More than 150 young people rallied outside the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) on Tuesday with a single demand: Hold a presidential primary debate focused solely on the issue of climate change.
The protest, organized by the youth-led organization Sunrise Movement, comes as polls find that a large number of voters point to climate change as a top-priority issue in the 2020 presidential election. A recent Refinery29 reader survey found that 28% of readers said they want candidates to address the issue in the upcoming first debates on June 26 and 27. Activists hoped that the DNC would allow for at least one of the dozen sanctioned presidential debates to be dedicated exclusively to climate change, which would make way for the crowded field of presidential hopefuls to discuss in detail how they plan to address this crisis if they're elected to the Oval Office — but the leadership has denied their request.
On June 11, DNC Chair Tom Perez posted an open letter on Medium, writing that a climate change-focused debate could set off calls for debates on a host of other subjects. "If we change our guidelines at the request of one candidate who has made climate change their campaign’s signature issue, how do we say no to the numerous other requests we’ve had?" he wrote in reference to presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made climate change his top issue. "How do we say no to other candidates in the race who may request debates focused on an issue they’ve made central to their own campaigns?" (The DNC did not respond to Refinery29's requests for comment.)
But activists say climate change is not just one issue. "Climate change is an emergency that impacts every aspect of our life," Juliana Rossi de Camargo, a 25-year-old Sunrise activist, told Refinery29. "It's not a single issue. Climate change affects everything from housing to public health to our economy. It's also a social justice and a national security issue. Stopping climate change will require mobilization on every sector of our society and our economy. We need a debate to hear where our candidates stand on this, so we can hold them accountable once they are in office."
Activists, who says they have been unfazed by the refusal, are prepared to stay outside the DNC headquarters until their demands are met — even if it means being there overnight. "Tom Perez has a lot of nerve to say that we should be satisfied with climate questions and not a debate," Zina Precht-Rodriguez, a 22-year-old activist who works on Sunrise Movement's press team, told Refinery29. "The media and the political establishment have not taken this issue seriously for the entirety of my lifetime. In the 2016 Democratic primary debates, I think less than 2% of the questions were focused on climate." She added: "We need to hear the climate plans that all these candidates have been putting out and judge for ourselves which one we trust to elect to office. ... This is merely a matter of Tom Perez making arbitrary rules. He has the power to change these rules and host a climate debate."
At least 15 presidential candidates, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, support a debate dedicated to discussing climate change and potential solutions. The science advocacy group 314 Action has pledged $100,000 toward hosting a climate-focused debate, despite the DNC's objections. "We would like to see the candidates pressure the DNC themselves to hold a climate debate," Rossi de Camargo said. "We would also like to see their climate plans in more detail."
The media and the political establishment have not taken this issue seriously for the entirety of my lifetime.
Zina Precht-Rodriguez, 22, Sunrise Movement activist
The climate crisis is perhaps the greatest threat humanity faces to this day. Last fall, a report released by the United Nations’ scientific panel on climate change said that by 2040 the planet would undergo a multi-faceted crisis of disastrous magnitudes, including everything from food shortages and extreme poverty to wildfires, droughts, and the death of all coral reefs. The panel urged that in order to try to minimize the damage in the next two decades, the world economy would have to be transformed at a scale and pace that has "no documented historic precedent." Another report, commissioned and released by the U.S. government in November, found that climate change would also put public health and the national economy at unprecedented risk in the next century.
Activists such as Precht-Rodriguez argue that climate change deserves its own debate because it impacts a wide range of areas of Americans' daily lives: public health, weather-related disasters and their aftermath such as the wildfires in California and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the economy, and more. "These issues are not only going to happen in the future," she said, "but we know they are already happening now."
It's no shocker, then, that young people have been at the forefront of demanding political leaders take action before it's too late. For example, the Green New Deal, an ambitious reform that seeks to tackle climate change and income inequality in the next decade, has been pushed from the fringes to mainstream discourse in great part due to the work of young activists from Sunrise Movement and similar climate-focused organizations.
Destiney Lee, a 22-year-old Sunrise activist, said the fight against climate change is quite literally a fight for our lives. She added: "It’s not about our generation, but the generations to come."