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Climate Crisis Gets 16 Minutes at Ninth Democratic Primary Debate in Las Vegas

Politics
Climate Crisis Gets 16 Minutes at Ninth Democratic Primary Debate in Las Vegas
Six Democratic primary candidates participated in the ninth debate in Las Vegas Wednesday. Mario Tama / Getty Images

The climate crisis got its moment in the sun during the ninth Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas Wednesday.


The six qualifying candidates discussed the issue for a full 16 minutes, Grist reported. The debate also marked the first time that a climate journalist was numbered among the moderators: Telemundo climate correspondent Vanessa Huac, who has covered environmental issues for more than 20 years.

"People in the United States and all over our planet are realizing that climate change is one of the most important issues of our times," Huac told NPR Tuesday ahead of the debate. "So, this is a great opportunity to really raise this issue and raise important questions to the candidates to see what are the plans, what are the proposals, how are they planning to face this existential crisis that we're facing."

This sense of public urgency around the issue is reflected in the pool of Nevadans who are likely to participate in the Democratic caucus Saturday. Eighty-six percent of them rated climate and the environment as very important or the most important issue of 2020, according to a League of Conservation Voters and Nevada Conservation League poll released last week. The poll also found that the issue came second to health care for most voters when deciding who to vote for. But for Latinx voters, who make up 20 percent of the Nevada voting block, climate was even more important than health care and immigration, InsideClimate News reported.

So how did the candidates address voters' concerns?

Climate Solutions

Wednesday's climate discussion was kicked off by Jon Ralston of the Nevada Independent, who pointed out that Reno and Las Vegas were among the fastest-warming cities in the country. He then directed his first question at former Vice President Joe Biden.

"What specific policies would you implement that would keep Las Vegas and Reno livable, but also not hurt those economies?" he asked, according to an NBC debate transcript.

Biden first focused on technical solutions, saying he would invest $47 billion in renewable energy and battery technology. He also said he would reverse President Donald Trump's environmental rollbacks and install 500,000 new electric vehicle charging stations in every highway his administration built or repaired.

"And I would invest in rail, in rail. Rail can take hundreds of thousands, millions of cars off the road if we have high-speed rail," Biden said.


Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, touted his success shuttering 304 of 530 coal plants in the U.S. as part of his Beyond Coal campaign with the Sierra Club. He also said he would rejoin the Paris agreement.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) repeated her argument that addressing climate change requires addressing corruption in government.

"The first thing I want to do in Washington is pass my anti-corruption bill so that we can start making the changes we need to make on climate," she said. "And the second is the filibuster. If you're not willing to roll back the filibuster, then you're giving the fossil fuel industry a veto overall of the work that we need to do."

Fracking

One major point of disagreement between the candidates was on whether or not to ban fracking.

Both Sen. Amy Klobuchar, (D-Minn.) and Bloomberg argued that natural gas is a "transitional fuel" between dirtier fuels like coal and renewable energy. Klobuchar said she would review every natural gas permit on a case-by-case basis and only approve them if they were safe. Bloomberg also said it was important to make sure natural gas extraction was done properly to not release excess methane. But he said it was not possible to abandon the fuel.

"We want to go to all renewables. But that's still many years from now," Bloomberg said.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), on the other hand, has called for a fracking ban within the next five years, and addressed concerns that such a ban would hurt jobs. Sanders said the moment was too urgent not to act, and that the Green New Deal he supports would create as many as 20 million well-paying jobs.

"This is a moral issue, my friends. We have to take the responsibility of making sure that the planet we leave our children and grandchildren is a planet that is healthy and habitable," he said. "That is more important than the profits of the fossil fuel industry."

Also on the issue of jobs, Warren was challenged on her plan to ban mining and drilling on public lands, which is an important industry in Nevada. Public lands are also potential sources of minerals like lithium and copper necessary for renewable energy technology.

Warren said she would make an exception for minerals that are needed to transition away from fossil fuels.

"If we need to make exceptions because there are specific minerals that we've got to have access to, then we locate those and we do it not in a way that just is about the profits of giant industries, but in a way that is sustainable for the environment," she said.

China

Another point of disagreement was how to respond to China, which is currently the world's No. 1 emitter of greenhouse gases.

Bloomberg argued that it was important not to "go to war" with China on emissions but rather to negotiate.

"What you have to do is convince the Chinese that it is in their interest, as well. Their people are going to die just as our people are going to die. And we'll work together," he said.

But Former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg argued for the need for "hard tools" to ensure emissions fell worldwide.

"I'm a little skeptical of the idea that convincing is going to do the trick when it comes to working with China," he said. "America has repeatedly overestimated our ability to shape Chinese ambitions."

Environmental Justice

Both Biden and Warren, unprompted, raised the issue of environmental justice.

"[M]inority communities are the communities that are being most badly hurt by the way in which we deal with climate change," Biden said while answering a question about his plans to hold fossil fuel executives accountable for their pollution. "They are the ones that become the victims. That's where the asthma is, that's where the groundwater supply has been polluted. That's where, in fact, people, in fact, do not have the opportunity to be able to get away from everything from asbestos in the walls of our schools."

Warren later spoke up to "make sure that the question of environmental justice gets more than a glancing blow in this debate."

She touted her $1 trillion dollar plan to repair the environmental damage that had already been done to communities of color.

"We have to own up to our responsibility," she said. "We cannot simply talk about climate change in big, global terms. We need to talk about it in terms of rescuing the communities that have been damaged."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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