There are 249 days until Election Day.

But there’s still a lot of work to do. CCI’s Campaigns Director Gabi Porter has a firsthand account of what voters in the Palmetto State want our next president to do about climate change.

by Gabi Porter

No, it wasn’t a nightmare: Tuesday night was the 10th Democratic debate. Ten! T E N.

Via Giphy

That means we’ve listened to (at least) 20 collective hours of journalists grilling the top Democrats vying to be their party’s nominee to take on President Donald Trump in November. And in 10 debates — which are supposed to be the best spot for voters to size up candidates and weigh their options — the climate crisis has received shockingly little screen time. 

In Tuesday’s debate, there was not a single question about climate change.

Well, folks, the Center for Climate Integrity and I weren’t going to take this lying down.

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This week, we traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, to host a climate town hall with the Charleston Climate Coalition. 

Why Charleston, you ask? 

First, South Carolina’s primary election on Saturday is one of the earliest in the race for the Democratic nomination — not to mention that it’s the first state primary with a sizable number of Black voters, a key part of the Democratic coalition. 

Second, Charleston is on the front lines for the climate crisis. It’s no joke, y’all: According to our study last year, the city can expect to spend at least $1 billion on seawalls in the next 20 years. For Charlestonians, climate change isn’t a far-off problem. It’s a daily reality.

We and our local partners invited all the Democratic campaigns to send advisers who could answer the tough questions and would go to the mat for their candidates and for bold climate policy.

Unfortunately, only two campaigns — those of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and billionaire Tom Steyer — appeared at the event. Thanks to our friend Pollster Paul, EXXONKNEWS readers already know that voters give a damn about the climate. So what gives?

Some SC voters prioritize presidential candidates by climate change platforms, video via ABC News4

To be fair, the reps from the Warren and Steyer camps were phenomenal. Sen. Warren sent Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a renowned ocean biologist and founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities, and founder and CEO of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm for conservation solutions. Steyer’s surrogate was former South Carolina Rep. Harold Mitchell, who sits on the board of directors for the National Environmental Justice Conference.

While some debate moderators (and in some cases, candidate campaigns) might not take climate seriously, the people of Charleston sure do. Our town hall drew a dedicated crowd of Charleston residents, students at the College of Charleston, and climate activists who weren’t afraid to ask tough questions and tell their own stories. 

I was particularly struck by College of Charleston student Sydney Gonzalez’s personal story, especially when she talked about why she was involved in climate activism:

“It’s really terrifying to not look back at your friends because you realize you’re not going to grow old with them, because the world is going to end. … And it’s not just me, it’s not just just my friends, it’s not just my hometown, it’s not just the fact that my college is going to be underwater and I’m never going to be able to visit Charleston again.”

It’s a scary thought — not only not having the opportunity to stroll down memory lane during Homecoming, but never being old enough to have a Homecoming. 

Sydney’s remarks set the stage and framed the gravity of our conversation, and our two campaign reps didn’t disappoint. 

No one dodged the tough questions, and Dr. Johnson brought up accountability for Big Oil more than once — totally unprompted. It was almost like she got our talking points ahead of time (which, I swear on my cats, she did not).

Both speakers acknowledged the stranglehold oil and gas have on our government. They drove home that real solutions to the climate crisis won’t be easily solved by someone new sitting in the Oval Office. We need our elected leaders at every level — from city council all the way up — to take climate change seriously. And that starts with making Big Oil pay for the damages that Charleston and other cities are facing.

Whether you’re voting this weekend or not, you should know where the candidates stand. Watch our town hall livestream on Facebook to get the full story.

P.S.: You’ll hear more from CCI and EXXONKNEWS this year about elected officials across the country who are doing it right, so stay tuned. Do you know a climate accountability champion? Email me and tell me about them. We want to make sure their work gets the attention it deserves.