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What Climate Advocates Want From The First Democratic Primary Debate

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As the Democratic presidential candidates prepare to meet on the debate stage Tuesday evening, climate advocates are hoping they’ll be asked for more than just a cursory response about how they would deal with climate change.


Unlike during the Republican debates, when it’s heralded as progress if candidates even acknowledge climate change exists, there’s hope for a substantive discussion about the issue if moderators at the first Democratic primary debate are willing to go there.


Democratic candidates should take on addressing climate change and growing the green economy as “the ultimate growth strategy for our economy,” said Tom Steyer, the billionaire investor who has launched a multimillion-dollar initiative in the past few years though his NextGen Climate group to force candidates to talk about climate change. 


“Seizing on this strategy is the ultimate opportunity for the Democratic Party, especially this year,” Steyer said Tuesday during a call with reporters. “All of major Democratic candidates have recognized the threat. Voters will be tuning in to hear not just about the threat, but how the candidates intend to solve it.”


Climate change, said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), “cannot be a footnote” for candidates, either. Democrats should include it as part of their central economic plan, he said. Inslee added that candidates can’t just talk about things they would oppose as president, like the Keystone XL pipeline or drilling in the Arctic.


“We have to focus on the positive things we’re going to do,” he said.


The Sierra Club is also looking for candidates to offer specific answers on how they’d deal with things like the Obama administration’s power plant regulations, international climate negotiations and fossil fuel development on public lands.


The League of Conservation Voters encouraged its supporters to vote for a climate question on the Facebook page of debate-hosting network CNN. This question, from Rudy Zamora, got the most votes: “Given the large number of climate change deniers in Congress, how do you plan on enacting your agenda to fight climate change?”


Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley came out early in the campaign with aggressive climate goals, calling for a phase-out of fossil fuel use by 2050 and an expansion of the Obama administration’s power plant regulations to other polluting facilities. Both he and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, another strong advocate for renewable energy, have also opposed the Arctic drilling and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.


While Clinton has been slower on the draw, she also came out against Arctic drilling in August and against Keystone in September, after long avoiding questions about her position.


Then there are the two lesser-known Democratic contenders taking the stage Tuesday night: former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and former Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee. Chafee has described climate change as “a slow motion disaster in the making,” and opposes Keystone.


Environmental advocates are less enthusiastic about Webb, who spent much of his time in the Senate advocating for nuclear power and continued use of fossil fuels.


One thing is clear: Climate watchers are going to want to hear specifics from the Democrats.


“We’re looking not for well-meaning intentions and concern at this point, we’re actually looking for specific plans about how we’re going to get there and how it’s integrated into an entire program,” Steyer said. 

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