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Democratic Candidates Face off on Climate in the Last Debate Before Primary Voting Begins

Politics
Democratic Candidates Face off on Climate in the Last Debate Before Primary Voting Begins
Tom Steyer (L-R), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) listen as former Vice President Joe Biden (3rd L) speaks during the Democratic presidential primary debate at Drake University on Jan. 14 in Des Moines, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Six Democratic presidential candidates squared off Tuesday night in Des Moines, Iowa for the seventh primary debate of the season and the last before voting begins with the Iowa caucuses Feb. 3. The climate crisis tied with health care for the No. 1 issue important to Iowa voters when choosing a candidate, according to the latest Des Moines Register/CNN/Mediacom Iowa Poll. So how much attention did it get during the debate?


A fair amount, Grist reported. While CNN and Des Moines Register moderators didn't bring it up until the last half hour, the candidates themselves incorporated it into their answers early and often.

"Debate moderators may take ages to get around to climate change in these debates," Zoya Teirstein wrote for Grist, "but the candidates have gotten increasingly adept at weaving the issue into their answers to other questions. This time around, Wolf Blitzer, Abby Phillip, and the Register's Brianne Pfannenstiel could barely keep a lid on the climate action in the first half of the debate."

So how did the candidates stand on various climate-related issues?

National Security

The first climate mentions came in response to the first question, about which candidate was best prepared to be commander-in-chief.

Both former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) listed the climate crisis among new national security issues they would tackle as president, according to a transcript provided by the Des Moines Register.

Philanthropist Tom Steyer brought up the wildfires in Australia when asked how he would use military force as a president, suggesting that the climate crisis might require large international mobilizations.

"[T]here's a gigantic climate issue in Australia, which also requires the same kind of value-driven coalition-building that we actually should be using in the Middle East," he said.

Trade

The next time the candidates brought up climate was during the discussion of a new trade deal struck by President Donald Trump with Mexico and Canada. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) came out strongly against it, largely because it does not mention climate change.

"[E]very major environmental organization has said no to this new trade agreement because it does not even have the phrase 'climate change' in it. And given the fact that climate change is right now the greatest threat facing this planet, I will not vote for a trade agreement that does not incorporate very, very strong principles to significantly lower fossil fuel emissions in the world," he said.

Democratic lawmakers had pushed for a commitment to the Paris agreement to be included in the deal, but that did not make it into the final draft, The New York Times pointed out.

Sanders also fought back when Pfannenstiel tried to shift his answer from climate to trade more narrowly.

"Well, they are the same in this issue," he said, according to the transcript.

Steyer joined Sanders in saying that he would not sign the deal because it failed to mention climate.

'Managed Retreat'

The first question directly raised by the moderators about the climate crisis brought up last spring's disastrous flooding in the Midwest and focused on what candidates would do about farms and factories that could not be relocated.

The question first went to Buttigieg, who spoke generally about the need to act on climate until the moderators repeated the question.

"We are going to have to use federal funds to make sure that we are supporting those whose lives will inevitably be impacted further by the increased severity and the increased frequency," he said.

The question then went to Steyer.

"Look, what you're talking about is what's called managed retreat," Steyer answered. "It's basically saying we're going to have to move things because this crisis is out of control. And it's unbelievably expensive. And of course we'll come to the rescue of Americans who are in trouble."

Fracking

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) received some pushback from climate activists when she defended her decision not to call for an all-out ban on fracking.

"When it comes to the issue of fracking, I actually see natural gas as a transition fuel. It's a transition fuel to where we get to carbon neutral," Klobuchar said.

Her remarks come less than a week after a study found that new oil and gas emissions projected for the next five years could nearly cancel out the decline in coal emissions, partly enabled by the fracking boom and the falling price of natural gas.

"I cannot believe I am listening to @amyklobuchar talking about fracked gas as a bridge fuel in 2020," Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash tweeted in response.

Climate Credentials

Over the course of the debate, the candidates attempted to position themselves as the best person to take on the climate crisis in office.

Steyer emphasized that climate was his top priority.

"And I'm still shocked that I'm the only person on this stage who will say this. I would declare a state of emergency on day one on climate," he said.

Warren, meanwhile, painted herself as the best person to get to the root cause of decades of climate inaction.

"Mr. Steyer talks about it being problem number one," she said. "Understand this, we have known about this climate crisis for decades. Back in the 1990s we were calling it global warming, but we knew what it was. Democrats and Republicans back then were working together because no one wanted a problem. But you know what happened? The industry came in and said, we can make big money if we keep them divided and make no change. Priority number one has to be taking back our government from the corruption. That is the only way we will make progress on climate, on gun safety, on health care, on all of the issues that matter to us."

Sanders, for his part, pointed to his plan for a Green New Deal to transition to 100 percent renewable energy in 10 years.

"If we as a nation do not transform our energy system away from fossil fuel, not by 2050, not by 2040, but unless we lead the world right now — not easy stuff— the planet we are leaving our kids will be uninhabitable and unhealthy," he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, pointed to his legacy.

"[B]ack in 1986, I introduced the first climate change bill — and check PolitiFacts (sic); they said it was a game-changer. I've been fighting this for a long time. I headed up the Recovery Act, which put more money into moving away from fossil fuels to — to solar and wind energy than ever has occurred in the history of America," he said.

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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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