As a crowd of Democrats enters the first primary debates on Wednesday and Thursday, a growing number of voters will be waiting to parse through candidates’ proposals for tackling the crisis of climate change. Polls have shown climate change moving to the forefront as an issue in this year’s election, with a proposal for a Green New Deal pushing candidates’ agendas on cutting greenhouse gases.
While environmental activists have pushed for a single-issue debate focused on climate change, Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez shot down the idea earlier this month, saying it would unfairly cater to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s campaign, which has been centered on the issue. But other candidates have also come out with ambitious climate proposals and have agreed to participate in a climate-focused debate.
This week, 74 medical and public health groups categorized climate change as a “health emergency” as they pushed for stronger commitments to reduce carbon emissions from candidates. The stakes are especially high for communities of color, who studies have shown can be more vulnerable to the consequences of climate change.
A comprehensive report from the NAACP, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization states that communities of color breathe in 40% more polluted air than white communities across the country.
The report, titled “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits Before People,” states that 68% of African Americans and 39% of Latinxs live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant, though they make up about 13% and 18% of the U.S. population, respectively. The proximity to toxins for these communities has resulted in a range of health problems including higher rates of heart attacks, birth defects, and asthma.
“Coal plants are single-handedly responsible for a large proportion of toxic emissions that directly poison local communities in the United States,” the report states.
The Environmental Protection Agency has also noted that certain populations are more vulnerable to impacts of rising temperatures, flooding, and increasingly frequent natural disasters. Indigenous populations, people living in poverty, and elderly people are some of the groups who have greater challenges recovering from climate change consequences.
A 2016 EPA report—“Environmental Justice Research Roadmap”—outlined the health disparities that “overburdened” communities of color disproportionately face from the consequences of climate change.
“Many studies have established that sources of environmental hazards often are located and concentrated in areas having majority populations of people of color, low-income residents, or indigenous peoples,” the report stated. “The six states with the largest proportion of African Americans are all in the Atlantic hurricane zone, and all are expected to experience more severe storms as a consequence of global warming.”
When Hurricane Harvey slammed the Texas coast in 2017, hundreds of thousands of homes were left uninhabitable. One year after the storm, 8% of those affected were still unable to return to their homes. In a 2018 survey by two nonprofits, it was 60% of black Texans that said they didn’t get the help they needed, compared to 40% of Hispanic respondents and 33% of white respondents.
Most 2020 Democratic candidates agree the country must reach net-zero emissions by at least 2050, and eight of them have signed a “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge.
Inslee has so far come forward with four packages of climate proposals, including the promise to “achieve greater climate, economic and environmental justice in building our clean energy future.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s climate proposals have nested within her agendas for public lands, the military, and manufacturing. Her anti-corporate corruption campaign is reflected in her climate agenda.
“It is wrong to prioritize corporate profits over the health and safety of our local communities,” Warren lays out in her public lands proposal, promising “a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands.”
When former Vice President Joe Biden introduced his climate proposal as a “middle ground” approach, he was criticized by environmental activists and New York Democrat Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“There is no ‘middle ground’ w/climate denial & delay,” the outspoken Democrat tweeted. When Biden’s proposal was finally released, it seemed to mostly fall along the same spectrum as most Democratic candidates, including a 2050 deadline to shift away from fossil fuels. Biden also backed the Green New Deal, signed the pledge against fossil fuel contributions, and supported holding a climate change debate.
California Sen. Kamala Harris is a Green New Deal co-sponsor and former attorney general in California, where climate policy has long been an agenda priority. Harris has been less detailed in her plans for climate justice. As attorney general, she launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil after reports the company lied about the risks of climate change. Though she signed a pledge against taking fossil fuel industry support, she’s accepted such funding in the past.
The debate will air on NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo at 9 PM EST, with 10 candidates appearing on stage each night.
Alexandra Arriaga is a staff reporter at Prism focusing on voting rights and criminal justice. You can follow her on Twitter at @alexarriaga__.