On Wednesday, September 4, ten Democratic presidential candidates participated in a 7-hour long marathon of back-to-back town hall-style interviews on the climate crisis, taking questions from CNN anchors and audience members.
Yep: Seven. Whole. Hours. That’s a really long amount of time to listen to… well, just about anyone on any topic, let alone one of the most important crises of our time. The climate crisis is becoming more indisputable each day, leading to deadly droughts and floods, food shortages around the world, and powerful storms like Hurricane Dorian, which has already left 20 people dead in the Bahamas and knocked out power for more than 200,000 people in the Carolinas, according to the New York Times. And voters are taking notice: According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 56 percent of registered voters said the climate crisis is an emergency, and that number jumps to 74 percent when you look specifically at 18- to 34-year-old voters.
While this town hall was desperately needed, it was still a far cry from what activists really want: an official Democratic primary debate dedicated to the climate crisis. And an argument could be made that we still need one: After all, it’s difficult to measure a candidates’ positions against another’s when they aren’t on stage together, holding each other accountable. But the Democratic National Committee refused to hold a debate, so here we are, glued to TV screens for seven hours. Here are some of the key takeaways from each candidate during their time on stage:
Former Vice President Biden still plans to attend a fundraiser hosted by a fossil fuel executive.
The Democratic front runner — who stands a whopping ten points ahead of his rivals, according to some polls — seemed ill-prepared for many of the well-planned attacks against him, not unlike his performance at the debates.
Isaac Larkin, a doctoral student at Northwestern University and a Bernie Sanders supporter, asked Biden: “How can we trust you to hold these corporations accountable when you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser held by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?” According to The Intercept, which published a story about Biden attending Goldman’s fundraiser just hours before the climate town hall, Goldman and Biden have “deep ties,” since Goldman was Biden’s advisor during his Senate days and the Northeast director of finance for Biden’s 2008 campaign.
It seemed that much of the missing information had to be filled in by CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, who explained that Goldman, a co-founder of Western LNG, a natural gas production company in Texas, had no actual executive responsibilities with the company — he was just an investor. Biden said that his staff researched the Securities and Exchange Commission records to make sure that he wasn’t receiving any money from a fossil fuel executive, and if it turns out that he was wrong about Goldman, he “will not in any way accept his help.”
Andrew Yang is down to research further into cloud seeding and other unproven technological advancements.
The former tech executive was asked if he could “quantify the reduction in CO2 attainable from geoengineering strategies” that his plan proposes, and he either could not or simply did not during the town hall.
“If you look at my plan, of the $5 trillion, like a fraction of one of the trillions is looking at geoengineering,” he said, adding that “it is not the primary approach.”
That question lead Wolf Blitzer to ask the entrepreneur why he’d be willing to invest time and money into technology that had been unproven to actually curb the climate crisis when there are so many solutions that have been proven to work. One example of a risky bet? Cloud seeding, which is literally shooting artificial substances like dry ice into clouds to force rain. Dry ice is 100% carbon dioxide.
“We’re here together because we can this is a crisis,” Yang told Blitzer. “If you were attacking on one side, you should be researching various alternatives on the other. That, to me, is just responsible management and responsible leadership.”
But the candidate also said that he’d eliminate gross domestic product as a measure of national success and replace it with a system that includes environmental factors. "Let's upgrade it with a new scorecard that includes our environmental sustainability and our goals," he said. So, it’s a mixed bag.
Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro focused on combating environmental racism.
During his town hall segment, Castro prioritized his “new civil rights legislation” that would address environmental racism. "I know that too often times it’s people that are poor communities of color, who take the brunt of storms that are getting more frequent and more powerful,” he said.
Castro’s plan, according to his website, heavily focuses on two main issues: environmental justice and climate resilient communities. “This issue disproportionately affects communities of color and low-income Americans,” his plan reads, adding that he’ll propose new civil rights legislation to “address the disparate impact of environmental discrimination and dismantle structures of environmental racism,” reform the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance to help victims of environmental discrimination, and allow victims of environmental discrimination to sue under the right of action for the Title VI Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said “duh.”
At the forum, Sanders’ trickiest question was the first, in which he was asked if he would be willing to get rid of the filibuster — a Senate rule that requires 60 votes instead of a simple majority of 51 to move legislation forward — to pass a climate change deal. (California Senator Kamala Harris said she would.) He said he wouldn’t, adding that he doesn’t want “the Senate to become the House.” If elected president, he said, he would pass climate plans through a majority process. He later focused his town-hall time on his ambitious plan to combat the climate crisis that comes with a $16 trillion price tag over 10 years.
At one point, CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked Sanders if he would reinstate energy-saving lightbulb requirements that the Trump administration overturned earlier that day.
His response? “Duh!”
South Bend Mayor Buttigieg said combating the climate crisis could be “more challenging than” defeating Hitler.
“This is the hardest thing we will have done in my lifetime as a country,” he said, adding that it is “on par with winning World War II.”
He didn’t stop there, adding: “Maybe more challenging than that.”
“Does anybody really think we’re going to meet that goal if between now and 2050, we are still at each other’s throats? It won’t happen,” he said.
That wasn’t the only powerful soundbite Buttigieg got in. When he was asked if he supports changing the dietary guidelines to reduce red meat, which has a monumental impact on the environment, he said: “The important thing to understand is that we can have a more balanced diet and therefore a more balanced footprint and not abolish the cow,” the mayor said, adding: “[Abolishing the cow] is what people are saying about the Green New Deal. Because it’s an easy Republican talking point.”
New Jersey Senator Cory Booker reminded everyone that he is vegan.
The Senator said his administration would pull back subsidies to the meat and dairy industry.
“We are going to have to make sure our government is not subsidizing the things that make us sick and unhealthy and hurt our environment and start to incentivize the practices that get farming, and get agriculture, and get the health of our communities back,” he said.
He also got frustrated at the idea that nearly every candidate said they would rejoin the Paris climate accord — an idea he appreciates but, y’all, the bar is on the floor.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “That is, like, a cost of entry even to run for president or talk about the presidency.”
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is sick of the fossil fuel industry.
Warren, who called for a full ban on fracking, said that conversations that focus on “lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers” are exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants people focused on. She said those are the kinds of conversations that distract from the real contributors to the climate crisis, who would love nothing more than to keep polluting the planet at an astronomical rate.
Is it worth assessing your own consumption and habits to reduce your own footprint? Of course — but individual action is nothing in comparison to industrial waste. It’s important we address both in the fight for our future.
California Senator Kamala Harris isn’t afraid to sue the people responsible.
Harris said that her administration would go after oil and gas companies who have directly affected the climate crisis.
“They are causing harm and death in communities,” she said. “And there has been no accountability.” And when CNN anchor Erin Burnett asked if Harris would be willing to sue ExxonMobil, the former California attorney general shot back immediately: “I have sued ExxonMobil.”
She, unlike Sanders, said she would be willing to get rid of the Senate filibuster to move forward her climate plan, saying: “I will do what is necessary.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar faced her moderate past and current policy in a sea of Democrats with far more progressive plans.
Klobuchar certainly appeared to understand the urgency of the climate crisis, saying: “That movie The Day After Tomorrow, it’s happening today.” But her policy proposals are less progressive and less ambitious than her rivals — her $1 trillion plan would primarily restore and expand upon Obama-era policies.
She said she supported the removal of the grey wolf from the endangered species list because there were enough of them that they were endangered anymore. She said she supports “individual efforts” like “using cold water for the clothes [which] saves five times the energy.” (It’s important to note that just a few companies are responsible for the vast majority of the climate crisis, so making individual changes can only accomplish so much.) When it comes to fracking, she said: “I think I’m being honest. We won’t immediately get rid of it.”
Former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke wants to revive cap-and-trade for carbon emissions
O’Rourke said his administration would curb carbon emissions by introducing a national cap-and-trade system, which, according to the New York Times, means that the government issues a specific number of permits to companies that emit carbon dioxide, essentially capping their output.
Priya Subberwal, a New York University student, asked O’Rourke to clarify why he prefers cap-and-trade over a straight tax on carbon.
“We should certainly price carbon. I think the best possible path to do that is through a cap and trade system” he said. “It’s the best way to send a pricing signal.”