Gregory Korte, Bloomberg
Even as they touted ambitious proposals to reduce carbon emissions to a national audience, Democratic candidates for president tried to balance the boldness of their plans with the need for simplifying a complex scientific problem to make it palatable to voters.
The result: A conversation that was as often about cheeseburgers, light bulbs and plastic straws as it was about the kind of systemic change they acknowledge is needed to fight climate change.
While the 10 candidates tried to appeal to a growing and vocal constituency within the Democratic Party, they were also conscious of the inevitable Republican attacks on their multi-trillion-dollar versions of the Green New Deal.
At a marathon town hall in New York that was televised by CNN on Wednesday night, they lined up to outline how they would slow climate change as president of the U.S.
“They agree more than they disagree. And that’s true on many issues,” said David Karol, a University of Maryland professor and the author of “Red, Green, and Blue: The Partisan Divide on Environmental Issues.”
The differences will be meaningful mostly to policy wonks, he added. “The idea that even after this event most people are going to be able to tell you the differences between Kamala Harris’ approach to this and Bernie Sanders’ is very questionable.”
The event was notably devoid of voices from climate change deniers or fossil fuel workers, with the questions coming from CNN anchors, reporters and climate activists.
Many of those activists came from the Sunrise Movement, an advocacy group whose protests helped instigate the CNN forum after they complained to the Democratic National Committee about the dearth of climate discussion in the sanctioned debates.
The candidates’ plans were notable for what they would and wouldn’t ask Americans to sacrifice to meet their ambitious carbon-reduction goals. There was broad agreement on transitioning to LED light bulbs and electric cars, but less so on what to do with vehicles already on the road.
“This is not a country where you’re going to take someone’s clunker away from them,“ said Andrew Yang, who predicted automakers would build electric cars that people want to drive.
Harris would ban disposable plastic straws, though not without reservations. “I’m going to be honest. It is difficult on drink out of a paper straw,” she said. “We have to kind of perfect that one a little bit more.”
Elizabeth Warren acknowledged that debates over cheeseburgers and plastic straws were a diversion that mostly helps the Republicans. During the debate, President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign promoted its Trump-branded plastic straws on Twitter for $15.
“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about,” Warren said.
And Pete Buttigieg made no apologies for air travel, which accounts for 2% of carbon emissions, which some of the most aggressive climate plans could curtail.
“The right likes to sink their teeth into anything we say that makes us sound unreasonable,” he said. “Sometimes I fly, because this is a very big country and I’m running to be president of the whole country.”
On the big picture, the candidates largely disagreed only on the urgency of their timelines — Warren wants to eliminate net carbon emissions as early as 2035, and Joe Biden, Sanders and others would delay that to 2050.
Yet there was broad agreement on getting the U.S. back into the Paris climate accord, increasing auto mileage and emissions standards, investing in renewable energy, and providing job training for workers displaced from fossil fuel-dependent industries.
As Buttigieg put it in the sixth hour, “All of us are basically using the same language. The fundamental question is, how are we going to get this done?”
Nuclear power and natural gas fracking provided two fault lines.
Biden and Yang promoted new nuclear technologies that they said would be safer and generate less waste than older reactors. Others, like Sanders and Warren, oppose nuclear power.
Amy Klobuchar pointed out that nuclear power produces 20% of the nation’s energy and emits no carbon. “But I wouldn’t expand nuclear unless we can find safe storage and figure this out, and Yucca Mountain is not the answer,” she said, referring to the proposed waste disposal site in Nevada.
Biden, Klobuchar and Julian Castro also defended natural gas as a transitional energy source. And while they oppose drilling on federal lands, they said they would not immediately ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to unlock the nation’s natural gas deposits.
The biggest drama of the night came when activists confronted Biden on his support from fossil fuel industries. After he asserted that he’d “never” in his “whole career” put wealthy individuals over “the future,” he was confronted with the fact that the host of his Thursday fundraiser in New York co-founded a liquefied natural gas company. Biden had pledged to take no money from fossil fuel interests.
“He is not a fossil fuel executive,” Biden said. Later, host Anderson Cooper clarified that the executive, Andrew Goldman, no longer holds a position with the company he co-founded, Western LNG.
Biden said he believed Goldman had severed ties with the gas company, but if he hadn’t, “then I will not in any way accept his help.”
The town hall on CNN was interrupted only by commercial breaks and reports on Hurricane Dorian.
One candidate who ran on climate as a near single-issue campaign — Washington State Governor Jay Inslee — dropped out after it was clear he would not qualify for the third round of debates. While many of the candidates Wednesday invoked Inslee’s name, none were likely to claim Inslee’s mantle as the climate candidate, Karol said.
But he said the town hall forced the candidates to demonstrate their command of the complicated connections between the climate, the economy and national security.
“The issue is getting more attention. And even the candidates who are not considered the most progressive have ambitious plans,” he said. “They can’t look like they don’t know what they’re talking about and have it look like they’re not committed to this issue.”