the national interest

Why a Climate Debate Is a Terrible Idea

The first Democratic debate, June 27, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Climate activists have been lobbying Democrats for months to hold a debate dedicated to climate change. Gizmodo and the New Republic are following through on this by staging a “climate summit” for the candidates, who would be given the chance to appear one by one and answer questions about their plans to address climate change. (Interest groups routinely hold events like this.) They have, however, publicly declared their intent to turn the event into the full-scale debate many green activists desire.

The case for a climate debate is simple: Climate change poses a planetary emergency, and candidates have given the issue too little attention in their campaigns in general, and at the first debate in particular, in proportion to its significance. The problem with this case is that it fails to anticipate what happens next.

A singular climate debate only serves its purpose if every faction within the Democratic Party agrees that climate change uniquely merits a dedicated debate. But progressive activists are unlikely to accept this. The nature of the party is that it is divided into activist nodes organized around singular issues or groups. What happens when activists request a debate on racism? Inequality? Health care? Gun violence? Voting rights? Abortion rights? Immigration?

Once Democrats have broken the seal, the pressure to expand the number of single-issue debates would be intense and continuous. Saying no to any particular cause after having already agreed to elevating another cause would be untenable. Can you really imagine the party standing behind the position that racism is not important enough to merit its own debate, but climate change is? I cannot. The endpoint would be a proliferation of single-issue debates that negates the entire point of elevating climate change to begin with.

There are ways to elevate the profile of climate change as an issue within the campaign. Rather than treating the mere 15 minutes of climate discussion in the first round as a failure, proving the futility of the general-issue debate format, activists might consider it a starting point from which they could lobby for more. The demand for a singular climate debate is a demand that, if accepted, nearly everybody in the Democratic Party would come to regret.

Why a Climate Debate Is a Terrible Idea