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The Democratic Debate: A Climate Change Report Card

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 14/10/2015 Andrew Winston
MARTIN OMALLEY © Joe Raedle via Getty Images MARTIN OMALLEY

What a welcome surprise. Leaders running for the most powerful job in the world actually prioritizing the greatest threat and opportunity facing America and humanity in the 21st century - climate change.

As a whole last night, the Democrats running for President made a strong showing on climate. When the evening began, I wondered how long it would take to mention our biggest challenge - I figured it might be an hour or two into the proceedings, and it would have been the case if left up to CNN. But less than 2 minutes in, the candidates' opening statements included prominent mentions of climate. And when the discussion turned to our greatest security threats, there was climate again (reminder: the idea that climate change is "an immediate threat to national security does not come from the Democrats but from the Pentagon.)

Much later, CNN let a voter ask the question, "What would you do about climate change?" The range of answers was telling.

· Governor O'Malley started very strong with a call for 100% renewable energy on our grid by 2050, and suggested we should lead and innovate.

· Senator Webb fell back on the lame "all of the above" energy strategy, and the outdated "we can't act alone without China and India" excuse, which in total amounted to practically a non-answer. But he does support alternative energy.

· Senator Sanders gave a broad answer about the scale of the threat and working with China and India, but had said multiple times in the debate that this was a top issue for him.

· Senator Clinton, in a quasi-odd turn, went back to her work with President Obama at the Copenhagen global climate meeting in 2009. She described how they got China to the table, which was true and important. But it did ignore that China announced a couple weeks ago that it would implement a cap and trade system, thus leapfrogging over our efforts.

· And as for Governor Chaffee, I honestly can't remember what he said about the topic specifically (he was mostly a non-entity in the debate)

So the answers were not all fully developed, but it's notable that there were answers. In the second Republican debate, all Senator Rubio could say was that tackling climate would "destroy the economy." This is of course dead wrong - in fact, all the major arguments against building the clean economy are crumbling, as I recently laid out in an interview with HuffPo's Jo Confino.

But back to the Dem candidates who made, by and large, a strong showing. The weakest participant? The media as a whole and CNN in particular. Credit to CNN for even asking about climate, but in total it took 5+ hours of Republican debate time (7+ if you count the 'kids table' debates) to get to climate and energy, and over 2 hours in the Dem debate.

So here's my unscientific scoring on how everyone handled climate, with a combination of urgency, sense of scale of the challenge, and specifics on how to fight it...

· Clinton: B-

· Sanders: B+

· O'Malley: A

· Webb: C-

· Chaffee: B

· The Media: D-

We can quibble over the quality of the discussion on it, or the fact that the vast benefits (to our public and economic health) of pursuing a clean economy strategy are generally under-represented in these discussions. But in total, climate got more focus on a national political stage than ever before, and it was clearly a top tier issue for the candidates. Bravo.

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