Climate change — it’s real, it’s now and it’s us

The average temperature of Philadelphia's winter has risen 4.4 degrees since 1970. 

Last week, the top 20 Democratic candidates gathered in Miami to debate each other over two nights. While many people watched for many reasons – what will they say about immigration, health care, Iran, gun violence, Trump, the economy, women’s rights, China, etc. – I was watching for another very important reason.

To see what the candidates say –  if anything – about climate change.

And Miami was the perfect place to do this. For here is a major American city profoundly impacted by the changing climate. While the city drowns under most projections, the city is already troubled by “sunny day flooding,” roads flooded on rain-free days from rising seas.

Miami coincidentally suffered last week under an “unprecedented,” as one local meteorologist said, heat wave, setting records, and the Everglades were on fire too, 32,000 acres scorched in a fire widely attributed to climate change.

For me, a lot was at stake last week.

I can happily report that climate change came up more than I expected, as each night the candidates were offered a climate question – which beats 2016, when climate barely cracked the agenda. In fact, something like seven minutes were given to the question on Wednesday, and another eight on Thursday – but not all 20 candidates could weigh in on the issue.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, mired near the bottom of the 24-candidate pile-up, was given the climate question first, as he has staked his entire campaign on this issue, which is also a first.

“I want to look at my grandchildren,” he said toward the end of the evening, “and tell them I wanted to do everything possible to protect them from the ravages of climate change. I am the only candidate – and frankly I’m surprised by this – to make this my top priority.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris was thrown the climate question first on the second night, as moderator Rachel Maddow noted her state was reeling from heat waves, droughts and record wildfires. She pounced, “I don’t call it climate change, I call it climate crisis. It is an existential threat to the species,” and she then called out “a president who has embraced climate fiction over climate fact.” She noted that she supports the Green New Deal, a controversial plan – one of the few plans, actually, in Washington right now – which oddly was never mentioned the first night. She also offered she would re-enter our country in the Paris agreement, with which most all the candidates agreed.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a native of Narberth, by the way, poked at the Green New Deal by repeatedly emphasizing that if the Democratic Party is labeled socialist, a brush conservative commentators like George F. Will have used to dismiss the Green New Deal, it will not win the White House back. Still, he did note that climate change was among the first items he would attend to, and shared that his state had already passed the country’s toughest methane regulations, as methane is a potent greenhouse gas.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, in answering her first question on the economy, said that “oil companies drill everywhere while the rest of us are watching climate change bear down on us,” and said climate change was America’s “biggest threat.”

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke would “fund resiliency in communities on the front lines of climate change, mobilizing $5 trillion to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.” The other Texan, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, replied that “my first trip after announcing my candidacy was visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico,” which he said was a victim of climate change, and the first thing he would do on day one was “recommit to the Paris Accord.”

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg wants to engage rural America in climate solutions, offering that in his time as mayor he has called emergencies for “both a 1,000-year flood and a 500-year flood,” rare events that are increasingly commonplace. He also proposed “a carbon tax and dividend, rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion.” Former Maryland Congressman John Delany agrees with Mayor Pete here.

Former Vice President Joe Biden reminded everyone “that Obama brought 196 nations together to commit to climate change,” something never done before – and Biden would recreate that magic. In a dig at Biden, California Congressman Eric Swallwell repeatedly said it was time to “pass the torch” to a new generation (his, of course), and said, “this is the generation that will end climate chaos.”

In his closing statement, Buttigieg said, “decisions we make in the next three years will inform how we live in the next 30 or 40,” and included climate on the list of issues he was referring to. And Inslee offered that we are the “first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and the last to do something about it.”

For many greens, the issue was not debated enough last week, and 18 of the candidates have backed a proposed climate-only debate, something the party has not embraced. But me, I’ve waited 30 years for two nights of candidates sparring on this key issue, and seeing 20 candidates vie to be the greenest was a delight.

And I look forward to seeing how climate changes the campaign ahead. Which it will. As both the race and the climate heats up – which they will – climate will only rise in importance, candidate responses will increasingly matter, and the issue will finally be given its due.

I’m just hoping we are not already too late.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuylkillcenter.org.

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