Later this month, 20 candidates will take the stage in the first round of debates in the Democratic primary to help determine who will face Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election. With climate change a top issue for Democratic voters, candidates are eager to show that they have the ability to not only defeat Trump but also take on the climate crisis.
I recently spoke with David Turnbull, Strategic Communications Director at Oil Change U.S. He is working on campaigns to get fossil fuel money out of politics, keep fossil fuels in the ground and build political support for real climate leaders. Prior to his work with Oil Change, David was Executive Director of Climate Action Network – International, the world’s largest network of organizations driving action to stem the climate crisis.
David offered his perspective on the role of the climate crisis in this year’s presidential election. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
A mobilized electorate
Sam Goodman: Climate change appears to be taking on a more prominent role in Democratic debates than in previous years. Candidates such as Washington Governor Jay Inslee, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke have published ambitious climate agendas. From your perspective, what is propelling this momentum?
David Turnbull: I think there are a number of factors. The first is simply outside of everyone’s backyard. The number of climate impacts and climate disasters really that have been impacting communities across the United States, even in the past six months or a year, have been really dramatic, from fires in California to record breaking droughts in the Midwest to hurricanes hitting the Gulf Coast.
The second piece is that the electorate is changing. As young people become voters, these are individuals who have become concerned about the climate crisis for maybe even their entire life. As that voting electorate becomes more fluent in the issue of the climate crisis, the more we see it taking a center stage in the issues that they care about.
The Democratic voters are saying this is an important issue to us, and this is something that we are going to be basing our voting on. All of that leads to candidates making it an issue that they want to lead on. They want to be seen as the leading candidate with the strongest position on this. That’s a conversation that I’m thrilled to be seeing and I think it is paying dividends and really pushing the ambition up a lot in the debate.
SG: How have New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Sunrise Movement and the Green New Deal shaped the landscape of the Democratic Primary Debate this year?
DT: It became very clear with the energy around the Green New Deal and the ambition that is embedded in it that the standard talking points around climate change are not going to suffice for presidential candidates. The standard, “I believe in climate change and think it’s important” is no longer enough. We need to see detailed plans. We need to see ambitious plans aligned with climate science. We need to see a willingness to take on the fossil fuel industry that is driving the crisis and address the issue of fossil fuel extraction in the United States directly. We need to see candidates who are willing to talk about it as the most critical issue for our nation to address.
I think the efforts of the Sunrise Movement and Representative Ocasio-Cortez really helped put climate change on the map at the end of the year and into what has now become a heated primary season for the presidential election. It was this great launching point showing the power of the movement and the energy of young people, and setting a level of ambition for the terms of the debate around climate change.
SG: One of the most encouraging signs that the Democrats are serious about climate change is that 18 major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, with candidates agreeing not to take contributions from the oil, gas and coal industry. Why do you think the people and organizations behind this pledge have been so successful in getting these candidates on board?
DT: I think that the success of it is really a symptom of this willingness to recognize the climate crisis as the true crisis that it really is. This understanding that the fossil fuel industry is driving something that is impacting people across the country and, furthermore, has been spending millions of dollars for decades to try to block our country from taking action to address it.
We need candidates who are willing to take on the industry and take the climate crisis seriously by not being willing to compromise with the fossil fuel industry that is driving it.
Fossil fuel money is as toxic as tobacco money became years ago. It’s money that they don’t need as well to win their elections. With the advent of real serious grassroots-funded campaigns with small dollar donations and individuals really contributing, candidates in the Democratic party, in particular, simply don’t need the toxic money of the fossil fuel industry. And so we’re thrilled that basically all of the major candidates of the Democratic Party have sworn it off and are proud of that fact.
SG: Democratic National Party Chair Tom Perez recently rejected Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s request to hold a climate-focused debate. What kind of an impact could a climate-focused debate have on the Democratic primary?
DT: I think a climate debate is critical and that Perez has made a serious misstep in rejecting the demands to host a climate debate. I’m hopeful that he will walk that back and find a way to actually listen to the 15 Democratic candidates and the hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters who are calling for it.
I think a climate debate is critical because of the fact that there are so many plans out there amongst the candidates and there are different approaches to how these candidates are going to address the climate crisis if they are elected President. Voters really understand those differences. You can’t get to those differences in approach and detail in 30-second sound bites from one question of a given debate. You really need to dive into the details.
Furthermore, it is a winning issue. As we’ve seen, voters care about this. They want to see the candidate who is going to have the strongest proposals to have the best success in addressing the climate crisis. Not only is it helpful and informative in helping to understand and inform voters on how they should make decisions about who they vote for, it is also going to benefit the Democratic Party. It is going to put on stark display the disparities between the plans and ambition that is being laid out there by Democratic candidates and the climate denial of the Trump administration that is in bed with the fossil fuel industry.
‘The gold standard’
SG: New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently called Jay Inslee’s climate plan “the gold standard.” Do you agree with Ocasio-Cortez’s assessment?
DT: Inslee’s agenda has been incredible. It is a master’s thesis or a Ph.D. thesis in climate policy and it is indicative of the fact that he has been working on climate change and has surrounded himself with staff working on climate change for decades in some cases.
The fact that he is out there talking about climate change and the way he is talking about how it is the number one priority for him and how it must be for our country is really critical. The detail that he put into his plans, we are talking about 50-plus pages on international climate efforts alone, and then you add on that domestic efforts, which is another many dozen pages. It is really a treatise of what we need to see.
The other exciting thing about it is that I think he is really raising the bar and challenging other candidates to show that they are serious as well. We are talking about Inslee putting out plans and other candidates trying to meet them and trying to show they are as serious as he is.
We are seeing from other candidates too. Elizabeth Warren has put out several plans that address the climate crisis from different angles. I think her plan on how to address fossil fuel extraction on public lands is a brilliant way of showing what a Green New Deal policy can look like. It includes issues around fossil fuel extraction. It includes jobs. It includes social issues around access to national parks. It includes indigenous protections. It includes renewable energy. It covers the whole gamut, and I think that it’s a really great example of what we need to see out of climate policy moving forward that is truly intersectional, really addressing it from all sorts of sides.
Biden and Beto surprise
SG: Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke have mixed track records when it comes to the environment. However, both have embraced the Green New Deal in their climate agendas. Their plans have received mixed to positive reviews from environmental groups Do you believe these agendas are indeed robust?
DT: On Beto’s climate plan, we were pleasantly surprised. There are some details in there that we want to learn more about and see some more ambition on, but it’s seriously robust and there is a lot to like in it.
His voting history, I think he still has some questions to answer about that. In particular, his votes, which are multiple, when he was a member of Congress to lift the crude oil export ban, are ones that I think he really needs to grapple with. Lifting the crude oil export ban led to a massive increase in oil and gas production in the United States that was spurred by this new ability to export crude oil and not just refined oil.
For Joe Biden, it has really been fascinating to see the way he has approached his campaign. I think the energy and excitement from younger voters and from a new generation is really in contrast to the way that he is approaching his campaign. That said, it is great to see Joe Biden talking about climate change and putting out a plan that was extensive. There are issues in it like relying on things like carbon capture and sequestration and other technological fixes that we need to be careful about and really distract from the real serious action that we need to take to get off of fossil fuels.
We can’t forget that the oil and gas production in the United States grew tremendously under Obama and Biden’s administration. To go back to policies in that sort of genre is just simply not enough and will lead us down the wrong path.
It is good to see Vice President Biden laying out a robust policy proposal, but we need to see greater ambition from it and a greater willingness to listen to the ideas that are out there from the Green New Deal and from other initiatives, and really take on board a more aggressive stance toward the fossil fuel industry and toward taking serious action.
A lack of ambition among Republicans
SG Republican candidate William Weld has at least been outspoken about climate change, including saying that we should rejoin the Paris Agreement. Apart from Weld’s statements, what movement have you seen on the Republican Party, if any, to increase ambition?
DT: I think I have seen movement on rhetoric around climate change, but absolutely not in terms of ambition. Just as the Democrats are seeing the American public having woken up to the climate crisis and really demanding action, Republicans are seeing that and trying to change their strategy on avoiding action.
Rather than outright denial of the climate science, we are starting to see efforts to basically try to find corporate-friendly, fossil fuel-friendly “solutions” to forestall real action on climate change but appease the voters essentially. They are working with the fossil fuel industry to provide them with outlets to avoid liability for climate damages, while putting in place a meager carbon price or other sort of mechanisms that won’t actually create the change that is needed in our economy and in our global emissions to really address the climate crisis.
Those sorts of proposals are starting to be floated by Republicans in ways that I view as entirely cynical. It is a way to try to avoid being labeled as a climate denier while still catering to the fossil fuel industry and having no impact on addressing our climate crisis.
SG In Australia, we recently saw a candidate win in part due to a fearmongering campaign about his opponent’s robust environmental agenda. How can we avoid making the same mistakes in the U.S. in 2020? Are you concerned that an overly ambitious environmental plan could have a backlash in the U.S., particularly in oil-and-gas producing states?
DT: It’s an important question. I don’t think that we need to temper our ambition in order to win politically. I think that voters and the American public are looking for realistic plans that will actually achieve the goals that we need to address the climate crisis. Dialing back our ambition will just simply lead to failure, let alone political failure.
We need to be realistic and serious about the level of ambition that is necessary to address the climate crisis effectively. But that said, we also need to be clear that part of that ambition must include social protections and work toward a just transition to protect communities, workers and others that are impacted by this transition away from fossil fuels. That has to be a critical part of our climate action and not an add-on or an afterthought. That’s the most critical way to really make sure that people who are in the fossil fuel industry and understand that the climate crisis is real feel that they can be a part of the solution and are not going to be left behind.
A new foreign policy?
SG: Inslee recently revealed a plan to build U.S. foreign policy around the climate crisis. How do you think such a plan could impact U.S. strategy in future U.N. climate negotiations?
DT: For years, the U.S. has had a mixed reputation in Republican and Democratic administrations in the U.N. climate talks. We have held back ambition because of the “unique circumstances” of the United States, and we have pushed for action from other countries while we were lagging behind on our own action.
The idea that is being put forth through Inslee’s international plan really rests on the foundation of the United States taking serious leadership at home first. I think that is critical. But then thinking about foreign policy from the lens of climate change and the climate crisis is really critical. I think that plan would bring us back into a real leadership standing in the international arena because we could rest on a serious understanding of what the climate crisis entails. It would be pushing for greater ambition rather than scaling it back.