CEDAR RAPIDS -- As Iowa readies for the caucuses ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Democratic candidates are making campaign swings through the state to talk up their plans for the economy, education and health care, among other issues.
But in Cedar Rapids — a city where historic flooding remains top of mind — climate change is taking center stage at a series of forums that aim to help voters dive deeper into candidates’ plans for addressing it.
State Sen. Rob Hogg, D-Cedar Rapids, hopes to get as many 2020 Democratic candidates as possible to participate in his series called “Climate Conversations,” or forums focused specifically on climate change.
“Iowans like to understand, Iowans like to get in on the sound bites and we like to be able to assess how deeply a candidate understands an issue and how deep their personal commitment is to act on those issues,” Hogg said. “Climate change is something that is important.”
So far, Hogg — along with co-sponsors the Sunrise Movement, the local Citizens’ Climate Lobby and other activist groups — have hosted three candidates: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, author Marianne Williamson and, most recently, former Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Sestak.
Sestak, who made his first campaign stop in Cedar Rapids on July 5 to participate in Hogg’s series, described climate change as the greatest threat to mankind.
“This issue is the most threatening to mankind, and how many times do you get the opportunity to actually go in depth?” Sestak said in an interview with The Gazette. “How many times do you find out (a presidential candidate) really knows what they’re talking about? I mean, do they really know the issue?”
Two more presidential candidates are scheduled to participate in the series this weekend.
John Delaney, a former U.S. representative and businessman from Maryland, will participate in a climate discussion from 3-4 p.m. Saturday at Groundswell Cafe, 201 Third Ave. SW.
Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton is scheduled to join the series at 7 p.m. Sunday at Lucky’s, 86 16th Ave. SW.
On the national level, climate change often is framed as a clean-energy issue “and only a clean-energy issue,” Hogg said. But it’s also a disaster relief and recovery issue.
When the Cedar River reached 31.12 feet in June 2008 — breaking the record crest by more than 10 feet — it impacted 5,309 homes and dislocated more than 18,000 Cedar Rapids residents. Iowa flooding in 2008 is now the sixth-largest Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster declaration based on estimated financial public assistance.
But the Cedar Rapids events are not strictly Iowa-specific.
Last week, Sestak said he supported a nationwide carbon fee and dividend as well as funding for direct air capture technology to reduce carbon emissions.
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He also took questions from attendees at the Cedar Rapids event on the role of family planning amid climate change and how he hopes to discuss the issue with people who don’t feel a sense of urgency about it.
A retired three-star Navy admiral, he touted his military background throughout the event and said he had the “global experience” to take on the issue on an international scale.
Phil Engen, the head of the Cedar Rapids chapter of Citizens’ Climate who attended the event, said the series is not only getting the candidates to discuss the issue, but bringing the discussion to voters’ minds as well.
“It’s really getting the candidates to speak directly to the issues, but also bringing us together to discuss them,” he said.
Hogg, who published a book in 2013 called “America’s Climate Century,” hopes Democratic candidates prioritize policy on the topic.
“It’s another reason why having a venue like this is better than the 45 seconds of the debate,” he said. “It allows us to have this broader discussion.”
Hogg is not recording these events, but said he is leaving it up to the individual campaigns whether to record the candidates’ statements.
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Sestak, who announced his candidacy June 23, did not participate in the televised Democratic presidential debates held over two nights later that week.
According to some climate activists’ estimates, the topic of climate change got only 15 minutes of discussion across four hours of debate.
A CNN poll released in April found 82 percent of Democratic or Democratic-leaning independent voters who participated in the poll listed climate change as a “very important” topic they would like focused on in the presidential race.
Some Iowa voters including Libby Gotschall Slappey, 67, of Cedar Rapids, who attended Sestak’s Climate Conversations event, said they are paying attention to what candidates have to say about the topic.
“Sestak is not the first candidate to say (climate change) is the most important issue, because it truly is the most important issue,” she said.
Some climate groups, including the Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace, have called for the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate focused specifically on climate change.
DNC Chairman Tom Perez said last month he doesn’t want to host an event centered only on one topic, but proposals to hold such a debate — or instead a climate change “forum” — are working their ways through party committees and could be decided in August.