The Growing Impatience for Action at CNN’s Climate-Change Town Halls
In June, during a rapid-fire round of questioning on the first night of the Democratic debates, Chuck Todd, of NBC, pressed each of the ten candidates onstage to identify the “greatest geopolitical threat to the United States.” Tying China, with four votes—and beating out Russia, Iran, and Donald Trump—was climate change. The answer offered both an overdue recognition of the dire times and an early sign that, at last, environmental action might be an imperative in the race for the Democratic nomination. Earlier in the summer, many activists had hoped for an official debate devoted to the issue, a prospect that the D.N.C. nixed last month. Instead, on Wednesday, as the Amazon continued to burn and Hurricane Dorian hovered over the southeastern coast of the United States, CNN convened the ten leading candidates for a succession of town halls on climate change, allowing each of them forty minutes to field questions from audience members and the network’s top anchors. The event lasted seven hours.
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Most of the Democratic hopefuls aimed to portray the climate crisis as an issue of universal urgency, one whose broad threat to humankind ought to transcend partisan bickering. (On Wednesday, while Trump acknowledged the event’s kickoff with a series of insulting tweets, some Republican legislators expressed a sort of solidarity online.) Still, the marathon forum offered an occasion for Democratic front-runners to showcase their distinct, and sometimes distracting, styles. Amy Klobuchar, making a point about the need to develop green appliances, joked that she intended to build “a fridge to the next century.” Andrew Yang, asked whether citizens under his Administration would have to drive electric cars, skirted the question with a laugh line. “It’s not something you have to do. It’s awesome,” he said, adding at one point that Elon Musk had endorsed him. Pete Buttigieg, who likes to engage his faith by calling the climate crisis “a kind of sin,” demurred when asked whether his reliance on private air travel conflicted with his climate policy. “Sometimes I fly because this is a very big country,” he said, “and I’m running to be President of the whole country.” One could imagine Greta Thunberg, the teen-age activist who braved a two-week boat ride from Sweden to New York, in order to attend the U.N. Climate Action Summit this month, rolling her eyes.
It was an awkward night for Joe Biden, who took the stage hours after a report had surfaced that a high-dollar fund-raising event on his schedule the following day would be co-hosted by Andrew Goldman, a founder of the fossil-fuel company Western LNG. “How can we trust you to hold these corporations and executives accountable for their crimes against humanity?” a doctoral student from Northwestern asked him. Biden, whose left eye filled with blood at one point during his appearance, seemed taken aback when Anderson Cooper pressed him on the same question. “What I was told by my staff is that he did not have any responsibility relating to the company,” Biden said, referring to the fund-raiser’s host. “He was not on the board. He was not involved at all in the operation of the company at all. But, if that turns out to be true, then I will not in any way accept his help.” (A senior representative of Biden’s campaign took to Twitter to insist that Goldman, the executive, was “not involved in the day-to-day operation” of the company.)
Kamala Harris, who had previously declined an invitation to the forum, ended up expressing for the first time her intent to eliminate the filibuster if Senate Republicans tried to block the Green New Deal. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, whose environmental plans tend to earn the highest marks among climate activists, seemed especially confident in their commitment to the issue. When Anderson Cooper asked where climate policy would fall among Sanders’s progressive proposals—instituting a single-payer health-care system, cancelling student debt—the candidate replied, “I have the radical idea that a sane Congress can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time.” Warren expressed similar impatience as Chris Cuomo repeatedly asked whether Americans should transition to more energy-efficient light bulbs. (The same day, Trump’s Administration had weakened mandates forcing them to do so.) Warren pointed out that the question seemed to absolve larger industries of their outsized role in the devastation of climate change. “Give me a break,” she told Cuomo, who asked her to clarify. Warren admitted that individual actions were obviously important before suggesting that the premise of the question was distracting. “That’s what they want us to talk about,” Warren said, referring to corporations that sought to cast the climate crisis as an individual problem. “They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers, when seventy per cent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.” (She cited the building industry, the electric-power industry, and the oil industry.)
Between the candidates’ forty-minute appearances, CNN wedged live-news updates that reminded viewers of topical emergencies. A live stream from California showed plumes of smoke rising from a wildfire. On a meteorological map, the crimson knot of Hurricane Dorian swirled over South Carolina. Most moderators pointed out that, since the industrial revolution, the global temperature had already risen by one degree Celsius, more than halfway toward a threshold that climate scientists predict will render the crisis irreversible. By the end of the night, the debate had revealed a consensus among Democrats that climate change was less a “geopolitical threat” than an existential one; that the country had to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, at the latest; and that some sort of price should be placed on carbon emissions. The first priority, many agreed, was for the United States to rejoin the Paris climate accord—though the undeniability of that fact seemed obvious to Cory Booker, who took the stage last. “I’m sorry,” he said, referring to the pledges of his fellow-contenders to rejoin the agreement. “That is, like, a cost of entry even to run for President.”
The true stars of the night were not the candidates, whose extemporizing often felt canned, but the questioners in the audience, whose backstories and adamance offered the more inspiring reminder that, while it’s too late to avoid the crisis completely, it’s not too late to act. Carson Tueller, an advocate from Utah who questioned Harris from his wheelchair, pointed out that climate change disproportionately hurts disabled Americans; his spine injury prevents him from sweating, a condition that proved nearly unbearable, he said, on the hottest days of July. Francine Streich, a mother whose child was killed by a falling tree during Hurricane Sandy, seemed unfazed when Biden launched a political pitch without offering his condolences. There were students from the Sunrise Movement, parents who had resettled their families, and scientists who had seen their warnings largely ignored. There was a lawyer who had refocussed his work to address the crisis and a black activist who observed that climate change poses the greatest risks to systematically neglected communities of color. A number of the questioners had lost their homes or their relatives. It seemed clear that all of them, perhaps even more than the most progressive candidates, had lost their patience.