The Busy Advocate’s Guide to CNN’s Climate Town Hall: Our Top 6 Takeaways

On Wednesday (Sept. 4th) ten 2020 Democratic candidates took to the stage for a first-of its-kind, seven hour ‘climate crisis town hall’ moderated by CNN. As Vox puts it: “It was also the most substantive discussion of climate change policies ever broadcast on primetime television.”

Seven hours is a marathon of a long time to watch anything, so we put together this handy guide for those climate advocates and 2020 Presidential race aficionados who are looking for just the highlights.

  1. Carbon Pricing Had a Great Night

In what can best be described as a turning point, the idea of putting a price on carbon pollution achieved an unprecedented level of support from 2020 candidates at the forum. All told, the majority of them have embraced some style of carbon pricing in their campaign, with half openly embracing a price on carbon pollution on stage. 

Some highlights:

Notably absent from the carbon pricing love fest was Senator Bernie Sanders, who has not called for a carbon price in during his 2020 campaign. This stands in stark contrast to 2016, when Sanders made carbon pricing a cornerstone of his climate platform, using the stance to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton (who did not support carbon pricing in 2016). 

Carbon pricing is considered by economists and environmental policy makers as the most efficient and effective way to tackle carbon emissions. Read more about it here.

  1. Inslee Is 2020’s Climate Action Lodestar

Since dropping out of the 2020 Democratic primary in August, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has received quite a bit of praise for championing climate action on the campaign trail and putting out some of the most comprehensive climate policy plans. Since then, Inslee has met with the majority of the remaining top Presidential contenders, including Warren, O’Rourke, Biden, Sanders, Booker, and Klobuchar, and plans to meet others like Castro soon. Some, like Warren, even based their latest climate plans on one originally pushed by Inslee

CNN’s climate town hall solidified Inslee and his plans as the ‘gold standard’ when it comes to climate action among Democrats in 2020. At the very start of Town Hall, before even the first question was asked, former U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro said, “I want to give a shout out to Gov. Jay Inslee who did a fantastic job bringing this issue to the forefront of this campaign.” From then on Inslee was ceaseless referenced, quoted, and channelled by nearly every candidate.

If nothing else, this means Inslee is still in play for 2020, but not as President. His newfound popularity among Democratic activists, as well as experience being a successful Governor of a major state, make him an ideal candidate for Vice President. This is especially so for someone from the east coast (like Senator Warren), or someone seen as ‘too moderate’ on issues like climate change by some in the Democratic party (like Vice President Biden). 

  1. Substance Overshadowed Trump’s Distraction Attempts

In what some saw as an attempt at distracting 2020 Democrats, President Donald Trump announced the day of the climate town hall, his intention to reverse Federal standards for energy-efficient lightbulbs. Democrats didn’t take the bait, though.

Of course every once in a while there were moments of vague ‘politician talk’ about the need for climate action, some public pandering, and the occasional swipe at Trump’s environmental record. But for the most part the 2020 candidates stayed on message, choosing to focus on the policy substance of their individual climate change plans and approaches.

What exemplifies this best is an exchange involving Senator Warren. When asked a question by a CNN moderator about lightbulbs Warren responded: “Oh come on, give me a break.” She then continued, “They want to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70 percent of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries.”

  1. The HOW Got As Much Attention as the WHAT

What received just as much attention as the WHAT of each candidates climate plans (i.e. what is in it) was the HOW of its implementation. The questions spoke to the practicality, as well as the strategy of each plan. Specifically: how do you plan to pass your climate plan through the US Senate, where it faces the constant roadblock of a Republican filibuster?

Some, mainly Senators Harris and Warren, said they would tackle Senate obstruction head on by eliminating the filibuster. Others, like Senator Amy Kloubuchar, seemed to signal their willingness to seek a compromise with Senate Republicans. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders claimed that he could get his plan through the Senate using a procedure known as ‘reconciliation,’ and now faces questions over how practical that would be given his plan’s focus on new regulations.

In answering the question of HOW, candidates also focused in on the broad executive authority granted to the Presidency. Almost every candidate supports reinstating Obama era climate and energy rules reversed by Trump (e.g. the clean power plan, CAFE tailpipe standards, etc), which themselves started as executive actions. Others also supported using Presidential powers to restrict new oil and gas leases on Federal lands (more on this below). 

  1. Differences Still Abound 

The 2020 Democratic candidates are united on the need to act on climate, but differences still exist among the top candidates. The primary field has shifted to using climate change as a means of differentiating each other by how far they are willing to go to fight climate change (the folks over at POLITICO explored this further here). This is especially on the issues of nuclear energy and banning gas exploration.

At the CNN town hall Senators Harris and Kloubuchar focused quite a bit on the dangers of nuclear waste, while Senator Sanders expressed his deep and historic opposition to nuclear energy. Contrast this with Andrew Yang and Senator Cory Booker, who can’t imagine achieving a carbon free future without using nuclear energy.

Consensus didn’t fully form around how to stop fracking or end fossil fuel extraction. Nearly all major candidates have signalled their willingness to ban new gas exploration on federally controlled public lands. But Sanders, Warren, and Harris have all called for a national ban on fracking, something Biden said he couldn’t get behind. Meanwhile Castro, who was pushed by audience members on his past support for fracking, said he’d like to leave it to the states to ban fracking. Klobuchar stood out the most, saying she thinks natural gas is a bridge fuel and so would not support a fracking ban.

Speaking of fossil fuels…

  1. Fossil Fuel Companies Took Some Heat

As a group, 2020 Democrats have lumped criticism on some of the nation’s biggest corporate actors (e.g. ‘tech giants’, ‘big pharma’), but none more so than fossil fuel companies. The CNN Climate Town Hall was a microcosm of this, and how the candidates wanted to reform the fossil fuel industry.

All of them called for an end to federal subsidies for oil and gas companies. This includes discounts on federal land use fees (for extraction and transportation of fuels) but also specific tax breaks that allow companies to deduct the cost of gas exploration or taxes paid to foreign countries. Some even called for more aggressive tactics against the industry. Senator Sanders said he wanted to criminally prosecute climate polluters, while Senator Harris pledged to direct the Justice Department to sue them. 

On the campaign finance front all major candidates have pledged off donations from fossil fuel executives and lobbyists. This sparked controversy during Vice President Biden’s appearance, when an audience member questioned him about a forthcoming fundraiser hosted by a former natural gas executive. Commentators noted how the controversy made Biden appear ‘cozy’ with the fossil fuel industry