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On climate change, a priority for Nevada voters, debate reveals divide over how they would address fossil fuels

Daniel Rothberg
Daniel Rothberg
Election 2020Environment
Debate watch party

As Democratic Nevada caucus-goers weigh which candidate to support in the final days before declaring their preferences on Saturday, polling suggests climate change is at the top of voters’ minds. On Wednesday, at the final debate before the caucus, candidates all agreed climate change poses an existential threat. Where they diverged was over what they planned to do about it. 

Before the debate even began, climate change was looming over the campaigns. 

At a press conference hosted by the Nevada Conservation League and Chispa Nevada in Las Vegas Wednesday afternoon, Gov. Steve Sisolak, a Democrat who has not endorsed, said that his “number one candidate” would “commit to making [climate change] their priority.” 

Hours before the debate, hosted by NBC News, MSNBC and The Nevada Independent, Sisolak stressed it was an issue Nevadans’ care about. Polling released last week by the conservation league suggests that climate change is the second highest concern heading into the caucuses.

The poll of 859 likely caucus-goers, conducted by Public Policy Polling, found that 86 percent of respondents ranked climate change and the environment as a very important or most important issue. As the most arid state, Nevada could face significant effects from warmer temperatures.

And when debate night came, the issue got a full airing. 

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, both vying for voters that skew young and progressive, reiterated their support for a ban on fracking, a controversial technique for tapping into natural gas reserves and credited for boosting domestic production. 

That stood in stark contrast to Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who referred to natural gas as a transition fuel in moving to renewables.

Warren set her sights on the influence that the fossil fuel industry wields in Washington, D.C. She said “corruption” and the Senate filibuster prevented lawmakers from taking action.

She said not wanting to rollback the filibuster, was “giving the fossil fuel industry a veto.”

Both Klobuchar and Bloomberg offered a more moderate approach. They said natural gas could serve as a bridge fuel between coal, a predominant power source that the United States has transitioned from over the last decade, and renewable energy. The differing opinions mirrored a similar debate between Sanders and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. 

When asked why Klobuchar did not support a fracking ban, she said that it was a transition fuel and stressed that any congressional policy to tackle climate change needed wide-support — to “bring people with us.” Klobuchar went on to say that she supported bringing back the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, an effort to reduce coal emission, and put a price on carbon. 

“But when it comes to putting a price on carbon, we have to make sure that that money goes back directly as dividend to people who are going to need help for paying their bills,” she said. 

Underlying the responses to questions about climate change was a debate about costs. At what cost should addressing fossil fuel emissions come? How does it conflict with other priorities?

Both Sanders and Warren have faced criticism for their fracking ban and concerns from their own party that it could turn off voters in states with Democrats employed in the industry. This is particularly a concern in a state like Pennsylvania, expected to play a key role in November. 

When asked about what he would tell workers in the fossil fuel industry, Sanders cast climate change as a “moral issue” and touted his support for the Green New Deal, saying that such a policy would provide “20 million good-paying jobs” in the transition from a fossil fuel economy.

But the issues a future president must weigh are not only economic. In some cases, they are environmental. In Nevada, about 85 percent of the state is federal public land, managed for multiple uses, including conservation, recreation, grazing, mining and energy development. 

Different administrations can exercise discretion on what they prioritize on federal public land. The Trump administration, for instance, has emphasized fossil fuel leasing on public land. 

But oftentimes, different uses can conflict with one another — and in several recent cases, they have conflicted around climate change. Solar developments in the desert have consequences for conservation and habitat for wildlife, such as the Mojave desert tortoise. The transition to more electric vehicles and renewables, could mean more mining for copper and lithium. 

When asked by The Nevada Independent Editor Jon Ralston how she would address climate change and protect public land, Warren doubled down on a pledge to stop “all new drilling and mining on public lands.” But Warren said there could be exceptions for specific minerals. 

“If we need to make exceptions because there are specific minerals that we’ve got to have access to, then we locate those and we do it not in a way that just is about the profits of giant industries, but in a way that is sustainable for the environment,” she said. 

“We cannot continue to let our public lands to be used for profits for those who don’t care about our environment and are not making it better,” Warren added.

She then pivoted to the need to tackle climate change with more investment in science. 

“Much of what is needed has not yet been invented,” she said.

Both Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden specifically called out environmental justice issues. Biden, who said that oil companies and their CEOs should be able to be sued, noted that minority communities are often “being the most badly hurt” by inaction on climate change.

“They are the ones that become the victims,” he said. 

Warren specifically used the term “environmental justice” during the debate. 

“I want to make sure that the question of environmental justice gets more than a glancing blow at this debate,” Warren said. “For generations now in this country, toxic waste dumps [and] polluting factories have been located in or near communities of color, over and over and over.”

Shannon Miller contributed to this report.


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