In Second Democratic Debate, Candidates Criticize Biden's Climate Plans

DETROIT—Democrats running for president expanded their attacks last night about insufficient climate action beyond the usual targets of President Trump and oil companies. They took aim at former Vice President Joe Biden.

For the second night in a row, 10 Democrats argued about the best solutions for global warming in a primary debate that revealed different views about how strongly the United States should confront rising temperatures.

The digs at Biden, which came mostly from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, were neither new nor unexpected. Biden has been leading in polls for months, and he was targeted throughout yesterday’s debate on issues ranging from health care to criminal justice reform.

But the swipes showed that Biden may have some work to do to convince primary voters that he has a plan for climate change that’s equal to the problem.

Inslee, who devoted the entirety of his opening and closing statements to global warming, took the first shot by describing Biden’s climate proposal as pedestrian.

“Middle-ground solutions, like the vice president has proposed ... are not going to save us,” Inslee said. “We have to have a bold plan, and mine has been called the gold standard,” he said.

The reference to “middle ground” is a callback to a small uproar in May, when Reuters published a story—built on the input of a Biden climate adviser—that outlined how he might tackle global warming.

The proposal was decidedly less progressive than those offered by other candidates, and Biden took heat from environmentalists despite his efforts to dismiss the story.

Soon after, the Biden campaign released an official climate plan that was more ambitious than what the article outlined, and it included ideas supported by his more liberal rivals—such as a pledge to stop all new oil and gas drilling on public lands.

Even so, Inslee and other candidates have tried to highlight the differences in an effort to gain traction with Democratic voters.

“We also need to embed environmental justice” into climate policy, Inslee said last night.

He cited a visit he made recently to a Detroit neighborhood that’s been called one of the most polluted in the state. “It doesn’t matter what your ZIP code is. It doesn’t matter what color is,” he said. “You ought to have clean air and clean water in America.”

In response to the broadside, Biden defended his proposal.

“There is no middle ground about my plan,” he said. “The fact of the matter is, I call for the immediate action to be taken.”

Biden highlighted his past work to help broker the Paris climate accord during the Obama administration, and his ability to do so again on the international stage. Trump has promised to withdraw the United States from the accord in November 2020.

“I would immediately rejoin that Paris accord,” said Biden. “I would make sure that we up the ante, which it calls for; I would be able to bring those leaders together, who I know.”

He also noted that he plans to invest $400 billion in clean energy.

Biden’s answer, though, would draw a rebuke from Booker a few minutes later.

“Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten,” said Booker, who added that climate change needed to be part of every major policy, from trade deals to foreign aid. “Everything must be sublimated to the challenge and the crisis that is existential, which is dealing with the climate threat,” he said.

Booker isn’t wrong about the Paris climate accord—at least as it relates to the politics of the Democratic primary. All 20 candidates who appeared onstage at the Fox Theatre for the debates this week have endorsed a return to Paris, and often more (Climatewire, July 31).

But there are notable differences.

Booker, for example, has backed the Green New Deal and its plan of fighting global warming with a government-led jobs program. But like Sen. Kamala Harris of California—another Green New Deal supporter—he hasn’t done much to flesh out that plan.

Harris, for her part, made some climate news of her own last night. She said she wanted the United States to get to “carbon neutral by 2030”—a deadline that would be one of the most aggressive in the Democratic primary.

But the former California attorney general saved most of her firepower for Trump. “The guy thinks that wind turbines cause cancer, but what in fact they cause is jobs,” said Harris, referring to bizarre remarks on wind energy that the president made earlier this year (Greenwire, April 4).

She wasn’t alone.

“Donald Trump should be the last climate denier that’s ever in the White House,” said Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado.

Other candidates had their climate moments, too. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii highlighted a 2017 bill she introduced that calls for 100% clean energy by 2035. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York touted her support for the Green New Deal and a tax on carbon emissions.

And entrepreneur Andrew Yang talked up his hallmark issue—a universal basic income—in the context of global warming. “We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground,” he said. “And the best way to do that is to put economic resources” into the hands of average Americans.

But on the issue of climate, the evening belonged to Inslee—who emphasized the threat of a warming planet throughout the debate.

“Literally the survival of humanity on this planet and civilization as we know it is in the hands of the next president,” he said in his closing remarks. “And we have to have a leader who will do what is necessary to save us. And that includes making this the top priority of the next presidency.”

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at

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