also failed to rationalize is how politically savory it would have been for them to delve into their individual stances and solutions to the biggest obstacle mankind faces. A 2018 Pew survey indicated that 82% of registered Democrats said the issue of the environment would be very important in their vote, with 69% of the country expressing concern or worry over global warming’s implications for human life. Even young Republicans are beginning to catch on to the increasingly robust science on the role of human behavior in this soon-to-be uninhabitable planet. 

Yes, it would have been difficult to tangentially raise the issue of climate change given that no questions were centered around it. Much of the onus should fall on the organizers, CNN and the New York Times for neglecting such a key issue in the coming election cycle. But other candidates could have done what Tom Steyer did in raising the issue within the scope of related topics such as foreign policy. 

Especially at a time when Donald Trump, the Republican figurehead himself, has questioned the very existence of climate change, it seems wasteful for Democrats to pass up the opportunity to surpass their own political rivals on a platform that is beginning to hold more and more allure to progressives and moderates alike. But instead, the moderators squandered their last chance at redemption when they lavishly spent the final question asking about each candidate’s most surprising friendship, which seemed like a desperate effort to humanize candidates and instead only resulted in more fluff. 

This doesn’t even mention the moral responsibility these politicians hold in protecting voters’ livelihoods, which are at the present moment being thrown in jeopardy because of the environmental degradation running amok under the Trump administration. If Democrats really claim to care about working-class people, they should advocate for things such as adaptative policies geared to help the lower-income, who are least equipped to grapple with the consequences of climate change.  

None of the rosy realities each candidate boasted about last night would even be possible if there was no healthy planet. Climate change intersects all policies — it is a global epidemic that you can’t negotiate your way out of. If unconstrained, it will kill far more than unregulated firearms do; and its permanence transcends Trump’s reign. Democrats are not only neglecting a sacred responsibility when they leave the topic of climate change (and by association, the planet itself) on the back burner, they are also making an enormous strategic mistake by letting down key voting blocs and racing backward in the countdown towards a climate Armageddon.

Photo: Facebook 

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Tina Yong
Written By

As a first-generation Chinese immigrant currently living in Vancouver, Tina has seen the world through a dynamic lens. She is a competitive debater and can often be heard from miles away fiercely advocating for hypothetical policies on social justice issues closest to her heart. This 16-year-old's political identity is very much fluid, as she believes in evaluating politics from a nonpartisan perspective to reach the most universal insight. She could not be more excited to be writing for Affinity about topics ranging from race justice and voter rights to intersectionality within various social movements.

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