Democratic Candidates Face off on Climate in the Last Debate Before Primary Voting Begins
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."
10:39pm on the east coast, people are tuning out, parents are tucking their kids into bed... @CNN: "Alright, let's… https://t.co/nSVYhqb4Tv— Sunrise Movement 🌅 (@Sunrise Movement 🌅)1579059868.0
So how did the candidates stand on various climate-related issues?
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.
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.
We can do much better than a Trump-led trade deal that does not even have the phrase “climate change” in it.… https://t.co/t3iNjmP5WP— Bernie Sanders (@Bernie Sanders)1579056030.0
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."
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.
I cannot believe I am listening to @amyklobuchar talking about fracked gas as a bridge fuel in 2020. #DemDebate— Varshini Prakash 🌅 (@Varshini Prakash 🌅)1579059997.0
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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By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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