Special Report on the Climate Crisis in the 2020 Primary

Published October 15, 2019

We have less than 12 years to cut our carbon pollution in half. If comprehensive action at the scale and pace demanded by the science is not both a day one and an every day priority for the next president, it will be too late. The climate crisis is finally getting the attention it deserves on the 2020 Democratic presidential campaign trail—but given the scope and urgency of the crisis, we are calling on all candidates to go further in building and campaigning consistently on their climate plans, meeting with frontline communities and clean energy workers to talk about how we equitably transition to a 100% clean energy economy, and more.

Communities and individuals across the country are feeling the impacts of climate change firsthand, especially in early primary states. In Iowa, climate change has been driving unprecedented and devastating flooding throughout 2019. In New Hampshire, milder winters are impacting the state’s second largest industry: tourism. Nevada averages 20 dangerous, extreme heat days a year, and those numbers are on the rise. South Carolinians narrowly missed the worst of Hurricane Dorian and remain vulnerable to increased coastal flooding. 

From fires in the Amazon and storms in the Atlantic to melting ice sheets, flooding, and droughts, the climate crisis is intensifying the impacts of extreme weather events around the world.  And recent special reports from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underscore the importance of bold and urgent global action to protect our lands and oceans and everything these resources mean for people—they supply us with food, sustain our economies, regulate our weather and climate, and buffer our communities from extreme weather.

In response, people are organizing and demanding climate action like never before. Among them are LCV members in New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina who are calling on candidates to make climate a very top priority. To date, our members and staff have attended more than 80 candidate events and asked at least 50 climate questions directly to 18 current and former candidates. Our efforts are making local headlines: “Climate change leaps to national attention,” “Democratic Candidates And Nevada Voters Prioritize Climate Change,” and “Another reason Nevada deserves more attention than it gets: The climate crisis.” 

Change the Climate 2020 Candidate Interactions

LCV volunteers, members, state partners and staff joined tens of thousands of students protesting inaction on climate change at climate strikes ahead of the United Nations summit. And LCV is partnering with other organizations who are collaborating like never before. More than 100 organizations have signed onto the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, developed by a group of environmental justice and national environmental group advocates. Additionally, the BlueGreen Alliance of labor and environmental partners released a Solidarity for Climate Action platform. 

Voters are tuning in to the importance of climate change, rating it a top priority in polls. A June poll from LCV and CAP Action Fund found that addressing climate change and developing a clean energy economy is one of Democratic primary voters’ top issues: 71 percent rate it either very important or the single most important issue, and the majority of general election voters, 55 percent, say that climate change is a crisis or problem.  A CBS/YouGov poll in September found similar results—72 percent of Democrats called climate change very important,ranking it just below health care on a list of issues.

While the need to act on climate has never been more clear, the good news is that candidates are responding to urgent need and public desire for serious action. They are participating in historic climate town halls and forums, releasing ambitious and comprehensive climate plans, and making climate a priority in their campaigns. 

This report provides a snapshot of how candidates are prioritizing climate action by: 

  • Examining candidates’ climate proposals; 
  • Analyzing candidates’ prioritization of climate in speeches and social media;
  • Evaluating the role of climate change in official debates; and
  • Providing candidates and debate moderators guidelines for the future.

Candidates Take Climate Seriously with Comprehensive Plans

The leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination—including 11 of the 12 candidates participating in the October debate—have released comprehensive climate plans. Across the board, these candidates have committed to achieve 100 percent clean energy and net-zero climate pollution economy-wide no later than 2050, to meet clean energy targets dictated by science, to re-join and strengthen the Paris Climate Agreement, and more.

To varying degrees, these candidates have plans that pursue just, equitable economic transitions, which support good-paying new jobs in clean energy and prioritize frontline communities and communities of color, who bear greater burdens of pollution and climate impacts.

Governor Jay Inslee, prior to ending his presidential campaign, set the gold standard with 218 pages of comprehensive climate policies that made it clear an equitable and just solution to the climate crisis is his top priority, and candidates are incorporating elements from his plans. 

Among candidates’ many notable policy proposals, here are some unique approaches:

The historic nature of so many presidential candidates releasing robust and specific climate policies is encouraging. What’s more, candidates are strengthening their plans with additional climate proposals throughout the primary, particularly as they meet with and learn from people working in agriculture, clean energy, and other industries affected by climate change as well as frontline communities and people of color who are leading fights against polluters in their own backyards. 

Climate Analysis of Candidate Speeches and Social Media  

By The Numbers: Climate On the Stump 

In a busy presidential primary where a wide field of candidates is criss-crossing the nation, hosting their own rallies and bus tours, and dropping in on diners, it can be difficult to objectively measure how much attention the candidates are giving to the climate crisis on the campaign trail. That said, we analyzed what candidates choose to talk about when given the same audience and stage time, while acknowledging that this is a small and not completely representative sample. 

For this analysis, we reviewed the stump speeches of the 12 candidates who qualified for the October debate from three major events where all candidates were given equal stage time. These major events included the Iowa Democratic Party Hall of Fame event in Cedar Rapids on June 9, 2019, the South Carolina Democratic Party convention in Columbia on June 22, 2019, and the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention on September 7, 2019. 

After analyzing 31 candidate stump speeches, trends emerged. Almost three quarters of the stump speeches (23 out of 31) included some mention of climate change, but many of those mentions came only briefly. Moreover, only 13 out of 31 speeches discussed specific climate solutions.

Here is a look at which of the 12 candidates in the October debate mentioned the climate crisis and solutions to it at each early state event:

While it is significant that a majority of candidates are discussing climate in their speeches, the gravity of the crisis requires that that they do more. We need assurance that real solutions will be prioritized in their administrations. This means regularly campaigning on their climate plans, including discussing specific climate solutions in their stump speeches. 

By The Numbers: Climate On Social Media  

Since Twitter has become a primary way in which candidates communicate with voters and the public, we also analyzed the number of times each of the 12 candidates who qualified for the October debate tweeted about climate issues from the date they formally entered the presidential race through October 10. Our analysis was based on 25 distinct search terms:

Based on our review, Sanders and Warren have tweeted about climate issues more than any of the other candidates, though it is important to note that Steyer has tweeted about the issue a lot in the short time he has been in the race. It is also worth acknowledging that these counts pale in comparison to Inslee’s hundreds of climate tweets when he was in the race.

Of course, the candidates’ social media climate content is not limited to Twitter. Most candidates are cross-posting content—including videos featuring their remarks on climate change and the devastating impacts affecting communities across the country—on other social media channels, especially Facebook and Instagram. For a day-to-day look at how climate is playing on social media in the primary, scroll through the newsfeed at ChangetheClimate2020.com

Debate Climate Coverage Does Not Match the Severity of the Crisis

So far, voters have not been able to count on the moderators of the presidential primary debates to adequately highlight the importance of climate change. The first three presidential debates ran, in total, over eleven hours and 45 minutes across five nights of television, yet moderators devoted only about 45 minutes to climate change. Moreover, too much of that time was spent on questions that did not get at the crux of the problem or the myriad solutions we need to prioritize. 

On average, moderators gave five other issue areas more time and attention than climate change. Though these other issues are all important, debate moderators’ treatment of climate change has been out of step with the priorities of audiences viewing these debates. Polls have repeatedly shown climate change to be one of the top two issues among Democratic primary voters. 

CNN even published a poll of their viewers, and it clearly showed that climate change was the top issue viewers wanted to hear about during their debate in Detroit, yet it was the fifth most discussed topic at that debate.

Out of the 12 candidates who have qualified for the fourth debate in October, five of them have yet to be asked a direct question relating to climate change, including Steyer who will appear in his first debate, and Sanders, who was given four opportunities to participate in follow-up discussion in previous debates but was never asked a direct question. Gabbard, Klobuchar, and Yang have also participated to some extent in follow-up discussions, but none of them have received a direct question on climate change in any previous debates.

Even in the narrowed field of 10 candidates in the third debate, only three candidates were asked direct questions about climate change and three additional candidates had opportunities to participate in follow-up discussion. The moderators left Biden, Buttigieg, Castro, and Sanders  out of the discussion.

Several candidates have managed to use other parts of the debates to proactively raise the seriousness and severity of the challenge ahead. In the first night of the first debate when the candidates were asked to name the biggest geopolitical threat to the United States, four candidates mentioned climate change: O’Rourke, Warren, Booker, and Castro. On the second night, two candidates, Bennet and Hickenlooper, named climate as their top priority while three additional candidates—Biden, Buttigieg, and Yang—mentioned it among other top priorities. Across both nights of the first debate, a number of candidates referred to climate or environmental issues without waiting on the moderators to specifically ask them a climate question, including Gabbard, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Sanders, Swalwell, Ryan and Warren. In the second debate, candidates who proactively mentioned climate change included Buttigieg, Hickenlooper, Inslee, O’Rourke, Sanders and Williamson. In the third debate, nine of the 10 participating candidates, Yang being the exception, raised these issues on their own. Five candidates—Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Sanders and Warren—also mentioned climate change during discussions on trade, international relations, and other issue areas.

Many candidates are taking advantage of other opportunities to discuss their plans to address the climate crisis, such as participating in major, climate-focused town halls and forums. However, the climate crisis must be a top priority issue at every debate. Moderators must devote a significant amount of time that correspondents to the scale and urgency of this crisis, and they must directly ask all candidates substantive questions about their climate proposals. 

A Path Forward for Climate

With more than a year to go before Election Day 2020, we are encouraged that so many presidential candidates have already released comprehensive climate plans and are discussing  this critical issue at campaign events and on social media. However, given that the scale of the crisis has never been more obvious and the need for major action has never been more urgent, more is required. 

LCV is calling on all presidential candidates to further build on their commitment to tackle the climate crisis by: 

  • Discussing specific solutions from their climate proposals at length in campaign speeches and events; 
  • Expanding and elaborating upon their plans to prioritize the climate crisis beginning on day one as president, in the first 100 days, and every single day; 
  • Visiting clean energy projects and meeting with workers in the clean energy economy during this campaign to better inform their policies and decision-making; and 
  • Meeting with frontline communities and communities of color who are most affected by pollution and extreme weather events and defining roles for leaders of these communities to play in their campaigns and their administrations to achieve climate action and justice.

LCV is also calling on all debate moderators to treat the climate crisis with the attention and urgency it deserves and ensure that thoughtful climate questions are asked of all candidates in the first hour of future debates. Moderators must press candidates for specific policy solutions and specific examples of how they are incorporating people who work in the clean energy economy and frontline communities most affected by pollution into the decision-making process in their campaigns and future administration. The climate crisis is already having devastating impacts across the country, and poll after poll shows that it is consistently one of the top two issues on the minds of Democratic primary voters. It’s clear that debate moderators owe voters a more robust and serious discussion. 

Stay tuned for more information and analysis from LCV’s Change the Climate 2020 campaign in the weeks and months to come at ChangetheClimate2020.com.