Climate Crisis Town Hall Tested Candidates’ Boldness and Credibility

The 10 Democrats had a lot in common in their goals and policy ideas, thanks in large part to one who wasn’t there: Jay Inslee.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) answers questions at CNN's climate crisis town hall on Sept. 4, 2019. Credit: CNN video
While the Democratic candidates for president answered questions from the audience and CNN reporters, the news channel also showed video from Hurricane Dorian as moved northward along the Atlantic Coast. Sen. Cory Booker wrapped up the seven-hour town hall on climate policy with CNN reporter Don Lemon. Credit: CNN video

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Views of Hurricane Dorian’s destruction across the Bahamas and its path toward the Carolinas punctuated the first U.S. presidential candidates’ televised forum dedicated to climate change, reminding viewers of the stakes as 10 leading Democratic candidates pitched their climate policy ideas Wednesday night.

CNN’s juxtaposition of its unprecedented political forum with coverage of the record-breaking storm seemed to signal a new era in the long struggle over the U.S. role in addressing global warming.

There was none of the debate over science that has dominated U.S. political discussions and strangled action in recent years. Instead, candidates focused on how they would navigate a transition to what all agreed should be 100 percent clean energy by mid-century. Most of the sparring was over what would they do to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, how far they would go to change American lifestyles, and how would they marshal the money and political support.


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But a looming presence throughout the forum was the opponent that the Democratic winner will face a year from now. And the biggest question for the future of U.S. climate policy may be whether the political landscape has changed. Will President Donald Trump be forced to face questions on a crisis that is escalating on his watch? Or will the president and other opponents of climate action succeed in stalling the debate in the realm of doubt and denial?

The Twitter feed of Trump’s re-election campaign wasted no time in poking fun at the Democrats for endorsing bans on plastic straws, fracking and offshore drilling.

At least some of the Democrats appeared to be prepared for the political gauntlet they’ll have to run before they face the challenge of trying to execute their ambitious plans.

When Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was asked about Trump’s plan to erase lightbulb efficiency standards, she quickly shifted the conversation back to big policy ideas and called out the fossil fuel industry for trying to muddle the issue.

“Look, there are a lot of ways that we try to change our energy consumption and our pollution, and God bless all of those ways—some of it is with lightbulbs, some of it is on straws, some of it, dang, is on cheeseburgers,” Warren said. “But understand, this is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about.”

Warren said the focus should instead be the three sectors that produce 70 percent of carbon pollution: buildings, electricity and transportation. “We can set our targets and say no more by 2035,” she said.

The 11th Candidate: Jay Inslee

The influence of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ended his climate-focused presidential candidacy two weeks ago, was evident throughout the CNN forum. The town hall might not have happened without his unsuccessful prodding of the Democratic Party to hold a climate-only debate.

The evening began with former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro praising Inslee for bringing climate change to the forefront in the campaign. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) borrowed his retort that “wind power causes jobs,” and Warren openly adopted his multi-part climate platform.

All of the candidates embraced Inslee’s goal of getting the U.S. to net zero emissions by mid-century, which Inslee adopted from the IPCC’s latest science and set as the standard early on for Democratic field. The unanimity makes it easy to forget that as recently as 2016, President Barack Obama’s White House was talking about lowering carbon emissions 80 percent below 2005 levels.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, who endured some of the toughest grilling of the evening, was pressed on the question of why voters should trust him to accomplish something that Obama couldn’t manage.

“You’re looking at it—these people right here,” he responded. Biden was talking about the young activists from the Sunrise Movement and other groups, and the political momentum they could bring to the drive for climate action. Young activists made up a large part of the town hall audience and asked many of the questions. Biden and other candidates clearly were vying for their support to help carry them into the White House.

A recurring question for the evening—which some activists clearly saw as a touchstone for level of ambition—was whether the candidate supported a ban on fracking.

Since most permitting for oil and gas drilling happens at the state level, it is doubtful any president would have authority to institute a nationwide ban—certainly not without action by Congress. But Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made clear on Twitter after his forum appearance that he views a full fracking ban on public and private lands as integral to his climate plan. Biden, on the other hand, sought to lower expectations on whether such a ban could be accomplished. “I’m against more oil and gas drilling on federal lands,” he said. “We could pass national legislation, but I don’t think you’ll get it done to end all fracking unless you can show some physical security need.” 

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, meanwhile, said that although she would not support a fracking ban, there would be less of it under her plan, which would impose a fee on carbon. However, any price on carbon is likely initially to increase demand for natural gas as an alternative to more carbon-intensive coal for electricity, which could well be an incentive for increased fracking.

There was no one challenging the candidates to answer the arguments that Trump is sure to level next year on the costs of climate policies.

For example, while there were many questions on how the candidates would address environmental justice concerns and the challenges facing minority communities, there were no workers from fossil fuel industries among the questioners. On a day when the leader of the United Mine Workers Union was in Washington, D.C., blasting the idea of the Green New Deal, it was not clear who among the Democrats could make the strongest appeal on climate to both segments of the party’s traditional coalition—workers and environmentalists. Sanders, however, made a direct appeal. “The coal miners in this country, the men and women who work on the oil rigs, they are not my enemy,” he said. “What is my enemy is climate change.”

What Set the Candidates Apart?

With so much unanimity on goals and timetables, the candidates sought to play up the personal qualities they believe distinguish them as climate leaders.

Biden stressed his experience in foreign policy and his ability to bring the biggest polluters to the table on climate issues. If he were president now, he said, he would be pressing Brazil on the destructive blazes in the Amazon.

Harris repeatedly cited her experience as California attorney general as she sought to portray herself as the candidate who can be counted on to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable. But she said that she had sued ExxonMobil, when she had not while in the state’s top law enforcement role.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg played up his ability to reach out to Middle America on climate, and presumably enlist some of the same voters that Trump has appealed to.

“This is going to require action at every level of government, and beyond government,” he said. “We are only going to be able to tackle the climate issue when this amounts to a major national project that enlists the abilities of the public sector, the private sector, the academic sector, and folks who up until now have been made to feel like they’re part of the problem—rural America.”

Nat Keohane, senior vice president for climate at Environmental Defense Fund Action Fund, who attended the forum in New York, said he viewed the evening as an important moment for action on climate change—but he said even more attention to the issue was necessary by both the candidates and media.

“They need to be talking about climate in every part of this campaign, because it’s all about economic policy, it’s fundamental to foreign policy, to national security,” Keohane said. “It’s really valuable to have something like this that’s devoted to climate change, but we also have to make sure that climate change is a part of every debate and every discussion, so the American people can hear how the candidates are thinking about this crisis across all dimensions of the campaign.”

Snapshots from the 40-Minute Sessions

Following are snapshots from the candidates’ sessions, in the order they appeared, and links to ICN’s candidate profiles for more details on their climate proposals:

Julian Castro

Julián Castro, the former U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development, touched on a wide array of issues, from energy policy to climate justice, and appeared to have a solid grasp of the issues. While he dodged some tough questions, he told one young activist who challenged him on his past support for fracking: “You’re right.” He acknowledged that as mayor of San Antonio, he welcomed natural gas development. “At the time, we were talking about natural gas as a bridge fuel,” he said, but a decade later, “We’re coming to the end of the bridge.” While he said he would not support banning fracking outright, Castro said he would halt new oil and gas leasing on federal lands.

One of his strongest moments rhetorically came not on policy details but in response to a question asking whether the nation’s failure to address climate change is fair to its children. “This is the call of our generation,” he said. “If I’m elected president, I will make sure from my first day in elected office that we will take this existential threat seriously, that we do that for the benefit of our children and future generations.”

Castro also discussed several of his climate proposals, detailed here.

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang, a former technology executive, stuck to the main points of a climate plan that would end all subsidies for fossil fuels and include a carbon tax starting at $40 per ton. He said an effective climate policy would contribute to economic growth. “We can’t fall into this trap, this false dichotomy, that what’s good for the planet is bad for the economy,” he said.

He defended his proposal to relocate people from low-lying areas who are threatened by rising waters. In response to a question from a New York resident who lives at sea level, Yang said it is necessary to address the inevitable rise in climate refugees.

Read more about Yang’s climate proposals here.

Kamala Harris

Sen. Kamala Harris, who initially planned to skip the town hall, was animated but addressed weighty questions with mostly general responses that were short on specific solutions and goals. She did call for a shift toward zero emission vehicles and having all new school buses be electric by 2030.

In response to several questions, she emphasized her record of taking on the fossil fuel industry during her term as California attorney general. “It’s not a question of debating the science,” she said. “It’s a matter of taking on the powerful interests, taking on the polluters and understanding they have a profit motive. Let’s take them to court and let’s require that if they don’t change their behavior, they will pay fines and they will be held accountable.”

Read more from Harris’ newly released climate platform here.

Amy Klobuchar

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota emphasized more moderate aspects of her climate plan. She said she wouldn’t support a ban on fracking, although she promised to review every fracking permit within her first 100 days in office, and she said she would reverse the Trump administration’s move to relax curbs on methane emissions.

Klobuchar said her climate plan would include subsidies to help retrain energy sector workers for a variety of manufacturing jobs. “You’ve got to be honest with people about how you’re going to get the money and what you’re going to spend it on,” she said. “It’s going to be really hard to bring along those people that we need to win in the middle of the country.”

Read details of Klobuchar’s climate platform here.

Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s signature verbal fumbling was on display, yet moments of specificity emerged. In addressing the future of electric vehicles, for example, he called for 500,000 charging stations across the country and explained jobs would be created in the manufacturing sector and technology advancements would spur economic boom when sold worldwide. “We can create enormous opportunity,” he said, a theme of his climate action plan.

Biden was often tested with confrontational questions: his more measured implementation of the Green New Deal, his commitment to shunning campaign money with links to the fossil fuel industry and his need to bridge the generational gap on climate issues.

The 76-year-old former vice president was challenged by a 19-year-old climate activist, who asked: “How can we trust you to put us, the future, over the wants of large corporations and wealthy individuals.”

“Everything I’ve done has been to take on the polluters and take on those, who in fact, are decimating our environment,” he said. “That has been my career.”

Read more about Biden’s climate proposals here.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders breezed through the questions thrown at him by the crowd and CNN host Anderson Cooper, whether it was about the specifics of his Green New Deal proposal or politically sensitive topics such as taxation or population control. When asked if he would guarantee that the burden of paying for his $16 trillion climate plan won’t fall on American taxpayers, he said he wouldn’t make such a promise to fossil fuel companies, major corporations or wealthy individuals.

Sanders seemed to relish opportunities to outline his plans, including a proposal to guarantee paychecks and training to workers in the fossil fuel industry who may lose their jobs in a transition to renewable energy, or defending his position to phase out nuclear power. On his Green New Deal’s cost, and whether spending $16 trillion is realistic, Sanders gave a robust defense: “I think we have a moral responsibility to act, and act boldly,” he said. “And to do that, yes, it is going to be expensive.”

Read details of Sanders’ climate proposal here.

Elizabeth Warren

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren handily answered questions on a broad range of topics, she came back repeatedly to the same theme: fighting corruption in Washington, and the cozy relationship between the fossil fuel industry and the powers that be.

“We’ve got to be willing to fight back against these giant industries,” she said. “We put them on their back foot and we have a real chance to make the changes we need to make.”

Armed with an arsenal of plans—including some aspects of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate proposals—Warren hit on the issue of corporate accountability, made a case for phasing out nuclear power, and said she didn’t see Sanders’ plan for the public ownership of utilities as the right way forward. She also stressed investing in science, research and development, recalling the response to the smog crisis that faces Los Angeles in the 1970s. “We set emissions standards that at that moment the auto industry said, ‘We’ve got no way to meet them.’ The answer was, ‘Figure out a way,’” she said, pausing. “They developed the catalytic converter and lo and behold, they cut emissions.”

Warren also discussed several of her climate proposals, detailed here.

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke at several points about the role of cities and rural areas in reining in climate change. His said his own city is developing a climate action plan, but he stressed that communities can’t do it alone. This is why the human species invented government—to deal with issues bigger than we can handle on our own, he said.

Buttigieg often brings psychology and discussions of moral responsibility into his discussions of how to move forward. He talked about smoothing the transition for displaced fossil fuel workers, and how a just transition is about more than just creating jobs; it’s also about a sense of identity for workers and communities. We have to unify the country around the challenge of climate change, create a sense of national mobilization and focus on everyone being part of the solution rather than being the problem, he said. We can’t meet our climate goals, he said, if we’re still at each other’s throats.

Read details from Buttigieg’s climate proposals here.

Beto O'Rourke

Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman from El Paso, talked about the impact of climate change on migration. He said he would create a special asylum category for climate refugees who have been forced off their land by droughts in Latin American caused by carbon emissions in the United States. “Let’s begin by acknowledging our culpability,” he said. He suggested that citizens of the Bahamas whose communities have just been devastated by Hurricane Dorian be allowed into the country under a program called Temporary Protected Status. 

Asked whether people in his home state of Texas should be able to continue eating the steaks they’re famous for, given the beef industry’s heavy carbon footprint, O’Rourke said they should and that market forces would influence people’s choices once “a price on carbon” was in place. O’Rourke said he believed the best way to do that was through a cap-and-trade system, not a carbon tax.

Read more about O’Rourke’s climate proposals here.

Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey put efforts to fight climate change as the fulcrum of a larger quest for justice in all parts of America, from low-income inner-city neighborhoods to Iowa farms. Unlike many of his fellow Democratic candidates, Booker also said he supported current nuclear power plants, which he said the country needs to achieve his 2030 goal for carbon zero electricity, and an intensive research effort into next-generation nuclear, which he predicted could have no risks of meltdowns.

When a climate scientist from Rutgers, his home state university, asked him whether he supported research into “geo-engineering” as a means of dealing with global warming if carbon mitigation fails, Booker admitted that he knew little about such science but promised to read more about it. But he said a big part of his climate plan called for a “massive, moonshot-like investment” in green technology.

Read details from Booker’s climate proposals here.

InsideClimate News reporters Dan Gearino, David Hasemyer, Nicholas Kusnetz and Sabrina Shankman contributed to this report.

Published Sept. 5, 2019