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10 Takeaways from the Democrats’ Historic Climate Town Hall

Seven hours of climate stumping wasn’t always fun, but it was often fascinating

CNN Democratic Presidential Town Hall: The Climate Crisis New York, NY 2019

CNN Democratic Presidential Town Hall: The Climate Crisis New York, NY 2019

Edward M. PioRoda/CNN

Progressives and environmentalists have been clamoring for a climate debate among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates — seeking snappy, digestible back and forth between the candidates to gauge the differences in their approach to our gravest environmental challenge.

Because the Democratic National Committee blocked that effort, banning issue-specific debates, Americans were offered, instead, a seven-hour climate talkathon — with each of 10 qualifying candidates answering questions, individually, in 40-minute town hall segments broadcast on CNN.

The result was earnest and — let’s face it — exhausting. CNN should be commended for their selection of town-hall questioners, including scientists and activists from the Sunrise Movement and 350.org. But the overall moderation was loose, and questions strayed from addressing global into more general environmental issues, like the delisting of the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act and whether or not to ban plastic straws. The frequent updates on hurricane Dorian, however, underscored the urgency of the night’s core topic.

We can’t pretend it was fun. But it was historic: This is almost certainly the longest stretch of programming a U.S. news network has ever dedicated to the topic of climate change. We watched all ten of the candidates make their case for their candidacies on the basis of their plans to keep the planet from overheating.

JULIAN CASTRO

The former mayor of San Antonio and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development leaned on his executive experience and repeatedly pointed to his work protecting vulnerable communities — framing his plan to fight global warming as helping those “who can least afford to deal with the climate crisis.”

Castro’s delivery was characteristically low-key, bordering on sleepy. He began with a shoutout to Jay Inslee, the Washington governor and former presidential candidate whose insistence on centering climate change as the central issue 2020 is the biggest reason the CNN town hall even took place. Castro also smartly gave props to the student activists of the Sunrise Movement, whose activism has placed the Green New Deal on the lips of politicians from left (Alexandria Ocasio Cortez) to center (Amy Klobuchar).

Castro seeks to get the nation to net zero carbon emissions by 2045, and to lead the rest of the world to that mark by 2050. In a memorable exchange, a teenager from Sunrise movement asked Castro why Americans should trust him to rein in fracking when he welcomed the oil and gas extraction method as mayor of San Antonio. Castro said that was a decade ago, when people were talking about natural gas as a “bridge fuel” between coal and renewables. “We’re coming to the end of that bridge,” he insisted. He said that banning fracking would be a local decision. 

Chiefly, Castro positioned himself as a fighter for impoverished Americans who are most disadvantaged by climate change. “People who are poor and communities of color take the brunt,” he said, calling for “new civil rights legislation” to combat environmental racism, including giving communities affected by environmental degradation standing to sue polluters. “I want to vest that power back in the people,” Castro insisted, saying he would give them the “tools to fight back.”

ANDREW YANG

Yang came to the climate town hall caffeinated and delivered a sharp performance. He promotes a variety of unusual ideas — including a constitutional amendment to safeguard the environment — and the town hall format gave him the room to unpack them. 

Yang addressed, for example, his vision of ditching GDP as the chief measurement of economic well-being — “We’re following it off a cliff,” he insisted — in favor of metrics that include environmental sustainability, while blasting the “false dichotomy [of] what’s good for the planet is bad for the economy.” 

Yang — who has often been a one-trick pony, talking up his $1,000 a month “freedom dividend — did touch on the issue, of course, insisting Americans will be much freer to focus on climate change if they’re economically secure enough to pay the rent, or fuel up their car to flee an impending hurricane for example. 

But Yang had a lot more to offer Wednesday night, much of it quite different from the other candidates. As a means of financing the transition away from carbon-based fuels, Yang called called for ending subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, who he insisted have taken congress “hostage.”

Yang also discussed his faith in the nuclear industry as a low-carbon fuel source — calling for a move to thorium fuel reactors — and even talked up geoengineering, which uses manmade interventions to cool the climate. “In a crisis all solutions have to be on the table,” he said.

KAMALA HARRIS 

Harris, the California senator, came to the climate debate with fewer specifics than many of her rivals, focusing instead on the importance of leadership and her track record confronting corporate interests. In the candidate’s best moment of the night, CNN’s Erin Burnett asked Harris if she would consider suing ExxonMobil. The former California attorney general shot back immediately: “I have sued ExxonMobil.” 

Harris is not a natural in a town hall format. The lack of an opponent to turn her fire on seems to leave the former prosecutor uncharacteristically unmoored. But she frequently turned to the enemies out of the room, the “powerful interests” she insisted need to be “held accountable,” like the Tobacco companies were, for “bad behaviors” that are “causing harm and death.” 

She came out strongly in favor of stopping fracking and offshore drilling but downplayed hope for bipartisan action in Congress. She insisted however, “I will do what’s necessary,” to confront the crisis, including through executive action.

Harris labored to emphasize that the response to climate change will not be disruptive to American life, proclaiming her love for cheeseburgers but calling for a ban on plastic straws. She suggested what’s necessary to meet the crisis has less to do with personal sacrifice, and more to do with setting high standards, and forcing the private sector to innovate to meet them: “We have seen innovation take place when leaders lead.”

AMY KLOBUCHAR 

Klobuchar gets the rhetoric about the fierce urgency of the climate change right. “That movie The Day After Tomorrow, it’s happening today,” she said. But her climate plan is less ambitious than most Democratic primary contenders. She calls for carbon neutrality by 2050, and the federal investment she’s proposed is only a fraction of Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion, for example.

Klobuchar focused chiefly on restoration of the Obama legacy — The Paris climate accord, the  clean power plan, and the gas mileage standards abandoned by president Trump — and putting a price on carbon, whether through cap and trade or a carbon tax. 

Many of her proposals seemed small ball and technocratic — focused on the “low hanging fruit” of green building standards and high efficiency appliances, or  “building a fridge to the next century,” as she put it in a “bad mom joke.”

Promising Americans would not have to surrender their burgers and cheese, Klobuchar also said that fracking would continue under her administration. “I think I’m being honest,” she said. “We won’t immediately get rid of it.” 

JOE BIDEN

A spunky Joe Biden came to the CNN event with enough verve that he burst a blood vessel left eye. He gave a spirited defense of his climate plan, which has one of the lowest price tags of any of the candidates in the field: “Yes, I think it is aggressive enough.”

Biden played up his experience in foreign affairs as critical to moving the needle on climate change, which he underscored as a threat to our national security as well as the livable environment. “We make up 15 percent of the problem — we have to get the rest of the world to come along,” he said, insisting that his experience in building a foreign policy consensus is more important than the specifics of any candidate’s plan. 

Biden called repeatedly for getting the community of nations to “up the ante” on climate commitments, and to let bad actors know they will “face consequences” if they don’t get on board. “We should be organizing the world, demanding the change,” Biden said. “We need a diplomat in chief in order to put this together. That’s what I’ve done.”

Biden was energetic, and unusually sharp, at least by comparison to his previous debate performances. He fought back against the doom and gloom that characterizes much of the climate debate and played up the “enormous opportunity” of revolutionizing our economy to meet the challenge, including creating millions of jobs paying “25 bucks an hour.”

The performance wasn’t flawless. Biden dodged a question on whether U.S. fossil fuel exports should continue, and there was confusion about whether a rich fundraiser holding an event for Biden on Thursday, Andrew Goldman, was in fact an executive at a natural gas company, muddying Biden’s commitment to eschew fossil fuel money in the campaign.

But Biden put to rest some questions about whether he sees climate as a true priority, calling it an “existential threat” and insisting: “We have to act. Now. Now!”

BERNIE SANDERS

While some candidates have called the Green New Deal too radical, Sanders has embraced the proposal’s bold (albeit still somewhat ambiguous) reimagination of the American economy. The day after climate hawk Jay Inslee dropped out of the presidential race, Sanders picked up the mantle by unveiling a very GND-esque, $16 trillion climate plan. He brought his plan’s energy into the town hall on Wednesday. “we are fighting for the survival of the planet Earth,” he said. “How is this not a major priority?

In order to help keep the planet habitable, Sanders called for putting an end to fracking, cutting military spending, and even working to check population growth. How would he curb population growth? By promoting birth control and a woman’s right to choose around the world. “Especially in poor countries where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, [they should] have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they want to have,” he said.

ELIZABETH WARREN

Elizabeth Warren was one of several candidates who took the town halls as an opportunity to release a sweeping new plan to tackle the climate crisis. For advice, she went to Jay Inslee, the Washington governor who based his entire presidential campaign around the environment before leaving the race. Taking a cue from Inslee, Warren’s plan calls for ending greenhouse gas emissions from buildings, vehicles, and the electrical grid within 10 years through subsidies for green development, a suite of regulations, and more.

Warren touted the plan on Wednesday night, but her most memorable moment may have come when she scoffed at Chris Cuomo’s question about whether the government should be in the business of telling Americans which kinds of lightbulbs they should use. “Give me a break,” she said before noting that there are a lot of different ways to curb energy consumption. “But this is exactly what the fossil-fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”

“That’s where we need to focus,” she added. “And why don’t we focus there? Corruption!”

Very on-brand. In the best way possible.

PETE BUTTIGIEG

One way to get through to Americans about the realities of climate change is to frame it not only as a moral issue, but as a religious issue. Pete Buttigieg, who has spoken openly about his faith in the past, took the idea to the American people on Wednesday night. “If you believe that God is watching as poison is being belched into the air of creation, and people are being harmed by it — countries are at risk of vanishing in low-lying areas ⁠— what do you suppose God thinks of that?” he said. “I bet he thinks it’s messed up.”

Buttigieg also landed a novel analogy while criticizing President Trump and Republicans in Congress. “You could argue that of all the horrible things that this president has done, the thing that will be most remembered 50 or 100 years from now will be the failure to act on climate,” he said. “Congress right now is like a room full of doctors arguing over whether medication or surgery is the best approach, and the other half are saying cancer doesn’t exist.”

“This is a life or death issue,” he continued, “and the president is busy drawing with a Sharpie on a hurricane map. He’s in a completely different reality than the rest of us.”

BETO O’ROURKE

In the early days of his presidential campaign, O’Rourke was skewered for a lack of concrete positions or a defined ideology. He has since worked to counter that perception with a Warren-like flurry of policy plans and white papers, and any hint of vagary or equivocation was gone Wednesday when O’Rourke discussed the climate crisis.

O’Rourke pushed for a rapid decarbonization and didn’t shy away from proposals that won’t win him friends in the fossil fuel industry. He supported a ban on offshore drilling and called for other “keep it in the ground” policies to limit fossil fuel exploration of federal lands and to update current leases to reflect the climate costs of coal, oil and gas extraction. 

Perhaps his best moment came when he discussed the humanitarian costs of natural disasters that are growing more damaging as humanity pumps more heat into global weather systems. O’Rourke acknowledged that rich nations from the global north are responsible for the bulk of the emissions warming the planet right now. And he called for action to help climate refugees, pushing the federal government to extend “temporary protected status” to residents of the Bahamas — a designation that would make it easier for them to live and work in the United States while the island nation recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Dorian.

Amid a presidential campaign where he has struggled to keep pace in the polls and has underwhelmed in the debates, it has been at times easy to forget what made O’Rourke so electrifying less than a year ago as a long-shot Senate candidate. But on Wednesday night,  in a setting suited to his rhetorical skills and an issue in his wheelhouse, the promise and potential of O’Rourke’s candidacy was fully on display.

CORY BOOKER

The expression isn’t “ask a stupid question, get a very smart answer,” but sometimes that’s how it plays out anyway.

During Cory Booker’s audition to be the most powerful person on a planet facing a global environmental crisis, he was asked if his being a vegan (horrors!) meant he would attempt to ban or restrict meat and dairy from American diets. (Other candidates faced similar inquiries about the climate costs of meat production, but, we’d note, none of the carnivorous contenders were asked whether they’d mandate vegetarians scarf a weekly cheeseburger.)

To his credit, Booker went beyond the obvious (“no”) to discuss how our agricultural systems harm the most vulnerable Americans at every step — all in service of a system that punishes small farmers, produces unhealthy food and creates massive carbon emissions. The Senator called for changes in government incentives to push farmers toward more sustainable methods and consumers toward healthier diets, including in low-income communities where healthy choices are often in short supply.

Booker also delivered some straight talk when asked about nuclear power, saying that a nation trying to radically remake its energy infrastructure in the span of a decade could not afford to swear off one of its largest sources of climate-friendly electricity.

The candidate also called for a ban on fracking on federal land, though he stopped short of calling a blanket halt to the oil and gas extraction technique. And when asked whether he would support a look at geoengineering, Booker was candid about how he needed to learn more before taking a more firm position — confessing his lack of knowledge while referencing his beloved Star Trek.

We don’t know yet how many people were still tuned in when Booker took the stage at 11:20 p.m. eastern — more than 6 hours after Julian Castro led off the night. But the New Jersey Senator made the most of his slot.

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