Democratic Candidates Focus on Climate Change in CNN Town Halls


By Sarah Waters, News and Academics Editor

On Wednesday night, ten Democratic presidential candidates participated in a seven-hour series of individual town halls on CNN focused on climate change. The candidates spend 45 minutes each fielding questions about climate change from the anchors and audience members.

The town hall format was a response to the Democratic National Committee’s rejection of a climate change debate, which many activists and environmental organizations had called for. However, the individualized format provided the opportunity for policy specificity in lieu of talking points.

Most of the candidates agreed on the severity and scope of climate change. It was repeatedly referred to as a threat to human civilization, with many candidates pledging to bring the United States to net-zero emissions before 2050. Candidates differed, however, on their strategies to get there.

Nuclear energy was one of the most divisive issues. Sen. Bernie Sanders opposed nuclear energy, attesting that it was irresponsible and dangerous given the problem with waste. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang and Sen. Cory Booker claimed it was unrealistic to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 without it. Sens. Kamala Harris and Amy Klobuchar emphasized the need for safe storage before authorizing new nuclear plants.

Fracking also divided the field. Sanders, Harris, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for a ban on all fracking, citing its linkage to decreased water quality and environmental problems. Klobuchar claimed fracking was necessary to access natural gas, which she called a “transitional fuel.” Biden did not address fracking.

Former Vice President Joe Biden was caught off guard with a question about conflict-of-interest fundraising. An audience member asked how he could be trusted to tackle the climate crisis given his planned fund-raiser with a fossil fuel executive on Thursday.

Biden then denied the fundraiser’s ties to fossil fuel companies, which was false. The event was being hosted by Andrew Goldman, a co-founder of a natural gas company, Western LNG.

Sanders discussed the intricacies of his $16 trillion climate plan, which aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 and complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke revived the cap-and-trade strategy to decrease carbon emissions, which allocates a certain amount of carbon dioxide permits to each company. Plans to instate the policy failed to pass Congress about ten years ago.

South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg appealed to the moral case for fighting climate change. He claimed a “national mobilization” was the only way to overcome the crisis, promising to set ambitious goals.

Almost every candidate called for a moratorium on new oil and gas drilling on public lands, in addition to putting some form of a price on carbon. Almost all pledged that they would rejoin the Paris Agreement as soon as possible.