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How The Issue Of Climate Change Is Shaping The Democratic Primaries


Climate change is an issue that Democratic voters routinely say that they will vote on next year. Many polls show that it's second only to health care. But today the Democratic National Committee voted down a proposal to allow a presidential debate focused solely on climate change. And last night Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who has based his entire presidential campaign on climate change, dropped out of the race. NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow is here with us in the studio to explain all of this.

Hey, Scott.


CHANG: So Jay Inslee, he basically ran as the climate change candidate, right? He said he would focus on that more than anything else. And now he's dropping out of the race - what is it? - five months before the Iowa caucuses. Does it seem like that maybe climate is not going to be the defining campaign issue for Democrats after all?

DETROW: I think it's actually the opposite. And Jay Inslee ran as the climate candidate, but it turns out there are several climate candidates. So if you are a voter who's looking for someone who wants to overhaul the entire economy over the coming decades, to transition to renewable energy, massively cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, you have your pick - Beto O'Rourke has a plan to do that, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden to a more moderate degree, others. Many have put forward plans that would go far further than what the Obama administration tried to do on this.

Inslee did have the most detailed plan. He did talk about this the most. But that really didn't allow him to end up to stand out on the front. And you're right; most polls show that climate change is one of Democratic voters' top issues. This is something that this year Democrats are regularly talking about, voters are asking about, it's a topic in debates. In the past, that hasn't been the case. This has often been an issue that ends up getting ignored during elections.

CHANG: You mentioned Bernie Sanders. He just rolled out a big climate plan. How does his proposal compare to the other plans we've seen?

DETROW: I think it's fair to say this is the most aggressive plan yet.


DETROW: Most candidates have a plan to get the country to a carbon neutral state by midcentury. Even if greenhouse gas emissions are happening, they're offset elsewhere. Bernie Sanders' plan - very aggressive. It is a $16 trillion plan to begin with.


DETROW: He wants, on paper at least, all electricity generation and transportation to be completely carbon free by 2030. So think about that. Not only are we replacing all...

CHANG: That's very ambitious.

DETROW: It is, certainly. And it is beyond current technology, for sure. We're talking about replacing all natural gas and coal power plants with renewable energy, but also airplanes, cars - everything else we use to travel on that emits carbon dioxide being totally overhauled.

CHANG: Yeah.

DETROW: So that would fundamentally restructure society and be expensive. But Sanders and a lot of experts say that is the type of change that is needed to avert the worst-case scenario at this point.

CHANG: OK, so I don't get it. With all of this focus on climate change, we just mentioned that the Democratic National Committee decided they didn't want to hold a debate focused entirely on climate change. That's something Jay Inslee had called for repeatedly, before he dropped out. Why did the DNC vote down this proposal?

DETROW: The DNC chairman, Tom Perez, has said that, yes, climate change is very important, one of the most important issues, needs to be debated, but he does not want to do a single issue debate because he argues that opens the door to issue after issue, and then he thinks candidates shouldn't spend all their time doing presidential debates. And I'll just say, I've gotten emails in the last few days, press releases, urging a debate on challenges older Americans are facing, on campaign finance reform. So the...

CHANG: The whole smorgasbord, yeah (laughter).

DETROW: They're certainly coming in, and he doesn't want to open the door...

CHANG: Right.

DETROW: ...Even on something that most Democrats would say, yeah, really is a top-tier issue.

CHANG: OK, so there are 22 Democratic candidates left. When all of this gets whittled down, do we expect the eventual Democratic nominee to make climate change a huge part of his or her general election message?

DETROW: I think so, and again, that would be a huge shift from recent elections. For years, the thinking was people vote on more pressing issues. A lot of Democrats think that, increasingly, climate change is a pressing issue. Last month, the hottest month in the history of recorded months...

CHANG: Yeah.

DETROW: ...You see wildfires, all sorts of extreme weather. Democrats feel like this will be a voting issue this year, and they're going to talk about it and say, we want to do something. Most Republicans simply ignore this issue.

CHANG: NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow.

Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Sure thing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
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