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Climate Activists Win Partial Victory in Climate Debate Battle

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Just a day before the DNC vote, Governor Jay Inslee ended his climate change-focused 2020 presidential bid.

In a packed hotel conference room in San Francisco, climate activists clambered for space to urge the DNC resolutions committee to finally approve what they had been pushing for since early spring. When the DNC ran out of credentials, activists poured in anyway. They ranged in age from teenagers to grandparents, and all with the same agenda. Organized by groups like the Sunrise Movement, Climate Hawks Vote, and, the activists sported t-shirts and waved signs.

But after more than two hours of discussion, the resolutions committee voted 17-8 against holding a DNC-sponsored climate debate. It’s possible that the climate debate could resurface as a full-floor vote on Saturday.

The activists did score one partial victory: The DNC advanced a resolution reversing the ban on candidates’ side-by-side participation in non-DNC sanctioned events discussing the climate crisis.

For months, activists had demanded a DNC-sponsored climate debate, an event with much more coverage and attention than a forum or town hall. After protests in June, the DNC agreed to put forth such a resolution. But at the last moment DNC Chair Tom Perez sponsored a different resolution, one that activists saw as a way for DNC members to avoid committing to a true debate. But after a contentious conversation, members still voted to retain the debate structures in the primary.

The meeting began nearly half an hour late, and more than a hundred activists sought entry into the room. The two resolutions that drew the most controversy were two near the beginning of the list. The first was Resolution 4, submitted by Travis Robertson, chair of the South Carolina membership, that called for making climate change a central issue. It was heavily amended to allow multi-candidate forums, such as debates, on single-issue topics, albeit with no protections from DNC punishment should candidates participate. This passed. Though a small victory for the activists, such forums would not be DNC-sponsored and thus may not garner the same coverage and attention.

Resolution 5, known as the Podlodowski resolution for Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democrats, and boasting support of more than 70 member signatories, was then heavily debated. It finally lost, to jeers of the crowd—but not before heated comments passed among the members.

One DNC member, Christine Pelosi, again called for thematic debates where candidates can debate the details of the party platform, something for which she has long advocated. This was seen as too big of a change.

Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Joe Biden and a former adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, argued that it is too late to change the debate structure so radically. “That is a discussion we should have had last summer,” she said. Even after Joe Biden publicly called for a climate debate, his adviser seemed to be reversing course inside the meeting.

But several DNC members thought the activists had a point. “It’s a youth-led movement and the future of the Democratic Party. Thank you for opening my eyes on how climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives,” said one member.

A DNC resolutions committee member, pollster James Zogby, said to vocal approval from the crowd, “Are we props to be managed, or are we the deciding body of the party? We have our constituents here asking for a climate debate. Please pass this resolution.”

Tina Padlowdowski gave a barn-burner of a speech, activists said on Twitter. The Mercury News’ Casey Tolan tweeted: “This is about our own survival on the planet,” says Padlowdowski. “We don’t have to lock ourselves into debates that don’t work for us.”

But when the committee still voted against a climate debate, organizers broke out into singing the union anthem—“Which side are you on?”—after the resolution vote.

Activists started organizing for a climate debate intensely in April, when a petition circulated by CREDO and other groups garnered nearly 220,000 signatures by June.

One of the major tools activists used in advance of the vote on Thursday was a call tool for activists to reach their DNC member to ask them to vote for the resolution. Sunrise Movement reported more than 3,500 activist calls by the time of the vote, but some DNC members viewed the tactic disdainfully. One California member, Bob Mulholland, told me that he thought it was part of a Russian plot to divide and distract Democrats.

In response, another California member and founder of Climate Hawks Vote, RL Miller tweeted: I am going to have more to say, about that later, Bob Mulholland. You are accusing a fellow [California DNC] delegate and caucus chair, who has been hacked by Russians for real, of being part of that Russian plot.”

“California is at the forefront of the climate crisis,” wrote California member Michael Kapp in an email. “It is shameful that California is represented on the DNC by someone who would falsely blame ‘the Russians’ for California’s existential need to combat climate change. It also assists climate deniers in spreading misinformation and downplaying the very real threat climate change poses. If Bob Mulholland, who lives near the devastation caused by the Camp Fire, cannot see the impact of the climate crisis right in front of him, he should have no place in representing California’s interests on the national level.”

Just a day before the vote, Washington Governor Jay Inslee dropped out of the race. The candidate most celebrated for pushing climate change to the forefront had just passed the threshold of 130,000 donors to make the September debates. But he hadn’t received enough support in polls and fell short of the threshold for CNN’s climate town hall.

Inslee also just unrolled the last update to his now-213-page climate change policy proposal with plans for rural America. But, Inslee said in an interview with New York magazine’s David Wallace-Wells, the plan is open source so he hopes other candidates will use it as an idea template. Inslee plans to run for governor of Washington state again, but it remains to be seen if he will continue as a figurehead of sorts for climate activists pushing their agenda in the Democratic primary.

Dramatic headlines on climate change this week helped keep the issue at the forefront. The Amazon rainforest has been burning for three weeks largely unreported by American media, the sea ice in Alaska is nearly gone, a glacier in Iceland was declared dead, and a nasty heatwave in Europe helped make this July the hottest on record.

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