CNN’s seven-hour town hall on the climate crisis wasn’t the debate many activists have spent months calling for. But Wednesday night’s marathon event teased out notable differences among Democratic presidential contenders, giving voters a taste of how each candidate might approach climate policy if elected.
Two of the main issues where candidates staked out wildly different stances were nuclear power and abolishing the filibuster. They also differed on fracking, the process of extracting natural gas to be used for energy.
Meanwhile, former Vice President Joe Biden took heat over a controversial fundraiser scheduled for Thursday night and hosted by an oil executive. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) criticized the forum’s focus on personal sacrifices — like giving up eating meat or using plastic straws — arguing instead for accountability from the fossil fuel industry.
In back-to-back segments beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern time and stretching late into the night, candidates laid out their climate plans and responded to questions from moderators and selected audience members.
Climate change has emerged as a leading issue for Democratic voters and, in many ways, the candidates closely align. Leading up to the forum, all of the candidates had released their own sweeping climate plans.
Most have also expressed some level of support for the Green New Deal, a proposal to rapidly decarbonize the economy while ensuring mass job creation. They also back remaining in the Paris climate agreement, which President Donald Trump has threatened to exit. And Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) — who based his entire campaign around addressing global warming — loomed large over the event, despite dropping out of the presidential race last month.
On Wednesday night, candidates like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro warmly praised Inslee, and Warren went so far as to embrace his detailed climate policy proposals.
“He said, ‘Have at them,’ ” she joked. “They’re open-sourced.”
But the forum allowed space for presidential hopefuls to flesh out key differences between their approaches to climate action. Early in the evening, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said she would eliminate the filibuster in order to ensure climate action (the Senate procedural rule calls for 60 votes, rather than a simple majority).
If lawmakers “fail to act [on climate change], as president of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal,” Harris said.
Abolishing the filibuster would require buy-in from the Senate itself, making the process complicated, but many activists and lawmakers alike have argued that major climate action will not pass while the filibuster remains. Warren has called for ending the filibuster and numerous other candidates have said they are open to the possibility.
However, not everyone is on board. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) balked at the idea during his round of questioning.
“What I have said is we need major filibuster reform. Budget reconciliation is the method we will use,” Sanders said, arguing that his $16.3 trillion climate plan could pass without abolishing the procedure.
Nuclear power also emerged as a divisive topic. Sanders supports ending nuclear power in around a decade, arguing that it “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to add more dangerous waste to this country.”
But Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and entrepreneur Andrew Yang both embraced nuclear energy, asserting that the energy source, which currently produces 20% of the nation’s electricity, remains critical to achieving net-zero emissions.
Warren struck a middle tone, laying out temporary support for nuclear power while endorsing no new nuclear plants. She said she supports easing away from nuclear reliance with a phase-out complete by 2035 at the latest.
Some candidates also staked out their positions on fracking. Just prior to the forum, Sanders called for all 2020 Democrats to back a federal fracking ban. Warren’s campaign has said she would support such a ban. And on Wednesday night, Harris and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) made similar calls.
Klobuchar and Biden, by contrast, punted on the issue, with Klobuchar going so far as to tout natural gas as a “transitional fuel” bridging the move away from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
While candidates disagreed over elements of policy, one person took direct hits over an upcoming fundraiser. Biden had scheduled a Thursday event with Andrew Goldman, co-founder of Western LNG, a fossil fuel company. Like many 2020 contenders, Biden has taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, which swears off donations from fossil fuel companies and executives.
When CNN host Anderson Cooper confronted Biden about the fundraiser after an audience member raised the issue, the former vice president argued that Goldman is “not a fossil fuel executive” per his financial disclosures. Biden then said he would need to do more research about Goldman’s business dealings, while one of his senior advisers, Symone Sanders, tweeted in defense of the candidate.
“Andrew Goldman isn’t a fossil fuel executive. He’s not involved in the day to day operation,” she wrote. “He’s not on the board of the company, nor the board of the portfolio company.” Goldman is listed second under the “Leadership” section on Western LNG’s website.
Biden has previously weathered criticism over his climate bonafides, with opponents like Sanders accusing him of a “middle of the road” approach to combatting the crisis. It was unclear on Thursday morning whether Biden might still be attending his scheduled evening fundraiser.