Climate and clean energy take center stage in the Democratic Party debates

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For those who spent the past five years bemoaning U.S. President Barack Obama’s limited mention of Climate Change in his State of the Union addresses, or worse, absurd stunts with snowballs and brazen Climate Denial on the floor of the U.S. Congress, Tuesday night was a welcome relief.

In the U.S. Democratic Party’s first 2016 presidential debate, the issue of Climate Change came out strong and early. The first candidate to introduce himself, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee, identified Climate Change as a “real threat to our planet”.

This was followed by front-runner Hillary Clinton, her populist challenger Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, all of whom mentioned Climate Change in their introductions, leaving only former Virginia Senator Jim Webb as the outlier.

Webb addressed Climate Change late in the game, after he was confronted by moderator Anderson Cooper. All in all, the phrase was uttered by the five candidates roughly 20 times during the evening.

And while Hillary Clinton devolved into a story about chasing Chinese diplomats around to secure a climate deal, in keeping with his style it was Sanders who had the most forceful words. When Cooper asked Sanders what the greatest threat was to national security, his answer was to warn that Climate Change could render the planet uninhabitable for future generations.

As far as articulating a plan to address the problem, O’Malley was well in the lead. The former governor called for a “green energy revolution”, and reiterated five times his call to move the nation to a 100% renewable electricity grid by 2050, creating 5 million jobs in the process.

This is not new. O’Malley was a passionate supporter of renewable energy as governor of Maryland, and noted his plan to extend tax credits for solar and wind, the only time that solar was mentioned in the debate. On his website he has further articulated ambitious plans for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Hillary Clinton also referenced her program to invest in infrastructure and clean energy. She mentioned the issue less, perhaps in part because she spent more time defending herself from attacks regarding her emails, her support of the 2003 Iraq War and the Benghazi scandal. And while her plans for a seven-fold increase in solar by 2020 and 33% renewable energy by 2027 are more aggressive than those put forward by President Obama, for her this is not as much of a signature issue as it is for O’Malley.

Bernie Sanders also called for a transition from fossil fuels to “sustainable energy”. During his career Sanders has introduced substantial legislation to expand the deployment of solar and other renewable energy sources, including a 2015 bill to expand access to solar for low-income Americans.

However, Sanders has not released a thorough plan, as O’Mally and Clinton have. He also did not provide many details for supporters during the debate. Sanders’ main themes are economic justice and political revolution, and despite his history of support for clean energy it has been taking a back seat in his messaging.

The outlier again was Jim Webb. The former senator has articulated a thoroughly 20th century energy vision, including advocating for nuclear power during the debate. When pressed on the issue, he shifted the responsibility for Climate Change to China and other developing nations, saying that it must be addressed in “an international way”.