On the eve of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, thousands marched in Philadelphia for action to prevent climate catastrophe.
Since the 2012 election cycle, California DNC member Christine Pelosi has called for a climate debate. In every subsequent cycle, she has called for a climate debate.
But now, calls for a climate debate are widespread. And DNC members are voting on all resolutions—including those on climate—on August 22, the first day of the DNC summer meeting. DNC Chair Tom Perez entered his own resolution on climate, which was met with vitriol from climate activists. Activists who already distrust the DNC view the language in the Perez resolution as yet another excuse to avoid an official debate.
RL Miller, founder of the environmental group Climate Hawks Vote and chair of the California Democratic Environmental Caucus, says that the calls for a climate debate started with activism—not with Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. Nonetheless, the governor’s sustained calls for a climate debate have been a boon to the movement.
“It’s a grassroots movement,” Miller says. “Almost all of our [presidential] candidates have said that they want a climate debate.”
Miller explained that aside from the existential crisis that climate change presents, the need for a debate is practical. “No one watches [town halls or forums] because they’re like watching paint dry,” Miller says. Forums and town halls also limit the number of candidates, and have higher qualification minimums than debates.
When CNN announced it would host a climate town hall—not a debate—Inslee did not even make the cut based on his polling and won’t appear on stage for the town hall, making a climate debate even more urgent to activists. Just ten candidates qualified for the CNN town hall, and until Tuesday morning, California Senator Kamala Harris had been planning to miss the event for a fundraiser.
“Climate has to be in the conversation continuously,” says Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. “We have this little tiny blue-green spaceship called Earth and we’re destroying it. And therefore, it is an existential issue that has to be debated with intensity. And if anyone doesn’t have a plan to move us far more rapidly and help lead the world in moving rapidly off carbon as fossil fuel energy, then they shouldn’t be in the race.”
Climate change is one of “the elements that unite us as Democrats, that galvanizes the base, and that distinguishes us from Republicans and independents,” Pelosi says.
Miller says activists started to push for the climate debate in April, beginning with a petition with CREDO’s name on it. By the time the petition was delivered in mid-June, it had over 220,000 signatures. Miller says there was some discussion of having Inslee deliver the petition to the DNC, but that they decided against it to avoid affiliating the petition with just one candidate. Some of the groups involved in addition to CREDO include 350.org, the Sunrise Movement, Daily Kos, and Climate Hawks Vote.
The DNC resolutions committee met in June as the movement gained momentum. Protesters went to the DNC headquarters in June, demanding the party hold a climate debate even as Perez threatened that any candidate who participates in such a debate would not be invited to other debates. These protests and other climate debate activism essentially forced the DNC’s hand on a climate debate, and a larger climate discussion. There are currently six resolutions on climate. Not all are about a debate. One resolution urges the DNC to create an Environmental and Climate Crisis Council.
Two resolutions call for a climate debate, with one calling for a climate debate specifically in the Pacific Northwest. But most contentious among the resolutions on climate are two resolutions, one of which was submitted by more than 70 DNC members. The other was submitted by DNC chair Tom Perez—and subsequently pilloried by climate activists in the press. Activists say that it draws attention away from a climate debate while maintaining in a “therefore” clause that Democrats will address climate change “through bold and inclusive solutions.”
Others say that the Perez resolution is operating as a “bait and switch.” After activists’ protests forced the DNC to put a climate debate to a vote, at the last minute, Perez entered this resolution. Mother Jones’s Rebecca Leber reported that the Perez resolution “would kill chances of a formal, DNC-sponsored debate devoted to climate change.” HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman wrote that the resolution would “torpedo” chances of a debate. Miller says that she saw the Perez resolution and “went into rage mode.”
On the other hand, Pelosi is more generous toward Perez. “Tom [Perez] wants to be neutral.” she says. “He should not put this thumb on the scale, but he should also be open to the people that elected him.” Pelosi thinks that despite the presence of the Perez resolution, they will still debate the merits of a climate debate. “All this did was institutionalize the two in a couple of votes,” she says. “Now the body decides what to do.”
“I feel like the best way out at this point is through having a handful of stand-alone debates,” Pelosi says. Ideally, she told me that the party would take the platform and divide it up into six “chapters” where candidates could debate aspects of each of the “chapters” and “duke out the details” so that when a candidate is nominated voters know that candidate’s stand on the platform.
Miller says that because the Perez resolution had many “whereas” statements but a “therefore” clause that did not call for a debate, it could be a cop-out for Democrats who didn’t want to support the climate debate to still show support for making climate a central issue to the platform.
Miller’s own experience, she says, gave her insight into just how bad the Perez resolution could be for the vote. “I know how to write a resolution. The resolutions I write always pass the state party. The whereas [clauses] don’t matter and the therefore [clause] does.” Thus, she explained, Perez’s “resolution wasn’t calling for action on the climate debate at all, it was just reciting as an established fact that we’d already had enough debate.”
The packet of resolutions was released August 8.
In anticipation of the vote Thursday, activists are planning several initiatives. A template resolution that Miller drafted supporting a climate debate has been passed by the Democratic members in Maryland, Massachusetts, and Utah, as well as endorsed in 20 different counties in California and county Democratic parties in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, and Virginia. The Young Democrats of America have also passed her template resolution.
A major arm of the campaign to persuade DNC members to vote yes on a resolution for a climate debate has been led by CREDO and 350.org, among other climate groups. Through an alert to their members, and an online campaign, the organizations are asking their members to call the members of their local DNC groups to sign on to the resolution in favor of a climate debate.
CREDO Action campaign manager Jelani Drew-Davi says that the coalition has received good feedback from their call operation. “The DNC has been hearing about these calls, it’s creating conversation at the DNC,” Drew-Davi says. “I think we really are putting the pressure on members to say that they want a climate debate.”
Although Miller was able to garner strong DNC member support for the resolution, two California members refused. Bob Mulholland, a longtime California political operative and one of the members who has not signed on, told me he had a couple of reasons, including that he thought gun control was a more pressing concern. But he also said—with no proof—that he thinks the Russians have been coordinating a campaign to push the climate debate controversy in order to divide Democrats and distract them from the bread-and-butter issues that Mulholland says appeal to much of the vote.
Supposedly, the Russians are pushing for this debate on social media, and they are behind an effort to call DNC members who have not yet signed on to the resolution, Mulholland told me. Why Russians would sow discord through demanding attention to save the planet, something every major presidential candidate has agreed on, is unclear.
This is not the first time Mulholland has offhandedly blamed the Russians for changes in DNC policy. Last year he suggested, also without proof, that activists promoting reform of the superdelegate process were part of a Russian plot. Ultimately those changes were made, restricting superdelegates from having a vote on the presidential nomination on the first ballot. No word on whether Vladimir Putin squealed with glee upon that news.
I confirmed that the climate organizations 350.org, CREDO, and Sunrise Movement have created a tool that allows activists to call DNC members who oppose a climate debate. According to CREDO’s Drew-Davi, they have documented a little over 3,000 calls.
But Mulholland thinks the campaign is ill advised. “There’s not an organization in America that would tell hundreds of people to call a member,” he said. “Only a moron would be urging thousands of people to call us. That’s why I think it’s the Russians behind it.”
After I spoke with Drew-Davi, I asked Mulholland what he thought about the organizing tool designed to help activists call members. In an email response, he wrote, “If CREDO and 350.org thought it was a good organizing tool to urge thousands of people to call DNC members to harass them around the clock, like even at 12:20AM, the idiots behind it should be fired.” He added, “The trouble with some of these organizations is for the most part, they are ‘Keyboard’ activists, never really meeting an everday [sic] voter but they raise money on Causes, to pad their salaries.” The only situation where a call campaign would be effective, Mulholland says, was if you call the office of a member of Congress who can then add up the calls by the end of the week in support or against a certain issue.
Since then, he has also sent more than half a dozen emails updating me on the number of calls he has received. Over the last two weeks, he says, he’s received more than 200 calls. In subsequent emails, he wrote, “The Russians have to be pushing these calls. Some of them leave messages—what are they thinking—someone would actually listen to over 200 messages.” He also called them “threatening political calls.”
Despite resistance from DNC members like Mulholland, organizers are hopeful.
If the vote is yes, Drew-Davi says, it’s a celebration, but if the vote is no, “it’s still about trying to think about the ways to get the public the information they need about where the candidates stand on climate.”
Pelosi remains optimistic about the upcoming meeting. “Give it some time, and give people an opportunity to find face-saving ways to be responsive and compromise on the procedural stuff and really get to the heart of the matter, which is that there are a lot of people who are very concerned about climate,” she says.
On Thursday, Miller says that activists have plans to protest at the DNC summer meeting in San Francisco. “We’re going to show up in San Francisco to make some noise,” Miller says. “If security is tight, they’re actually going to make us register as outsiders, and two DNC insiders told me that that’s the first time they’ve required people to register for the meeting.”
The votes are scheduled to take place first thing—from 8 to 10 that morning.
Miller is adamant that a debate is the right forum to get climate information to voters: “Don’t lie to people. Don’t try to chase the middle when science says you need to do the opposite.”
David Dayen contributed reporting.