Jan 15, 2020

Last debate before Iowa caucuses highlights Democrats' climate divide

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Climate change wasn't front and center in last night's Democratic primary debate, but the topic produced some noteworthy moments.

Why it matters: It was the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, and multiple polls have shown that climate is among voters' priorities there.

A brief but telling scuffle broke out when a climate question arrived near the end.Amy Klobuchar, asked why she doesn't support calls to ban fracking, said natural gas is a "transition fuel" on the path to carbon neutrality by midcentury.

The other side: Bernie Sanders shook his head as she spoke. His plan includes a fracking ban and is generally far more aggressive than Klobuchar's.

  • Klobuchar also touted carbon pricing, which has lost cachet on the left and isn't in Sanders' plan.

Quick take: It highlighted the divide between moderate and left Democrats over the role of natural gas in the energy mix.

  • A standing reminder that a fracking ban is DOA in Congress (though a Democratic president could restrict fracking federal lands), and getting to net-zero emissions by 2050, let alone sooner, would be immensely difficult.

The big picture: Several moments captured the way climate is now stitched into the fabric of Democrats' discussion of lots of topics — and why Sanders' approach excites young activists.

Take the moment when Sanders cited the absence of climate provisions to explain his opposition to the USMCA trade deal.

  • When his USMCA answer veered into a mini-speech on climate, The Des Moines Register's Brianne Pfannenstiel interjected, "We're going to get to climate change, but I'd like to stay on trade."
  • Sanders replied, "They are the same in this issue."

My thought bubble: That view of climate as the mother of all cross-cutting topics is a reason Sanders is so popular in the Green New Deal camp.

More climate highlights

1. Candidates knew their audience as they made the case that their plans would help Iowa farmers. For instance, after frontrunner Joe Biden said, "We're the only country in the world that's ever taken great crisis and turned it into great opportunity," he added:

  • "And one of the ways to do it is with farmers here in Iowa, by making them the first group in the world to get to net-zero emissions by paying them for planting and absorbing carbon in their fields."

2. The heat from Australia's fires has made its way into the U.S. contest. Sanders, Tom Steyer and Pete Buttigieg all cited the fires. "This is no longer theoretical and this is no longer off in the future," Buttigieg said of the effects of climate change.

3. Biden didn't emphasize climate as much as Sanders and Steyer. He stuck to his message of citing his past work (including green energy spending in the 2009 stimulus) and job opportunities from building out climate-related infrastructure.

  • But, but, but: Biden gaffed a bit when he touted "12 billion gallons of gasoline — barrels of gasoline to be saved immediately" by reinstating mileage rules implemented when he was VP.
  • He's presumably referring to 2012 estimates that standards imposed through 2025 would save 12 billion barrels of oil over the life of the covered vehicles.

Go deeper: 4 takeaways from the 7th Democratic debate

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Where top 2020 candidates stand on climate policy and the Green New Deal

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) at a rally May 13. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Green New Deal resolution, introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), has helped cement climate change as a real topic in the 2020 presidential race.

What's happening: More Democratic candidates have pitched climate change policy that goes beyond the Green New Deal, largely to prepare for events like CNN's "climate crisis" town hall. The GND — which is more of a call to arms than a strict policy proposal — outlines a 10-year mobilization plan to move the country toward a 100% carbon-free power system and a decarbonized economy.

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Debate night: Candidates' last chance before nation's first presidential contest

Warren, Biden, Sanders, Buttigieg on Jan. 14, 2020 in Des Moines, Iowa. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Six 2020 candidates offered their positions on issues including beating Trump, climate change, impeachment in the seventh Democratic debate Tuesday night.

Why it matters: The debate is the last before the Iowa caucus — the first real test of candidates' appeal to voters — on Feb. 3, as the top four Democrats stand statistically neck and neck with caucus-goers.

Go deeperArrowUpdated Jan 15, 2020

Sanders and Warren clash on North America trade deal

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren took opposite positions on President Trump's North American trade deal, with Warren saying she would vote for it whereas Sanders said he would not.

What they're saying: Sanders has consistently criticized the trade agreement, known as USMCA, because it does not address climate change on any level. Warren argues starting with this trade deal is a modest improvement worth exploring.

Go deeperArrowJan 15, 2020