The head of the Democratic National Committee’s new climate change council was in New Hampshire just ahead of the primary, quietly kicking off efforts to reshape the party’s environmental platform in 2020.
Party leaders voted unanimously to form this council last summer, after taking widespread criticism for declining to hold a climate-focused presidential debate.
It’s a sign of progress for the council’s elected chair, Michelle Deatrick of Michigan. She worked for Bernie Sanders in 2016 and later campaigned for Hillary Clinton.
“We should have had a climate debate,” Deatrick says. “I actually advocated for having several issue-based debates… [we] could have really had the candidates dive into them, and the voters would have benefited as a result.”
Instead, she says the debates so far have hardly touched on climate and “completely ignored” other environmental issues, like drinking water contamination. She says she hopes moderators of future debates – especially local journalists in affected areas – will work to change that.
(Click here to read our coverage of the final days of the 2020 New Hampshire primary.)
Deatrick sat down with New England environmental advocates in Manchester Friday, and scheduled a public listening session for Saturday. No one attended – it wasn’t publicized, because, Deatrick says, it was meant to be a pilot effort.
But she says this is just the start of her council’s efforts to get public feedback from across the country on how Democrats can hone and act on their climate change priorities this year.
The council wants to understand “how the global climate crisis is impacting local communities, and, in turn, what federal policies are going to best address those,” she says.
Their goals are threefold: to better involve climate activists and affected communities in the electoral process, to help more state parties set up climate caucuses, and to write a new national climate platform – a set of goals for ratification at this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
“In 2008, the Democratic Party platform had just over half a page on climate and environment. In 2016, we had about four and a half pages,” Deatrick says. “We are going to be looking at the full range of policy possibilities for environmental and climate issues [this year], and we would like them to be fairly detailed and very bold and ambitious.”
That could mean a platform that reflects a mix of the current Democratic presidential candidates’ climate ideas – including Bernie Sanders’ $16-trillion-dollar version of the Green New Deal.
Deatrick is campaigning for Sanders again this cycle, but says any Democrat who’s elected in 2020 would be an improvement over the Trump administration on climate and other issues.
(Click below to see the current Democratic presidential candidates' climate plans, or read our analysis.)
“Our goal is to push and advocate for a platform and set of policies that are science-based,” Deatrick says. "And the science tells us that we cannot be incrementalist about this, that we have to act now.”
She says the platform must include aid for fossil fuel workers and “frontline communities” – especially those of color or lower income who are most harmed by pollution and climate change.
Christopher Round is a Sunrise Movement member, originally from New Hampshire and now based in Washington, D.C. He sat in on Deatrick’s events in Manchester last weekend, and says his group hopes the DNC’s new climate platform will reflect the broad aims of the Green New Deal.
“Climate is not just an environmental issue,” he says. “It is a health issue, it is a labor issue, it is an issue up and down the ballot in terms of priorities.”
Sunrise has endorsed Sanders, but Round says any candidate who frames vows to focus on climate change in this way could draw support from activists in the general election.
“A lot of the key organizers that are out there, are going to be out there for the general election, are coming from the environmental movement,” Round says. “We're ready to go out and help whoever wins the primary, win the general. But in return, we want to see this prioritized.”
Deatrick says it could be “extremely effective” for Democratic candidates and their eventual nominee to take ownership of the climate issue – especially compared to their opponents.
“Republicans are extremely cozy, way too cozy with the fossil fuel industry, I believe, and with corporate interests, to do anything meaningful on this issue,” Deatrick says.
She says her council will consider a ban on fossil fuel-backed campaign contributions as part of their platform proposal. This is the subject of frequent protests at 2020 candidate events.
Deatrick and Round agree that climate change has seemed to break into the public consciousness more than ever this campaign season, amid unprecedented and climate change-linked wildfires in California and Australia, floods in Iowa, hurricanes in the Atlantic and more.
“But this is a key moment,” Round says. “If we start now, then the chances of things going much worse go down. If we don't, then the whole process – everything we're discussing – will be much, much more difficult to do, and to do safely.”
The DNC climate council plans to hold their next public input session, which Deatrick expects to publicize more widely, in Las Vegas.