The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Town halls are not the answer, DNC must sanction an official climate debate


The U.S. just roasted in nationwide heatwave, Europe suffered its hottest June and July on record, and America’s heartland spent months underwater during planting season this year. It’s clear we are in a climate crisis. And this crisis deserves the undivided attention of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates.

We need a climate debate. Voters need to hear more than a one-off question on the Green New Deal, they need to hear what actual solutions the candidates are offering to reduce emissions before we hit the 2030 “point of no return.” Over 225,000 activists who recently signed a petition organized by CREDO and dozens of environmental and progressive groups agree. Democratic voters want a climate debate, too — polling shows it’s supported by 64 percent of primary voters with only 11 percent opposing it. Voters care about climate change, with 72 percent of Democratic primary voters saying it was an important 2020 issue, so we need to hear the candidates’ answers to this crisis.

But what about the climate forums and climate town halls recently announced? To put it simply, these will probably be ignored by voters. Events like those are long, tedious, and require a huge amount of time for viewers to hear from each candidate. Most people will not watch them and will learn what was said through the filter of the media and soundbite.

Looking back at the myriad of single candidate town halls this year, there’s a noticeable drop in viewers. Fewer and fewer people are watching because there have been so many that it’s not worth the considerable amount of time needed. Some of these town halls didn’t even break 1 million viewers on CNN.

It’s admirable that CNN, MSNBC, Georgetown and others are trying to push the climate crisis to center stage by hosting summits and forums, but the reality is that a forum-style event is stuck backstage in the wings. Multi-day forums and cattle-call town hall marathons are not the answer.

A climate debate is the only real solution. 

The official debates are watched by millions of people every time they air, with NBC’s Democratic primary debate reaching over 18 million viewers in June, and CNN’s debate this week nearly breaking a network viewership record. Debates also allow the candidates to confront each other directly about their different plans, like we’ve seen Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) push boldly for Medicare for All while Former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke defend a public option.

The current format for primary debates hops from issue to issue, often focusing narrowly on the issues that are in the news of the day or on more insipid topics like what Donald Trump is tweeting. This leaves questions about climate change toward the end when viewers are less engaged and when candidates are less likely to provide in-depth, nuanced answers.

In fact, in the four debates we’ve had so far, less than 9 percent of questions related to climate change, with only 10 of 170 questions asked of half the candidates at NBC’s debate and 23 of 242 total questions asked by CNN’s moderators.

It’s unacceptable to gloss over an issue as critical to our survival and national security as climate change by giving it less than 10 minutes of airtime per debate — only 35 minutes out of over 8 hours (15 minutes during NBC, 20 minutes during CNN). This isn’t 2016 where one question per debate is a victory. It’s 2020, and the next president will only have 10 years to avert the worst self-made disaster our planet has seen.

That’s why we’re still pushing Tom Perez and Democratic National Committee members to sanction an official debate centered on the climate crisis. The DNC meets later this month, and one of the resolutions they’ll consider is on whether or not to hold a climate debate.

DNC members must acknowledge three facts before they vote on the resolution. First, the climate crisis is only getting more and more dire. Second, the discussion of climate change that has taken place in the first two debates has been insufficient to allow voters to understand which candidates have aggressive enough plans to meet the challenge. And third, poorly-watched forums and summits are a poor substitute for the real debate on climate change Democratic primary voters deserve.

If they grapple will those facts, they will come to agree that there must be a 2020 Climate Debate. Voters deserve to hear from the candidates directly about their climate crisis solutions before our planet teeters over the edge. It’s up to DNC members to make sure that happens.

Jelani Drew-Davi is CREDO Action campaign manager

Tags Bernie Sanders Beto O'Rourke Climate change climate debate Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden Tom Perez

More Energy & Environment at The Hill News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video