The Democratic Debates Show 2020 is Shaping Up to Be a Climate Change Election | Opinion

Zero minutes. That's how much climate change came up in the presidential debates back in 2012. But last night, mentions of the climate crisis clocked in at 7 minutes, and that's just the first half of the first round of the democratic debates. That's still not enough. But it's a sign that climate change is growing into a defining issue of 2020—both for the candidates and for the voters.

Polls suggest that climate change is a top-tier issue for voters. A record 72 percent of voting-age Americans say the issue of climate change is important to them personally–that's a whopping 16 percentage points higher since March 2015.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been deleting the phrase "climate change" from government websites and rebranding fossil fuels as "Molecules of U.S. Freedom." But this smoke-and-mirrors approach has run its course. More than ever before, voters are demanding action on this crisis.

Indeed, 16 of the 24 Democratic candidates have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, vowing to refuse contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industries, and 14 candidates support the Green New Deal.

But we need to remember: The politicians are not leading—they are following. From the broad coalition of Indigenous Water Protectors, local activists, independent farmers, and landowners who fought the Keystone XL pipeline; to the heroes in Appalachia that put a stop to the worst mountaintop removal coal mining; to the campaigns springing up all over the world to hold banks accountable for their financing of fossil fuels—people power has lad the way. And people power will get us the results we need.

Candidates are unveiling multi-trillion dollar plans to address climate change. Senator Elizabeth Warren presented her climate plan as a means to promote job creation at home by committing to developing and buying American-made emission-free energy products. GovernorJay Inslee's planproposes 100% clean electricity for vehicles and buildings; as well as a "G.I. Bill" that would help those most affected by the transition away from fossil fuels. Joe Biden demands an end to fossil fuel subsidies, a ban on oil and gas permits on public lands, and an enforcement mechanism to penalize polluters. And some like Senator Cory Booker focuses on the disproportionate impacts of climate change and pollution on communities of color and the poor. These are all steps in the right direction and the real conversations we need to be having.

Around the world, Indigenous Peoples, people of color, people from developing countries and poor people are being hit the hardest by climate change impacts—even though they have done the least to cause the crisis. These communities are most imperiled by environmentally devastating extractive industries like coal mining, tar sands, fracked gas, and more. And that's no coincidence. Let's be clear: Climate change isn't just a scientific issue—it's an issue of racial inequity. In order to truly confront climate change, we need a plan that encompasses economic justice, Indigenous rights, racial justice, women's rights and more. A just response plan will require an equitable transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy.

Even a business magazine like Forbes is citing Indigenous rights and protecting Native lands as a critical factor in fighting climate change. Analysis demonstrates that communities that are protecting their native lands tend to have forests that have more biological diversity and are healthier. And these forests store more carbon. According to Project Drawdown, protecting native forests equates to protecting 894.4 GT of CO2 reductions and can reduce emissions by 6.91 GT. It's easy to think of the Amazon rainforest in this equation, but striking examples exist right here in the U.S. The Menominee Nation's reservation in northern Wisconsin can be seen from outer space. It's remarkably darker green then all the forest around it that have been clear-cut. While they are now regrowing, they are not able to provide the real carbon sinks our planet needs.

Many young climate-strike leaders like Greta Thunberg and Isha Clarke are aware of the need for climate justice when fighting for change. In a TED speech, Thunberg said it was the responsibility of wealthy nations to drop their emissions before expecting poorer countries to make major changes. And as Clarke said in her climate rally speech to a largely white audience: "Thank you for being here, we need you as allies. . . [We need to centralize the voices of native youth and youth of color. We also need you to show up for racial justice and economic justice in your communities."

Faced with a catastrophically failing system, the only rational response is a system overhaul. We need a full-scale national mobilization, centered on environmental justice, to address the climate crisis which is the biggest global crisis of our time. The United States undertook this kind of mobilization in the past — think of the space race of the 60s. This historical precedent can help us re-imagine how quickly and effectively we could move today, if we acted with the same mentality. We are feeling the impacts from climate change right now, and we are the last generation that can do something about it. We haven't won yet, but we are getting closer. People power got us here, and it will get us over the line. In the spirit of the Apollo missions, "failure is not an option."

Lindsey Allen is Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​