Top Democratic presidential hopefuls in their second set of debates in late July emphasized that climate change is not an isolated issue but rather has ramifications across many aspects of the nation's economy. Several of them also discussed the need to rectify what they called environmental racism and to ensure a just transition for communities and fossil fuel workers.
"Climate change is not a singular issue," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said. Climate change "is all the issues that we Democrats care about. It is health, it is national security, it is our economy."
The candidates, for the most part, reiterated high-level talking points made during the first round of debates — most pledged to make climate change a top priority if they win the White House and to reverse key pieces of President Donald Trump's agenda, including rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change. But while the candidates at the event hosted by CNN in Detroit July 30 and 31 again attempted to distinguish themselves from each other, they appeared to agree on the urgent need to address climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions and major infrastructure investments.
One exception was businessman Andrew Yang, who said the world has crossed the tipping point on climate change and that the best option now is to relocate people and cities to higher ground. Yang's comment comes as coastal states such as California and Hawaii, which are threatened by increased flooding tied to sea-level rise, are already beginning to consider the question of managed retreat.
On both nights of the event, the candidates performing lower in the polls took multiple shots at leading contenders such as former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Inslee and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker both suggested Biden's climate plan, which aims to get the U.S. to a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050, is not ambitious enough. "Middle ground solutions like the vice president has proposed or sort of middling, averaged sized-things are not going to save us. Too little, too late is too dangerous," Inslee said.
But Biden responded, "There's no middle ground about my plan. The fact of the matter is, I've called for the immediate action to be taken." Biden, who later said he would eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, also said he would "immediately rejoin the Paris accord," a deal Biden helped negotiate when was vice president. But Booker took the opportunity to suggest Biden's plan is weak.
"Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris Climate accords, that is kindergarten," Booker said. "We have to ... make sure everything from our trade deals, everything from the billions of dollars we spend on foreign aid, everything must be supplemented to the challenge and crisis that is existential, which is dealing with the climate threat."
Several candidates also blamed corporate America, including fossil fuel companies, for seeking to bolster profits over the American public's health and the environment.
Of the fossil-fuel industry, Sanders said, "We've got to ask ourselves a simple question: What do you do with an industry that knowingly for billions of dollars in short-term profits is destroying this planet. I say that is criminal activity that cannot be allowed to continue."
But Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan argued that imposing mandates will only work if the technology is developed to enable those changes and workers are ensured a just transition. "We have to invent our way out of this ... align the environmental incentives with the financial incentives and make sure that people can actually make money off of the new technologies," Ryan said. "Cut the worker in on the deal ... to make sure these new jobs pay what the old fossil fuel jobs pay." Sanders echoed that sentiment, as did Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.
On the issue of environmental justice, Inslee, Warren and author Marianne Williamson were among those who used the term "environmental racism" during the debates to describe the extent to which poorer communities are being treated differently than wealthier ones when it comes to clean water and air.
Referring to the Flint, Mich., water crisis that began in 2014, Williamson said, "Flint is just the tip of the iceberg. We have communities, particularly communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country, who are suffering from environmental injustices. ... I live in Grosse Pointe," she said referring to the affluent Detroit suburb. "What happened in Flint would not have happened in Grosse Pointe."