The DNC's climate problems run deep

The DNC's climate problems run deep
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Defending his decision not to hold a presidential debate on climate change, Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairman Tom PerezThomas Edward PerezClinton’s top five vice presidential picks Government social programs: Triumph of hope over evidence Labor’s 'wasteful spending and mismanagement” at Workers’ Comp MORE has exposed the great gulf between climate rhetoric and action within the Democratic Party machine.

Writing in Medium, Perez calls climate change “an urgent threat to our nation and our planet,” giving the obligatory nod to an issue that has risen to a top concern of Democratic voters in Iowa and across the nation.

Granting a climate debate would be unfair and unrealistic, he argues, because holding a debate on each and every issue would be infeasible. He says the DNC has received more than 50 requests to hold issue debates, but fails to mention that fifteen Democratic candidates have endorsed the call for a climate debate.

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The DNC decision is an important wake-up call for climate donors and voters. Just because Democrats say climate change is an urgent threat does not mean they see it as more urgent than other issues.

The DNC’s inaction on a climate debate is especially troubling in light of the party’s long dependency on the fossil fuel lobby to fund conventions.

American Petroleum Institute (API), the top trade association for big oil and gas companies, stepped up with $700,000 for Democrats’ last convention in Philadelphia. That fell just a few money bags shy of the $900,000 API sent to the GOP.

According to Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseDemocrats look to capitalize on turmoil inside NRA Overnight Energy: Senators push back on EPA's new FOIA rule | Agency digs in on rule change | Watchdog expands ethics probe of former EPA air chief Watchdog probing more ethics investigations into EPA's former air chief: report MORE (D-R.I.), API has spent more than $100 million lobbying Congress to “crush any pro-climate policies that might actually reduce carbon emissions” and threaten the bottom line of oil companies.

The coal lobby has also bellied up to the convention table. In 2012, the DNC publicly touted that it had  barred corporate contributions for the convention. In reality, they relied on Duke Energy, the nation’s second biggest carbon emitter, for a $6 million loan that Democrats never repaid.

At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, I was taken aback by the marketing extravaganza behind “clean coal,” a fictional product. “Regardless of who wins the election, we know that coal will still be running America,” proclaimed The American Council for Clean Coal Electricity (ACCCE), a coal industry trade association. ACCCE members Southern Company and Arch Coal contributed to the Democrats’ convention committee.

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Fossil fuel trade associations are not letting up. They know that if climate change isn’t the Democrat’s top priority, then little will get done.

They aim to lull Democrats to sleep on climate, joining their Republican colleagues in action if not words by keeping climate on the back burner.

It’s a tempting lullaby for political operatives. The planet doesn’t have a bank account. Fossil fuel lobbyists pay well and pay often.

Last year, Perez momentarily seemed ready to bring needed change to the DNC. The DNC quietly passed a resolution sponsored by Christine Pelosi (daughter of Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiConservatives erupt in outrage against budget deal Grassley, Wyden reach deal to lower drug prices Why do Republicans keep trying to outspend Democrats in Congress? MORE), that would have barred the DNC from accepting political contributions from fossil fuel PACs.

The DNC received swift backlash from labor, however. According to Perez, the resolution was perceived as "an attack on the working people” in energy industries.

Perez wrote a new resolution that passed the DNC overwhelmingly, reversing the prior funding ban and embracing money from all energy PACs.

A divisive battle between labor and environmentalists in 2018 would not have benefited anyone, but Perez’ swift and decisive intervention stands in stark contrast to his meek protests now that his hands are tied on a climate debate.

Alarmingly, Perez’ resolution also touted America’s “all of the above” energy economy.

The phrase first became prominent when Sarah Palin and John McCain used it to sum up their “drill baby drill” energy platform in 2008.

When President Obama later called for an “all of the above” energy approach, environmental leaders protested. In a letter to Obama, they argued that an “all of the above” energy strategy that boosts coal, oil and gas would undermine America’s climate goals.

The DNC struck the phrase from its platform in 2016.

The DNC’s zig-zagging climate and energy rhetoric is Exhibit A in the case for a climate change debate. Squeezing climate change into other debates will only allow time for rhetoric about the urgency of the problem. A focused, in-depth climate debate will allow voters to better gauge the substance and commitment behind the talking points.  

When it comes to climate politics, commitment and priority is everything. Across three decades, political advisers have whispered in the ears of presidents, cautioning against taking on the combined might of the fossil fuel lobby. This is why we are where we are today.

In the DNC’s refusal to host a climate debate, we see an early warning signal of those whispers still at work despite unprecedented demand for results from voters.

By lumping climate change in with 50 unnamed issues, Perez misses the mark entirely. All issues are not equal.

A debate focused on preserving a livable planet is a debate on justice, economic opportunity, health, security and human rights.

When you are living on a boat, the value of all things changes if the ship starts to sink.

The same holds true for the planet we share. The physics of climate change are just as relentless and unforgiving as the rush of water through a hole in a boat’s hull. The climate clock is ticking.

If Democrats do not believe climate change is important enough to change their own rules now, can we count on them to summon the political moxy to do what needs to be done after our money and votes are secured?

Jeremy Symons is a consultant at Symons Public Affairs and writer on climate change, energy policy and politics. He previously worked as vice president for political affairs at Environmental Defense Fund and as deputy staff director on the Senate Environment & Public Works Committee.