The Fourth Democratic Debate, Climate Change, and Energy

Note: The fourth Democratic Debate was held on Jan. 17, 2016, and this blog post was posted subsequently on Feb. 1, 2016

by Dani Lyons

As most of us are already aware, the United States has now stepped into the year where we hire a new president: 2016. As the debates grow increasingly heated, and voters struggle to delineate the opinions of the candidates running in the Democratic and Republican Primary Elections, climate change stances and solutions may be an important issue for some voters.

America is polarized on climate change just as we are on many public issues, with two distinct sides opposing each other (fitting for our two-party system). As one research article states, “Just as in other debates, such as stem cell research, abortion, or gun control, the rest of the public either ignores the coverage or reinterprets competing claims based on partisanship or self-interest, a tendency confirmed across several decades by public opinion research. Predictably, on climate change, poll analyses reveal politically polarized opinions, resulting in two Americas divided along ideological lines.”[i] Republicans largely “question the validity of climate science and dismiss the urgency of the problem” while Democrats largely “accept climate science and express concern about the issue.”[ii]

It seems fitting, then, that Republican Debates stay far away from the topic of climate change (framing potentially-climate-related discussions as discussions on “energy”). Conversely, Democratic candidates consider the issue of climate change loudly and relatively often in debates. Additionally, the January 17th debate was the last debate that will happen before Primary Election voting begins! Therefore, in the first blog post of the new semester, I thought it might be helpful to offer our readers a breakdown of the most recent Democratic Debate (1/17/16), considering the topics of energy and climate change.

The most recent Democratic Debate significantly touched on energy and climate change in two different places. First, in response to the question, “Complete this sentence: in my first 100 days in office, my top three priorities will be ___________,” two of the three debating candidates included a mention of clean energy in their answers. Secretary Hillary Clinton said that creating more good jobs in “clean and renewable energy” would be one facet of her job-creation goal in her first 100 days in office. To the same question, Governor Martin O’Malley stated that one of his top three priorities in his first 100 days in office would be to implement his “plan to move us to a 100 percent clean electric energy grid by 2050 and create 5 million jobs along the way.” Governor O’Malley framed climate change in the context of innovation, stating that he believes “the greatest business opportunity to come to the United States of America in 100 years is climate change.” Although Senator Bernie Sanders has presented his climate plan on other forums, he did not include it in the plan for his first 100 days in office, instead highlighting social and economic issues such as tax fairness and the decline of the middle class.

The second notable mention of climate change and clean energy was when a YouTube question from YouTube channel MinuteEarth was broadcast to the candidates. The video stated that 82% of energy still comes from coal, oil, and natural gas. The candidates were posed the following question: “How do you convince Americans that the problem of climate change is so urgent that they need to change their behavior?” Senator Sanders replied to this question with the statement, “I think we already are. The younger generation understands it instinctively.” He stated that young people especially already know what’s going on with the climate, and that “The debate is over. Climate change is real.” Sanders also made mention of the fact that he is on both the Energy and Environmental Committees in the Senate, before he delivered his bottom line: “We must, for the sake of our kids and grandchildren, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy.” O’Malley replied to this statement with a challenge to the other candidates to commit to a 100% clean energy grid by 2015, saying that “With solar, with wind, with new technologies, with green buildings, this can happen,” and “it can be done.”

If climate change, energy, and the environment are topics you’re voting on, I encourage you to check out other resources on this, including the energy plans of the different candidates.


Related resources and articles on this topic:

Sanders on Energy Policy:

Clinton on Energy Plan and Infrastructure:

O’Malley’s Climate and Jobs Agenda:


Do Voters Care About Climate Change?

This article discusses the climate change communication at the most recent Democratic Debate (January 17, 2016), but makes the case that climate change is “not a voting issue for most Americans.” It argues that the candidates’ climate plans get lost in the debate, “bringing the country no closer to a constructive conversation on the climate.”[iii]

October Democratic Debate Breakdown on Climate Change

This article is a great resource for those who wish to reference the early opinions of candidates on the issue, which was especially hot in the October Democratic Debate. Remarks tying climate change action to campaign finance reform were made in the October debate, as well as promises about investment in clean energy, and international agreements.[iv]

Huffington Post Breakdown of the October Debate

This piece pulls out specific quotes from candidates related to their stances on climate change, as well as the Keystone XL pipeline.[v]



[i] Matthew C. Nisbet, “Communicating Climate Change: Why Frames Matter for Public Engagement,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 51, no. 2 (March 1, 2009): 12–23, doi:10.3200/ENVT.51.2.12-23. Emphasis added.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Issie Lapowsky, “Clinton and Sanders Spar Over Climate, But Voters Probably Don’t Give a Hoot,” WIRED, January 22, 2016,

[iv] DJ Pangburn, “Where Each Democratic Candidate Stands on Climate Change,” GOOD Magazine, October 16, 2015,

[v] Kate Sheppard, “Climate Change Gets Its Time In The Democratic Debate,” The Huffington Post, October 14, 2015,


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