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Opinion

Op-Ed: Let’s hold the 2020 presidential candidates accountable on climate change

DEMS
Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke at a Houston rally on Nov. 5.
(Michael Robinson Chavez / The Washington Post)

The idea that we’re about to enter into 23 consecutive months of presidential campaigning is almost literally unbearable. And not just because it means endless dumb takes on Beto vs. Bernie vs. Biden. It’s unbearable because we need the time for other things.

Consider climate change. Long before the next president is inaugurated, we will need to figure out the contours of a Green New Deal, organize to keep banks and insurance companies from financing new oil pipelines, and block new fracking wells.

We will need to be thinking about Exxon Mobil’s annual shareholder meeting as much as the Iowa State Fair, the next Keystone pipeline as much as the next New Hampshire endorsement.

Long before the next president is inaugurated, we will need to figure out the contours of a Green New Deal.
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I’m under no illusion, though, that the infinite campaign can be headed off. Contenders have said that they will start making up their minds over the holidays. So we also need to start thinking differently about how to make sure our presidential sweepstakes makes clear where the candidates stand on the actual issues.

In most of the world’s electoral systems, this is not a big problem. Political parties take positions on issues and then offer those positions to voters. The personality of the politician at the head of the ticket is less important. This is one reason why a British election lasts six weeks. It’s no guarantee of good outcomes (see: Brexit), but at least you more or less know what you’re voting for.

That’s not what we do here. We have a quadrennial personality contest. Depending on whose turn it happens to be, who can drum up the most campaign cash, or who has the freshest new face, some front-runner emerges. We learn a little bit about them during debates, but it’s only after they’re elected that we find out where their priorities really lie.

We’re not going to have a parliamentary system any time soon, but there are ways to cobble together some jury-rigged semblance of an issue-based system.

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The candidates could figure out new ways to emphasize policy continuity. It wouldn’t surprise me to see some in this year’s crop — the most senior candidates in the group — announce that they would serve for only one term. They could name a running mate right from the outset, making it clear that they would be grooming him or her as a successor to carry on the same basic suite of policies. Climate change and inequality aren’t disappearing in one presidential term, or six.

Politically engaged citizens can play a role too. If, as expected, 15 Democrats decide to run for president, it’s useless for anyone outside of Iowa and New Hampshire to be picking a candidate at this stage. If you’re concerned with the climate crisis, it’s far more important to make sure that as many of those 15 as possible pass some kind of low-bar litmus test.

To be considered “climate credible,” candidates need to endorse the positions that a broad-based movement has spent years working out: a Green New Deal of the kind beginning to emerge in the House, for instance, and a promise to use your executive powers to block new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep oil, coal and gas in the ground.

Beyond that, let a thousand plans bloom. It will be interesting to hear Jay Inslee and Michael Bloomberg explain their varying approaches to climate progress, based on their experiences as Washington governor and New York mayor, respectively. But we need a way to build a shadow platform that lets us count on certain basics, a way to ensure that they know upon election what they’re supposed to do, and we know they’ll do it.

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If we don’t, then we’ll be treated to endless discussions of, say, Sherrod Brown’s upbringing or Kamala Harris’ character. Some of that is fine. As president they’d face unforeseen emergencies, so we need to know who they are. But more than this, we need to know that they stand with the scientists and activists who actually understand issues like climate change and have spent years working out a clear path forward.

We’ve already seen some of this beginning to happen. Thanks mostly to Bernie Sanders’ relentless focus on a few issues, Medicare for all and a $15-an-hour minimum wage are now more or less required stands for Democrats. That may, ironically, undercut his support this time around, but it’s a good trade: The most important fights in political life are for changes in the zeitgeist. In the long run, and even the short run, it’s more crucial to reach a consensus on these few truly crucial issues than it is to have your particular favorite in office.

So don’t talk about who you want for a while. Talk about what you want. And let the office seekers show that they have heard.

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Bill McKibben is co-founder of the climate campaign 350.org, a faculty member in environmental studies at Middlebury College and the author of the forthcoming “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?”

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