US climate town halls: What did the 2020 Democratic hopefuls say?

Ten Democratic presidential candidates lay out their climate plans in first-ever town halls addressing climate change.

    Ten 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination of file photos [Files: Reuters]
    Ten 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are seen in a combination of file photos [Files: Reuters]

    Ten Democratic US presidential hopefuls touted their plans to tackle climate change on Wednesday night in the first-ever town halls focused solely on the issue. 

    During the back-to-back conversations, hosted by CNN, the candidates laid out their plans to address climate change, as well as their visions of the future of oil, gas and coal, nuclear power and electric vehicles. 

    The town halls came after the Democratic National Convention refused to hold a single-issue debate on climate change, despite increased demand from activists and environmental groups. MSNBC will host another climate event later this month. 

    Concerns about the environment have spiked as fires burn in the Arctic and Amazon, ice melts in Greenland and strong storms this year have flooded farms in Midwestern states. The town halls also took place as Hurricane Dorian, which devastated the Bahamas, headed towards the US southeastern coastal areas. 

    All 10 candidates have proposed plans starting at $1 trillion for investment and research designed to wean the United States economy off oil, gas and coal by mid-century, with varying focuses on sharp emissions cuts and technological solutions, among other measures. They have also expressed the immediate need to recommit the US to the Paris climate accord.

    "We have a moral responsibility to act and act boldly. And to do that, yes, it is going to be expensive," said Senator Bernie Sanders, who billed his $16 trillion climate change plan as a necessary response to scientists' calls for dramatic cuts to carbon emissions. 

    Fossil fuel taxes

    Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, embraced the Green New Deal, a congressional resolution aimed at moving the country to 100 percent renewable energy in a decade, and took shots at the fossil fuel industry for contributing to climate change.

    Warren said fossil fuel companies and Republican politicians want to shift voter attention on big government policies backed by some progressives, such as plastic straw bans and curbs on light bulb choices, and away from efforts to slow regulation on emissions.

    It is "what the fossil fuel industry wants us" to engage in while they remain considerable contributors to carbon emissions, she said. 

    Sanders said fossil fuel companies would shoulder some of the costs of his climate plan. "If you are in the fossil fuel industry, you're going to be paying more in taxes, that's for sure," he said.

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    Former Vice President Joe Biden took a more pragmatic view than Sanders and Warren, even as he defended his own climate proposal as "aggressive enough" to meet the challenge.

    He was seeking to win back workers in industrial states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. His $1.7 trillion plan supports carbon capture and sequestration, a technique to bury carbon and help utilities transition to cleaner sources of energy. He has pledged to regulate the oilfield production method known as hydraulic fracturing - though not abolish it, as some rivals have - and said on Wednesday that he doubted an outright ban could be feasible.

    Biden said the US should "own" the electric vehicle market and has called for putting the country on track to achieve 100 percent clean energy and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

    Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur who supports a carbon tax, said he believes there must be economic incentives in the fight against climate change. 

    "We have to tie people's incentives to doing the right thing, and then you'll actually see their behaviour change very quickly," he said.

    Former US Congressman Beto O'Rourke said he favours a carbon cap-and-trade programme over a carbon tax. 

    "It's the best way to send the pricing signal to ensure that there is a legally enforceable limit," O'Rourke said.

    "We should certainly price carbon. I think the best possible path to do that is through a cap and trade system. There would be allowances granted or sold to polluters," he added, explaining there would be a "set number of allowances that would decrease every single year".

    Senator Kamala Harris said that, as president, she would ban hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, and take other steps to cut fossil fuel emissions, regardless of whether Republicans cooperated. Harris said she would eliminate the Senate filibuster, if necessary, to get liberal Democrats' sweeping Green New Deal proposal passed with a simple majority vote - a significant move from a candidate who had previously stopped short of such a pledge to change congressional procedure.

    In targeting oil and gas and coal production, "this is a fight against powerful interests", Harris said. "It's lead, follow or get out of the way ... starting with Donald Trump." 

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    Former US Housing Secretary Julian Castro cited the extreme weather over the summer to illustrate the urgency of the moment.

    "We see that now with Hurricane Dorian," said Castro, who joined Biden, Senators Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar in calling for regulating but not completely ending fracking. "The Arctic ice caps melting. The Amazon on fire."

    Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, spoke broadly about addressing climate change not just as an economic issue but also as a moral and national security imperative. The Afghanistan War veteran proposed that the military should be "leading the way" in solving the issue, by making sure bases are carbon neutral and by purchasing zero-emissions vehicles, among other things.

    The candidates differed on the issue of nuclear power, which currently generates an estimated one-fifth of US electricity. Warren said she would seek to gradually phase the nation away from nuclear power if she is elected. Sanders would seek to eliminate it outright, while Biden's and Booker's plans leave room for nuclear to remain a power-generation option.

    "People who think that we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren't looking at the facts," Booker said.

    Candidates defend aspects of plans, past decisions

    Candidates also faced tough questions from audience members and other voters across the country. 

    Biden was called out for planning to attend a fundraiser hosted by the cofounder of a natural gas export company, after he had pledged not to take fossil-fuel company money.

    A voter asked Biden why he was planning to attend a fundraiser to be held this week by Andrew Goldman, cofounder of Western LNG, a company looking to export liquefied natural gas. Biden said that Goldman, an adviser to him when he was a US senator, was not a fossil-fuel executive. 

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    "What I was told by my staff is that he did not have any responsibility relating to the company," Biden said. "He was not on the board, he was not involved at all in the operation of the company at all."

    Biden said if it turned out that Goldman was involved in the operations, "then I will not in anyway accept his help".

    The former vice president and all his Democratic rivals have agreed not to accept any donations from fossil-fuel companies or their employees.

    David Turnbull, a spokesman for Oil Change US, one of the groups behind the campaign finance pledge, told US media that Goldman's involvement with Biden "may not technically violate the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge as we have defined it." But, Turnbull added, the intent of the pledge is "not to provide loopholes for candidates to exploit".

    Meanwhile, Sanders declined to support a full end to the filibuster, asserting that he could get climate change legislation through Congress without needing to eliminate the Senate's 60-vote requirement for many bills by using a procedural manoeuvre that the GOP most recently used in 2017 to pass significant tax legislation.

    Castro defended his decision to stop short of endorsing a national fracking ban by saying that natural gas - some of it from fracking - had served as a bridge while the economy moves to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

    Trump blasts CNN, Democrats climate plans

    As the town halls got under way, President Trump blasted the climate change proposals of his Democratic challengers for the White House on Wednesday. 

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    "The Democrats' destructive 'environmental' proposals will raise your energy bill and prices at the pump," Trump said in a series of tweets, just minutes after the seven-hour event kicked off on CNN.

    Trump rejects mainstream climate science and has reversed Obama-era initiatives meant to curb emissions, promote alternatives to fossil fuels and join the world in fighting the crisis. In 2017, he announced that he would formally withdraw the US from the landmark 2015 Paris climate accords. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies