The most important takeaways from the Democrats’ climate town hall

As Hurricane Dorian marched up the east coast, Democrats talked climate change.
As Hurricane Dorian marched up the east coast, Democrats talked climate change.
Image: AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton
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CNN aired interviews with 10 Democratic presidential candidates last night, with all seven hours centered on the global climate crisis. We watched it all so you didn’t have to.

The candidates align on the basics: Yes, of course, they believe in science. Yes, of course, they would rejoin the Paris accord, and believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change when it says the globe has just over a decade to avert catastrophe. They have universally adopted a goal of net-zero emissions by at least 2050. 

Yet how they expect the country to get there varies widely. 

A central theme of the night was sacrifice. Many of the candidates’ climate change strategies require vast amounts of capital, from Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion to Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion. Who is going to end up paying that bill? A rotating cast of interviewers from CNN pushed candidates on whether individual taxpayers would shoulder the burden.

And would their policies infringe on citizens’ autonomy when making all the little choices that build a life: what car you drive, what food you eat, what light bulbs illuminate your home, even where you raise your family? 

Each of the 40-minute interviews moved quickly. In aggregate, the marathon slog would test even the most dedicated of informed citizens. Here’s what you need to take away from their appearances.

Julián Castro

The planet is burning, says Julián Castro, and we don’t need climate scientists to tell us what we see with our own eyes. Citing the UN report that gives humanity a short-term deadline to “get this right,” the former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and San Antonio mayor announced a program that would recommit the US to the Paris accord via executive order and invest heavily in solar and wind energy. Fossil fuel exploration on federal lands would be banned absolutely, he said. Under a Castro administration, the US would reach net zero emissions by 2045, with the rest of the world inspired to follow suit by 2050. 

These, and other such policies, form his $10 trillion People and Planet First plan, released on Sep. 3. Many of its proposals echo those of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, including a promise to end taxpayer subsidies for fossil fuel production. Castro would institute a carbon pollution fee on industrial-scale polluters, he said, and bring an end to “the influence of big special interest” in US lawmaking. But on natural gas, he was a little more circumspect. He described the fuel, which is not renewable, as a “bridge” to a more sustainable future, and said he would not institute an immediate ban on fracking. 

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang’s perspective on the climate crisis can appear more extreme than his competition’s. Last night, he advocated for a constitutional amendment that would make it the country’s responsibility to safeguard the environment for future generations. He has previously argued that the United States needs to move its population to higher ground—literally. He’s also a vocal proponent of researching geoengineering solutions like cloud seeding and energy alternatives like thorium-based nuclear reactors. “If you’re attacking on one side, you should also be researching alternatives on the other,” Yang said last night. “That’s just responsible leadership.” 

But when it comes to the nuts and bolts of his climate plan, Yang is all about the money—though specific figures and commitments rarely played into his answers. He’d eliminate all subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and use that money to support adaptation and resilience measures. He advocates a carbon tax to force polluting industries to internalize the cost of their carbon emissions. And broadly, he advocated for tying economic incentives to behaviors that support the fight against climate change.

For individual Americans, that means setting citizens up to make better long-term decisions for themselves and the Earth. He thinks his hallmark universal basic income proposal—$1,000 per adult per month—would be a step toward lightening the load. (Although how far that would go toward supporting the locally-sourced, vegetarian diet Yang says would be “healthy on an individual and societal level” remains to be seen.) At the same time, though, he ended his interview on the point that individual choice doesn’t actually have much to do with emissions reductions. When Wolf Blitzer asked him what he’d ask Americans to sacrifice in the name of averting climate catastrophe, he pushed them to think bigger: “The reality is we need to bring the entire world together.” 

Kamala Harris

Senator Kamala Harris of California is a former prosecutor, and she takes a prosecutorial approach to the climate crisis. Harris said she would declare a national emergency over water on her first day in office, disallow all fracking on public lands, and—though perhaps not on the first day of her presidency—sue petroleum companies to ensure accountability for their roles in creating the climate crisis. “There has to be accountability and consequences,” she said, reminding viewers of her history of taking on big oil in California. She is prepared to use unilateral executive action for environmental issues if there is no congressional support.

As part of the California senator’s $10 trillion plan, Harris would ensure that all school buses are powered by electricity by 2030 and all vehicles on the roads would be zero-emissions by 2045. She would impose a carbon tax and use its funds to invest in communities that are disproportionately impacted by environmental ills, explaining, “I consider it my responsibility to leverage power on behalf of communities that have been ignored.” She would also set aside $250 billion to go into reestablishing infrastructure.

Harris said that a strong economy and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive, and that incentivizing sustainability will lead to innovation. The senator joked that though she doesn’t like paper straws, she supports a ban on single-use plastics like plastic drinking straws—and believes legislative changes would motivate people to invent better alternatives to the products we use today. Harris also noted that, though she enjoys the occasional cheeseburger herself, she would change food labeling requirements so that consumers would understand the environmental impact of the food they eat, including meat.   

Amy Klobuchar

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has a climate change plan that would cost $2 to $3 trillion dollars, and she thinks it can be paid for by taxing carbon, among other things. But she argued that everyone needs to make it their mission to contend with the climate crisis now, just as previous generations rallied in World War II and during the civil rights movement. She talked about the little things that individuals will be able to do: washing clothes with cold water, switching to energy efficient light bulbs. 

And maybe changing your job, as new industries expand. “I think we have to make jobs a major part of this,” she said. “Even in today’s economy, wind and solar are growing areas for new jobs.”  

Klobuchar does have emissions targets and plans to hit them by 2050, though she said sooner would be better. She is a sponsor of the Green New Deal, but wants to be “honest” and realistic about the transitional period, which means reviewing fracking permits but not necessarily stopping the practice, and halting the creation of new coal plants while improving the environmental standards at existing plants as this energy is phased out. 

The senator spoke about environmental justice, saying that people in poor communities often pay the highest price for climate change. Under her leadership, no one who earns less than $150,000 would be responsible for damage due to climate change. Mitigation strategies, like moving homes away from areas threatened by rising waters, could be paid for through fees from carbon pricing, she suggests. Klobuchar is also interested in initiatives to improve the environmental use of farmland and aligning the federal farm bill with environmental goals by encouraging planting trees and winter crop cover. 

Joe Biden

The former vice president wants you to know that he’s cared about climate change for a long time. He introduced the first Senate climate change bill more than three decades ago, in 1986. “PolitiFact said it was a game changer,” he told host Anderson Cooper—twice. 

But simply caring about the environment doesn’t make Biden stand out today. He worked to distinguish himself from the pack by highlighting the role of international relations in combatting climate change. “We should be organizing the world, demanding change,” he said. “We need a diplomat-in-chief to put this together. That’s in my wheelhouse.” He repeatedly emphasized that while the United States accounts for 15% of global emissions, the rest of the world makes up 85%. Biden thinks he’s the one to hold other countries to account. 

Biden threw around a collection of national policy suggestions, often pointing to potential for industry growth. “This is an enormous opportunity. We can create over 10 million jobs making 25 bucks an hour,” he said. An efficient rail system would take millions of cars off the road, while climate-efficient appliances would reduce billions of tons of CO2 emissions. Biden was careful not to ignore corporate interests; he said he would not call for a blanket ban on fracking for natural gas, but would stop new drilling on federal land and evaluate if existing fracking is safe.

Biden faced questions over his commitment not to take money from fossil fuel executives. An audience member asked Biden about his plans for a fundraiser hosted by Andrew Goldman, the co-founder of natural gas company Western LNG. Biden insisted that his staff told him Goldman is not involved in the running of the company. “We check every single contribution,” he said. 

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders is proud of his climate-change program. On Aug. 22, the Vermont senator released his plan to devote $16.3 trillion to tackling the crisis—the “largest, most comprehensive program” presented by a candidate ever, he said. The first question taken by the senator was a crucial one, then: Where is that money going to come from? Sanders’ answer was his most direct of the night: By eliminating hundreds of billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies, cutting military spending to defend oil interests, selling public-owned wind and solar energy, and creating 20 million clean energy jobs over 15 years. Oh, and higher taxes for the ultra-rich. 

There’s a great deal of nuance in Sanders’ Green New Deal (same name, different details), but beyond that first response little of it came through in his interview. Instead, Sanders leaned on the emotional heft of his previous policy positions. He has supported women’s right to choose; naturally he supports policies that put birth control in the hands of women around the world, easing the environmental burden of population growth. He has a 100% pro-union voting record, so of course, “the coal miners in this country, the men and women who work on the oil rigs are not my enemy.” Climate change is the enemy, so he’ll guarantee income for five years for any worker laid off due to a contracting fossil fuel industry, along with education to move into a new profession. 

Historical precedent isn’t everything, though. In response to a softball question from Anderson Cooper about whether he’d reinstate the energy-saving lightbulb laws just overturned by President Trump (answer: “Duuuuuuh!”), Sanders spoke to the promise in new innovations like LEDs: “If we have the political will to use that technology, maybe we can save the planet.” But the same argument didn’t extend to nuclear energy, which he opposes expanding in the name of safety and high upfront costs. 

Elizabeth Warren

“Among my many plans,” says Elizabeth Warren, she has “an aggressive plan” to tackle climate change. Giving out deadlines for the three industries responsible for 70% of carbon emissions in the US, Warren promised that by 2028 she would only allow new construction of buildings with no carbon emissions; by 2030, new vehicle production will have to be at net-zero carbon emissions; and by 2035, the production of electricity will follow. 

While acknowledging her plan is ambitious, Warren says she won’t make up for it with nuclear energy; on the contrary, she pledges not to open any new nuclear plants, and to wean the country off all nuclear reactors.

Unlike Sanders, Warren doesn’t believe in the necessity of public ownership of energy utilities—preferring regulation as a way to encourage new solutions. She is in favor of a carbon tax (“you’ve gotta clean up your own messes,” she says, quoting her mother), whose income would be reinvested in the communities that have been affected by climate change and environmental destruction.

The senator acknowledged that there will be people whose jobs will be lost or modified as the energy industry shifts, though she promised her plan would create at least 1.2 million jobs: “good jobs, union jobs.” Warren says the plan will provide employment for expert workers in rebuilding infrastructure, for instance, or retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency. She didn’t offer specifics about support for those who would end up without a job. 

And Warren rejected the idea that the higher price tag of Sanders’ plan was an indicator of higher commitment. “This is not a moment where we just say, you know what, we just need to put some money on it, and we’ll fix it,” she said.

Pete Buttigieg

Compared to the previous two speakers, South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg was less focused on taking on corporations. Buttigieg called for the need to “unify the country around the problem of climate,” and to involve actors that haven’t been much involved in solutions—he named the agricultural sector, and hinted at the broader private sector, too.  

Buttigieg didn’t shy away from leveraging his understanding of flyover county and the values of conservative Americans. Asked how he would address the skepticism of nearly half of Indiana residents about the reality of climate change, he said he would find common ground in faith-based language: “At least one way to talk about [emission of pollutants] is that it is a sin,” he said, while expanding the concept to non-religious viewers: “You don’t need to be religious to see the moral dimension of this.” On the issue of job loss from the fossil fuel industry, Buttigieg was somewhat more specific than Warren, mentioning funds for retirement and healthcare that are part of his program, as well as support in retraining and support.

The mayor was called out for his personal use of private flying, but he somewhat deflected the criticism by highlighting that he doesn’t think it’s reasonable to demonize air travel—though he supports the development of better railway infrastructure. (“I don’t even want some Japanese-level trains, just give me some Italian-level trains.”) Buttigieg pushed back on the idea that it is a consumer’s responsibility to adopt more sustainable behavior. Instead, he thinks his proposed regulations and interventions would naturally reshape consumer habits—the same “carrots and sticks” approach referenced by Sanders.

Beto O’Rourke

Beto O’Rourke has a reputation for inspiring an audience, but leaving one with the impression that not as much was said when it’s all done. That reputation stayed intact last night. It wasn’t that Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke didn’t have plans. He did: ban all new drilling on public lands and offshore waters, enact a cap-and-trade system to price carbon (though not a tax), protect the most vulnerable from the ravages of climate change, and enact a $5 trillion plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. That was the former Texas congressman at his strongest.  

But when answers weren’t close at hand, O’Rourke veered off into platitudes and campaign trail themes. Trump’s trade and immigration policies took a lashing. When asked what the US would do to protect resources like the Amazon rainforest, O’Rourke didn’t have specific policies, but emphasized America’s leadership and, by extension, his own. “The US…the indispensable country,” he said, “has the opportunity to lead, and as president I will.”

Still, O’Rourke’s concern came across as genuine. He insisted we need to act within the next 10 years to keep emissions below dangerous levels. Climate change will ravage his hometown of El Paso, Texas, a city expected to be “uninhabitable” based on current warming trends. He had watched Houston be battered by multiple 500-year storms in just the last five years. Without urgent action, more cities would follow. Tapping the rhetoric that has catapulted him onto the presidential race, O’Rourke said this existential challenge could inspire America’s “finest hour.” “We don’t get a second chance at this,” he said. “I see this from my kids…whose judgement I fear more than anything else.” 

Cory Booker

Cory Booker sees global warming as the “most existential crisis for our society and planet Earth.” Addressing it means putting it at the center of decision making in the White House: “It is the lens through which we must do everything that we do.” 

What would Booker do? The former mayor of Newark and New Jersey senator laid out his $3 trillion plan, which would aim for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2030 and a carbon-neutral economy by 2045. Specifics include a ban oil drilling and fracking on public lands, encouraging safe nuclear power, investing more in R&D, and making climate action part of foreign aid and trade deal conversations.

Yet Booker admitted the the US already faces a punishing future of unprecedented natural disasters. “Resilience, resilience, resilience,” he advocated. A new permanent fund would ensure disaster relief would never be subject to partisan politics. When asked if some coastal areas should be abandoned, he stopped short of calling for retreat (as did other candidates), but noted climate refugees were already here in the US: Native American communities in Louisiana have left ancestral homelands inundated by rising seas. 

Booker linked climate change to various ills facing the US today: corporate corruption, campaign finance, agriculture, toxic pollution, healthcare, environmental justice. “All these things are interrelated,” he said. “You can’t separate them out.” Booker ultimately framed global warming as an existential danger, but also an opportunity to end US subsidies for the things that “make us sick and unhealthy and hurt our environment.”