Youth activists demand, but don’t get, debate devoted to climate change

Philadelphians with the Sunrise Movement protested in Washington for three days, seeking a Democratic debate focused on climate issues.

(Sunrise Philly/Twitter)

(Sunrise Philly/Twitter)

Philadelphia activists involved with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate action group, spent three days camping on the steps to Democratic National Headquarters in Washington, D.C., this week. Their goal: to convince the DNC to host a presidential candidates’ debate focused solely on climate change.

But the protesters returned to Philly on Friday after the party refused and the demonstration failed to elicit more than a few questions about climate change during the first official debate.

The group says it plans to hold more demonstrations in Philadelphia to keep up pressure on the party and show the Democrats why a climate debate is necessary.

Wednesday night, Sunrise members who did not go to the capital gathered at a debate watch party in West Philadelphia, hoping to see candidates share concrete policy plans on how they would address climate change.

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More than 40 people showed up to a debate watch party hosted by the Sunrise Movement on Wednesday night. (Emily Pontecorvo for WHYY)

“We want to see people have a plan that actually meets the scale of the crisis,” said Nicole Karsch, one of the organizers. “We want to see how different candidates plan to actually mobilize the economy in a way that transitions us off of fossil fuels in 11 years, but also protects every single worker and person in their ability to have a job and health care and a family.”

It’s a tall order, but one that these activists say is essential.

So far the Democratic National Committee has denied requests for a climate change-themed debate. “The @DNC will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area — we want to make sure voters have the ability to hear from candidates on all the issues,” DNC chair Tom Perez tweeted on June 5.

The explanation is baffling and unacceptable to Sunrise organizers, who believe that climate change ties into every other issue on the debate stage and has been ignored during elections for far too long.

“Hey @DNC: climate change isn’t a single issue. Host a #ClimateDebate and start treating this like the emergency it is,” Karsch tweeted at the DNC Wednesday night.

The Sunrise Movement’s holistic framework is one of the reasons it has been successful in mobilizing young people.

Emma Walker, a senior at Swarthmore College, was not really interested in environmental activism before joining Sunrise.

“I was more interested in racial justice and immigration rights. I didn’t necessarily think about climate change as an issue connected to that,” Walker said. “But through working with Sunrise, I realized it’s deeply connected. I’m originally from Jamaica. [Climate change] impacts the global south more than most places.”

Tonia Brito-Bersi thinks Democrats refused the idea of a climate-change debate because all the Democratic candidates support some kind of action on the issue.

“They claim that the Democratic Party is the climate party and that they got it covered, that they don’t need a separate debate,” she said. But after about an hour and a half of Wednesday night’s debate, and very little mention of climate change, Brito-Bersi was not convinced.

At a debate watch party in West Philadelphia, young activists filled out cards with the questions they wanted candidates to answer, but didn’t think would be asked. (Emily Pontecorvo for WHYY)

During the two consecutive nights of debates Wednesday and Thursday, the 20 Democratic presidential candidates discussed climate change for a total of about 15 minutes.

“It felt like we were watching a debate that was taking place about four to five years ago — totally not reckoning with the urgency of the crisis or with the scale of the solutions that we actually need,” said Aru Shiney-Ajay, a Sunrise training director. “It felt like they didn’t take our futures or what’s at stake seriously.”

One way Sunrise Philly plans to show the Democratic Party that a climate debate is necessary is by organizing a demonstration at the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery in the coming weeks.

The refinery recently announced it would be closing next month, and almost 1,000 union workers may lose their jobs. If the United States is going to transition from fossil fuels, what happened at PES could happen all over the country. Sunrise Philly wants to see a “just transition” at PES and elsewhere, meaning that fossil-fuel workers do not lose income when plants close, and are given training options for new jobs in clean energy.

Whoever is president is going to need a plan for this, Sunrise organizers told WHYY News, and a climate debate would force candidates to discuss how they would approach the transition.

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