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The DNC Nixed a Climate Debate Because That’s What Chairman Perez Wanted

Perez and the Democratic National Committee must do better before it is entirely too late.

Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez speaks ahead of the second Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, on July 31, 2019.

The Arctic and the Amazon — two places that should generally not be on fire if we want to keep this whole “life on Earth as we know it” thing rolling — are burning. Climate change did not cause the Amazon fires — people did, specifically cattle farmers clearing land — but fires within the planetary oxygen engine of that rainforest will, if unchecked, exacerbate climate disruption in ways many fear to contemplate.

The Arctic fires thousands of miles away are directly due to climate change, and could immediately lead to a massive release of methane that has, until now, been trapped under permafrost – which is now melting. That release would lead to accelerated melting of the ice caps, bringing raised sea levels and sweeping annihilation to coastal regions everywhere.

Probably something we should be talking about at the highest levels, yes? As far as the Democratic debates to help decide who will be the 2020 presidential nominee are concerned, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has other plans, which is to say, they have no plans to have a single-issue debate on climate or any other topic of merit.

The DNC’s resistance to holding a specific presidential debate on climate has been a summer-long affair. In June, DNC chairman Tom Perez informed the candidates that a climate debate was off the table. In a statement released just after the DNC’s announcement, former presidential candidate Jay Inslee — who first requested this specifically defined debate — released an angry denunciation of the decision.

“Today, my team received a call from the Democratic National Committee letting us know that they will not host a climate debate,” the Inslee statement read. “Further, they explained that if we participated in anyone else’s climate debate, we will not be invited to future debates. This is deeply disappointing.”

“Disappointing” is one way of putting it. “Self-destructive” is another; polls indicate that Democratic Party voters, especially those in the first-of-the-season Iowa caucus, place climate disruption at the top of their priorities list by huge margins. Inslee, until he bowed out last week, made addressing climate change the signature issue of his campaign, and all the other candidates echoed his concerns. Bernie Sanders released a plan to address climate change last week that is truly significant in scope. The issue, like the rising seas, is not going away.

For Chairman Perez, the rules regarding this season’s Democratic presidential debates, set in February and specifically crafted to avoid single-issue debates, may as well have been carved onto stone tablets by the very hand of God. There can be no deviation, even in the face of an immediate crisis like climate disruption, from those rules.

“To amend these rules now, after having enforced them throughout this primary process, would be putting our thumb on the scale,” Perez wrote in a widely circulated Medium post in June. “As Chair of the DNC, I am committed to a fair, transparent, and inclusive 2020 Democratic primary process. And I take that commitment seriously. To that end, I concluded the DNC could not allow individual candidates to dictate the terms of debates or limit the topics discussed.”

This concern for being perceived as having a “thumb on the scale” clearly references the ongoing mess caused by the DNC in 2016 when they tilted the table for Hillary Clinton at the expense of Bernie Sanders. Inslee asked for a climate debate, so there can be no climate debate, because holding one would make it seem as if the DNC is favoring Inslee.

The fact that the DNC is still licking its 2016 wounds should be deeply disquieting for Democratic voters: Making key decisions about the next election based on the last election is a tried and true avenue to defeat.

The DNC’s fears regarding thumbs and scales may only be part of the story behind Perez’s resistance to a climate-only debate. According to a HuffPost report, there appear to be concerns within the DNC that “a debate that incentivized the eventual nominee to declare war on the fossil fuel industry risked ceding gas-producing states like Pennsylvania to Trump in 2020.”

This past Thursday, the DNC soundly defeated a resolution to hold a party-sponsored debate specifically about climate change by a vote of 17-8. Beyond Inslee’s campaign-oriented push, a debate like this has been important to scores of activists and party members because the debate format so far has given the climate extremely short shrift. The subject received 15 minutes total coverage during the four hours of the first debate, and around 25 minutes during the four hours of the second debate. A total of 40 minutes on the climate crisis in 480 minutes of debate is staggeringly insufficient.

After the resolution was defeated, the presidential campaign of Joe Biden came under intense scrutiny as a potential leading cause for the outcome after Symone Sanders, a top Biden campaign staffer, spoke against holding a climate debate, or any other single-issue debate, during the Thursday hearing. “I do think we have to think about the other folks that communicated they wanted a debate that were told you may not have a debate but you can in fact have a forum,” said Sanders. “And we support forums, but I just — I think this is dangerous territory in the middle of the Democratic primary process.”

Michelle Deatrick, an activist, poet, farmer and representative to the DNC Women’s Caucus, co-sponsored the climate debate resolution that was defeated on Thursday. Deatrick believes the Democrats would be well served by holding several single-issue debates focused on climate, racism and other vital topics.

“There were lots of ways to do this, and the DNC made an unforced error,” Deatrick told Truthout. She believes there are a number of ways the DNC could formulate issue-specific debates to satisfy all concerns: Give each chosen topic an hour to itself over the long span of debates between now and the convention, and base the topics on the party platform to make choosing those topics simpler, among other strategies.

“A real debate would help to educate people on the issues,” said Deatrick. “What is a carbon cap? Who is in favor of nuclear energy and who isn’t? Voters deserve to hear debate on this, and this goes for the other issues as well.”

Deatrick did not comment on what kind of involvement, if any, the Biden campaign had in spiking her co-sponsored debate resolution, but she believes that resolution received very little serious consideration from the committee. Opposition from DNC chairman Perez was the paramount reason why the climate debate was quashed. “When the chair is so strongly against it,” she said, “a lot of members are going to follow his lead.”

There was, however, “a happy moment in a difficult DNC meeting,” according to Deatrick. The committee that voted down her climate debate resolution later approved the formation of a DNC environment and climate crisis council, which Deatrick will chair.

Deatrick said the first step for this new committee will be a focus on “greening the DNC”: taking note of the carbon footprint of the committee itself and seeking ways to mitigate it through the use of carbon credits and other methods. “We need to win in 2020,” she said. “I’m not going to get in the way of that, but I think there are ways to do this where we promote this message and walk the talk.”

Through this committee, Deatrick wants to work closely with younger voters, such as those represented by the Sunrise Movement, whose activists were vocally present at the committee hearing on Thursday and visibly disappointed when the climate debate was voted down. Millennials represent the largest voting bloc in the country, and turnout among that group will be vital to Democrats’ hopes in 2020. Another purpose of the council, according to Deatrick, will be to develop national climate policy within the party.

The council will also provide a forum within the DNC for those members who believe the climate crisis to be a vital issue, hopefully allowing them to better inform and educate members who do not share their distress. Deatrick seeks these long-term structural changes as essential “so we are not sitting here in four years wondering if we should have a climate debate.”

It is to be hoped that Chairman Perez carves out some time to attend these new council meetings. Symone Sanders said it was “dangerous” to have a climate debate at this juncture. By orders of magnitude, it is more dangerous not to, and playing politics with this pressing crisis while the president of the United States wants to nuke hurricanes is folly compounded by folly. The new council is a positive step, but Perez and the DNC must do better before it is entirely too late.

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