For seven hours, 10 Democratic presidential candidates answered voters' questions on climate change for CNN’s town halls. It was not exactly the full Democratic National Committee (DNC)-sponsored debate many activists and candidates had wanted, but it was the first time climate change had been discussed in such great detail on the national stage and brought to light the candidates differing views on what many scientists, policy experts, and business leaders have said is the existential threat in the world right now.
While the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, and even some in the DNC executive committee, had wanted a full debate that would not have been paywalled like the town halls or lasted seven hours on a weeknight, prohibiting many voters from watching, the general consensus among those who work in the climate space was pleasant surprise at both the substance of what was discussed and the political performance of the candidates.
It seems climate change has finally advanced beyond just a science and environmental issue to the level of other hot-button American political issues like reproductive rights, healthcare, taxation, and national security. The common thread through the town halls: holding the fossil fuel industry accountable through political, legal, and economic measures.
Throughout the evening, we heard candidates praise Washington state Governor Jay Inslee, who campaigned as the ‘climate candidate’ until low poll numbers and donations forced him out of the race. His legacy on clear climate action, however, lives on in various points of his former opponents’ plans.
1. Paris Is Waiting
Every candidate had a set of top climate priorities to tackle on the hypothetical “day one” should they take office. All said the U.S. would rejoin the Paris Agreement, the 2015 global deal signed by nearly 200 countries in an effort to curb carbon emissions and contain global warming to 2°C. Senator Cory Booker noted: “That is, like, a cost of entry even to run for president or talk about the presidency.”
President Donald Trump’s move in June 2017 to begin the withdrawal process from the agreement was largely seen as disastrous not just in terms of combating the effects of climate change, but diplomacy as well. The U.S. had been in negotiations for 21 years at that point, through multiple administrations. Barack Obama’s administration had fought to change the text in order to bypass a Republican Congress as well, noting the responsibility of the U.S. to sign because it is one of the world’s top polluters. As it stands, the U.S. withdrawal process will be complete just days before the 2020 election.
While some, even Trump himself, have pondered the thought of renegotiating the deal to appease Republicans, several countries dismissed that notion pretty quickly and hundreds of CEOs took on the challenge in the wake of the president’s announcement.
2. Making A New Economy Costs Money
Another point of consensus: fighting climate will not be cheap. It is rare politicians can agree on anything, let alone publicly and repeatedly admitting something that needs to be done is going to cost trillions of dollars, but that is what happened last night. Not one candidate shied away from saying the transition to a green economy would be expensive for both the government and businesses. Tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang set the stage for this part of the town halls early on by saying: “This country runs on the almighty dollar. It does not run on us doing the right thing.”
His focus on economic solutions to the climate crisis was shared by most of the other candidates, but they did differ on where that money would come from. Under Yang’s plan, he would tax companies’ carbon emissions at $40 to $100 per ton. He is also clear that half of that revenue would go toward a universal basic income and the other invested in clean energy development. Warren also said last night she supports a carbon tax rate, a point not outlined in her official policy proposal.
She pivoted instead, in what has become her signature narrative campaigning style, to respond to a question on the Trump administration rolling back energy efficiency standards as a way to explain her economic focus: “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% of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”
While Senators Bernie Sanders and Amy Klobuchar are co-sponsors of the Green New Deal, a sweeping policy proposal to overhaul the U.S. economy, most candidates did voice support for it—but on their own terms.
Senator Kamala Harris, in a surprising move, went as far as saying she would eliminate the filibuster in the Senate in order to pass it if she is elected. Harris is not known for her environmental experience, but she touted her experience investigating Exxon Mobil for having knowledge of climate risks when she was attorney general of California to help keep other fossil fuel companies accountable and make sure the deal passed.
One issue that was not fully discussed, however, was the matter of a jobs guarantee. A central part of the proposal is to potentially ramp up production of clean energy technology, electric vehicles, and green goods like, as one questioner put it, the way the country did at the outset of its involvement in World War II.
While that involves a varying number of jobs created, it also means training and retraining millions of workers in industries set to be outdated in a greener economy. A guarantee that these workers will have jobs is key to passing this legislation according to several political experts.
Max Burns, a Democratic strategist, told Fortune, “We don't really do justice to the scope and complexity of job guarantees if we wedge them into a 60-second sound byte during a climate town hall.” Sanders was the only one who confirmed that if elected, his version of the Green New Deal, would ensure workers would have an income for five years and the education and training needed for a new, greener industry in what he called the “just transition” of the economy.
Klobuchar’s line on the Green New Deal is an important one in this aspect as well, shared by Congressman Tim Ryan, who did not qualify for the town hall. The Minnesota senator has been focusing on this aspect of her support for the deal and said "we need to bring climate change home" to the middle of the country as an opportunity to create new jobs.
4. Joe Biden Appeared Weak on Climate
While the former vice president has been consistently polling high, last night was not a shining moment for him. Biden's answers to questions were often rambling and he failed to drill down on policy specifics in a setting that other candidates were able to do so.
Biden repeatedly said a line which irked many climate activists: that “even if the U.S. did everything perfectly,” it still only accounts for 15% of the global problem. The rest of the world accounts for 85%. While this is not technically false, it is inaccurate in the way he presented it.
The U.S. does account for 15% of carbon emissions globally, it is still one of the largest polluters by far. So yes, the rest of the world should take responsibility but looking at the data suggests the U.S. has a far greater burden than developing countries, island nations, and many greener western economies.
But, his biggest gaffe of the night came when a doctoral student from Northwestern University asked: “How can we trust you to hold [fossil fuel] corporations accountable when you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser held by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?” Biden is scheduled to attend the event the day after the town halls despite signing a pledge to not accept donations from fossil fuel companies.
At first the veteran politician said Goldman “is not a fossil fuel executive” and later during his session noted his staff had informed him of that. Goldman, however, is the co-founder of natural gas production company Western LNG and one of the firm’s large projects includes providing Asia with Canadian gas. After he was pushed on it, Biden relented and said he would not attend the fundraiser “if that turns out to be true.”
5. Trump Was Paying Attention
There is no indication the president watched the town halls intently nor that he even believes in climate change, but he did send a string of tweets outlining eight “facts,” as called them. They were either false or matters of opinion unsupported by evidence. However, the fact that he did take to Twitter might indicate some concern on his administration’s part about the climate movement taking such a strong hold in young voters, who comprise the largest potential voting block in the country. Several of the public questions during the town halls were from young activists who made up a relatively diverse group of people the network chose.
More must-read stories from Fortune:
—Will gaffes hurt Biden’s chances of a 2020 win? Strategists are divided
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—Facebook and Google met with U.S. intelligence about 2020 election
—MSNBC climate change forum will give a voice to those denied the DNC debate stage
—Is Biden preparing to lose in Iowa? His campaign says the caucus isn’t a must-win
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