The Democratic National Committee's summer meeting in San Francisco erupted into a hail of protests on Thursday, as unruly environmentalist activists condemned the party's decision not to hold a presidential primary debate focused exclusively on climate change — a demand long sought by left-wing activists.
The San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the environmentalist group Sunrise Movement posted a video of dozens of its members chanting the union hymn, "Which Side Are You On?" after the DNC's resolutions committee voted 17-8 not to have a climate-focused debate.
Some boisterous demonstrators seemingly struggled to remember more than the song's refrain, as others chanted, "They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there. You'll either be a union man, or a thug for J. H. Blair."
"This is a terribly frightening, existential crisis that demands a different course of action," said Muriel MacDonald, an organizer for the Sunrise Movement in the Bay Area. "If we play by the old rules, we are going to suffer terribly."
After the group stormed out, Symone Sanders, a senior advisor to presidential candidate Joe Biden, wrote on Twitter that a key sticking point was whether to have a climate change debate, as opposed to a less confrontational climate change forum.
"I said what do we tell folks who have also asked for debates and were told no and had to have forums?" Sanders wrote. "I named checked women’s repro groups, black women, Latinx, BLM and more."
Sanders rejected a claim by the Sunrise Movement that he was "trying to shut down the movement for a #ClimateDebate right now at the meeting. But her boss [Joe Biden] has publicly supported it multiple times. So…what’s going on?"
Amid all the infighting, a DNC official, speaking to protesters, suggested that some compromise remained possible.
Sunrise Bay Area separately quoted a DNC member as saying, “You have friends in there and we’re going to go for a floor vote in the #climatedebate resolution...we’re not giving up. There are people here fighting. We have your back."
DNC chairman Tom Perez has stuck by his earlier decision not to hold "single-issue" debates, instead planning at least a dozen debates, six in 2019 and at least six in 2020, in partnership with television networks. The third of that series is set for Sept. 12 and potentially Sept. 13 if enough candidates qualify.
Perez has argued that he wants the broadest audiences possible to see Democratic candidates discuss a wide range of issues. His aides also note that the party has received separate requests for single-issue debates on civil rights, guns, poverty and issues affecting older Americans.
Additionally, the party has barred its candidates from attending any non-DNC sponsored debate, which the chairman defines as candidates interacting on the same stage at the same time.
However, the party's Resolution Committee on Thursday did adopt a statement that encourages candidates to participate in unofficial "multicandidate" forums with candidates on the same stage. That could, however, meet Perez's definition of a "debate," and thus run afoul of existing rules barring candidates from such events not sanctioned by the party.
In a statement, Sunrise Movement called the day a "partial victory for young climate organizers nationwide," because "after months of campaigning," the resolutions committee had reversed a ban on presidential candidates participating side-by-side in "non-DNC sanctioned events to discuss the climate crisis."
But activists have long sought an official DNC-sanctioned climate-change debate. In an embarrassing blunder, dozens of Sunrise Movement protesters recently staged a sit-in protest at what they believed to be a Pennsylvania Democratic Party office lobby to demand the party organize such a debate.
Police arrested 11 individuals, and it later emerged there was no Democratic Party office there. The environmentalists said they had received bad information.
"If you can't figure out where the local Democratic Party offices are before you show up for the protest, I'm not sure that I trust your analysis of the climate science much less what to actually do about the problem," Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of The Breakthrough Institute, told Reuters.
Nevertheless, despite all the setbacks, on Thursday the group sounded a note of optimism, and vowed to continue to push for that goal.
"This partial victory shows the strength of the grassroots movement and the power of young people," said Sunrise Movement spokesperson Sofie Karasek. "In the coming days and months, we'll keep fighting to make sure the DNC and Tom Perez treat the climate crisis like the emergency that it is, and give it the airtime and attention it deserves."
However, political headwinds appeared to be running against the environmental activists. The bedlam came a day after Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who made climate change the center issue of his campaign, announced he was "withdrawing" from the 2020 presidential race, as the Democrat said "it's become clear" he didn't have a shot at winning the primary.
The environmental activist had urged the DNC to host a debate centered exclusively on climate change — only to fail to qualify to meet polling thresholds needed to attend the party's upcoming regularly scheduled debate in Houston, as well as a CNN town hall in New York dedicated to global warming.
"People will try to spin it differently but Inslee's lackluster performance is an obviously bearish indicator for the prioritization of climate change in Democratic politics," analyst Nate Silver aid Wednesday.
"Inslee, who could never improve on ~1% in the polls despite an intense focus on climate change, is a datapoint against the proposition that Democrats' votes are deeply motivated by policy concerns," he added.
At the same time, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders released a $16.3 trillion climate plan earlier this month, that expanded the Green New Deal. Sanders pushed for renewable energy across the economy by 2050 and sought an official declaration that climate change poses a national emergency.
Sanders described the plan as a "ten-year, nationwide mobilization centered on equity and humanity."
For his part, President Trump has said the Green New Deal would "crush the poor." The EPA, Trump said last month, has seen success by retooling and working on more practical solutions, including by issuing more "Superfund" grants to clean up polluted sites.
A United Nations report on climate change warned late last year that the world will face several consequences from climate change – extreme drought, food shortages and deadly flooding – unless there’s an “unprecedented” effort made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Then, last November, the Trump administration released a federal report that found that the impacts of climate change are being felt across the country, and “extreme weather and climate-related events” are going to worsen in the years to come — with a significant possible impact on the economy by the end of the century.
Some conservative commentators have argued that most proposed solutions would do more harm than good, and also have accused climate activists of sacrificing their credibility by crying wolf. In 2006, a NASA scientist and leading global warming researcher declared that the world had only 10 years to avert a climate catastrophe — a deadline that has come and gone.
A senior U.N. environmental official warned similarly all the way back in 1989 that "entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels if the global warming trend is not reversed by the year 2000."
Fox News' Andrew O'Reilly and The Associated Press contributed to this report.