Lack of climate change talk in Democratic debate surprises some voters

Climate change drew hardly any mention in the Tuesday night debate by a dozen Democratic Presidential candidates.And it left some observers surprised, including writer Ben Geman with Axios.

Here’s what he had to say about it:

The total absence of energy and climate questions in (the) Democratic debate didn’t prevent the topics from surfacing in noteworthy ways onstage and in the surrounding hubbub.

1. Some campaigns saw an opening. Bernie Sanders wove climate into several answers and attacked fossil fuel CEOs who “know full well that their product is destroying this world.”

  • His campaign tried to make sure people noticed. Policy director Josh Orton tweeted about Sanders’ “preemptively” raising it and argued, “Bernie is the climate candidate.”

And billionaire activist Tom Steyer was clearly going to say something about climate — a big focus of his work — in the low-polling hopeful’s first debate.

During a stretch about Russia, Steyer pivoted to call climate “the most important international problem that we’re facing.”

  • Steyer noted the U.S. can’t solve the crisis alone but will have to lead on several fronts. He said the U.S. needs to work with allies and “frenemies.” (Checkmate on the youth vote!)

Between the lines: I doubt this was spontaneous. Moments after his comments, Steyer’s campaign emailed around his international climate plan released last month.

  • Why it matters: There were scattered references from other candidates, too. Politically, the appeals signal the topic’s importance to the primary base.

2. Elizabeth Warren wants to break up big oil. That goal arrived in passing when she was asked about her goal of breaking up tech giants.

“We need to enforce our antitrust laws, break up these giant companies that are dominating, big tech, big pharma, big oil, all of them,” said Warren.

  • Why it matters: Warren is now the co-frontrunner with Joe Biden. It’s another sign of the aggressive posture Warren has staked out, alongside her call to ban fracking “everywhere” (which can’t happen without Congress).

3. People are mad. Lots of activists and some journalists (among others) bashed debate hosts CNN and The New York Times for asking nothing, given the extraordinary stakes.

And Washington Post media analyst Erik Wemple said via Twitter: “Tonight’s proceedings are sounding like a convincing argument that there really should be a dedicated climate-change debate.”

  • The intrigue: This reopens the wounds over the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of calls to sanction a climate-specific debate.
  • Quick take: The omission surprised me, because the NYT is institutionally committed to climate coverage. CNN held a 7-hour candidate town hall on climate on Sept. 4, so maybe that lowered the odds.
2. A little more on Warren and big oil
Warren’s campaign tells me that one of her existing policy proposals would create pressure on major oil-and-gas companies to splinter.

The intrigue: They pointed to her legislation that would require detailed disclosures from publicly traded companies about climate change.

Under her bill, filings with securities regulators would describe risks to the company from policies that would force steep emissions cuts consistent with holding global temperature rise to 1.5°C.

Why it matters: The campaign argues that this would lead to so-called stranded oil and natural gas reserves that would create big financial liabilities for energy companies.

The idea of stranded assets is controversial and beyond the scope of this blurb! And achieving emissions cuts consistent with 1.5°C is looking quite unlikely.

But those huge caveats aside, the campaign argues that this risk would push companies to break apart.

What they’re saying: “If oil companies are required to disclose this information to investors, there will be enormous investor pressure on these companies to break up so that the non-fossil fuel parts of these companies would not be taken down by likely losses in the fossil fuel parts,” Warren’s campaign said.