With hurricane destruction as backdrop, Democratic aspirants address climate change
A car lays among debris from homes flattened by Hurricane Dorian in an area called "The Mud" at Marsh Harbour in Great Abaco Island, Bahamas on Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019. After the storm passed through, the area more resembled a landfill than a neighborhood. | Al Diaz / Miami Herald via AP

Hurricane Dorian, with its decimating fury unleashed on the Bahamas and the Southeastern U.S. seacoast, became the latest red alert warning of the rapidly mounting effects of climate change. It was also the backdrop for a historic Democratic presidential town hall forum on the climate crisis. The forum was nationally televised on Sept. 4 by CNN.

Speaking before a giant majestic image of the Earth, every candidate, some more than others, passionately expressed the urgency of dealing with the “existential threat” facing the planet. Each struck a sharp contrast with the Trump administration’s climate denial, total embrace of the fossil fuel industry, and gutting of environmental protections.

“Nobody wants to look their child or grandchildren in the eye and have them say, ‘You knew in 2019 what the scientists were saying. You didn’t do anything and look what you created,’” said an emotional Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent and socialist.

Ten Democratic candidates addressed the CNN Climate Town Hall.

The seven-hour Climate Town Hall featured ten candidates. Each was allowed 40 minutes to answer questions from an informed audience, including many climate activists. The event was the result of pressure from the Sunrise Movement and the environmental justice movement, which had unsuccessfully pushed the Democratic National Committee to hold such a forum.

But it also reflected widespread public concern over the climate crisis. Fifty-six percent of registered voters, including 84% of Democrats, think climate change is an emergency. It ranks among the top issues for voters.

The candidates expressed differences on nuclear energy, whether to ban fracking, and how to pay for a green transition. But the forum was remarkable for how far the discussion has shifted since the 2016 election. For the most part, candidates agreed with the scientific consensus on the scale of the crisis and timetable for action to save the planet.

The candidates broadly called for huge structural changes to the U.S. economy and society. They acknowledged many jobs would be lost in the transition away from fossil fuels.

But candidates also presented varying plans for creating millions of new jobs, including at union wages, in new sustainable industries, rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure, and adapting the U.S. to rising sea levels and other impacts of the climate crisis. Most candidates called for special measures to address environmental racism in communities of color.

The scale of vision reflected the impact of the Green New Deal (GND), a comprehensive approach to address the climate crisis initiated by the Sunrise Movement. A resolution embodying the goals and timetable was introduced into Congress by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-MA.

The influence of former presidential candidate Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington was also evident. Inslee is widely credited with the most developed approach to the crisis and making it central to his campaign.

The candidates were unanimous in condemning the fossil fuel industry as the major obstacle to a green transition. The industry is also a main financial support base of Trump, the Republican Party, and the extreme right.

Many of the candidates had rolled out their climate plans in the days before the forum. Sanders presented the most ambitious and comprehensive proposal, which he unveiled during a visit to Paradise, Calif., site of the deadly Camp Fire.

Sanders’s plan adheres mostly to the GND and, like most of the other candidates, calls for a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. However, Sanders calls for investing $16 trillion over 15 years to decarbonize transportation and power generation, two of the most polluting industries.

In the proposal and again in the forum, Sanders pushed back against those who say his program is unaffordable. He cites previous experience during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.

“The New Deal provided inexpensive electricity to America through efforts like the Rural Electrification Administration and the federal power marketing administrations. If the federal government was able to electrify America under FDR without computers or any of the modern technologies we have available to us today, think of what we can do today.”

Sanders also called for ending the $400 billion in yearly subsidies and tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry. He said the federal government is the best way to create sustainable power and called for expanding “public power” concepts like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

Sanders also was the only candidate to call for reallocating a substantial part of the $1.5 trillion military budget to pay for the transition.

Julián Castro, former San Antonio mayor and HUD Secretary in the Obama administration, issued a plan called “People and Planet First.” The program addresses the “greatest existential threat to our future.” It would create a National Climate Council to coordinate action while spending $10 trillion in federal, state, local and private funding over ten years. The plan also calls for phasing out coal-fired energy production and zero carbon-emitting light vehicles by 2030 and overall net-zero by 2045.

Castro’s plan would create 10 million jobs over ten years. He noted the transition is already happening, and thousands of jobs are being created. He invoked the story of TPI in Newton, Iowa, a manufacturing facility that produces wind turbines. Iowa is the first caucus state next year.

“They created 750 decent-paying jobs, putting people back to work. Two of the fastest job growth industries are wind turbine service technicians and solar panel installers,” said Castro. Texas generates more energy from wind than from coal, and in 94 of 99 counties in Iowa the cheapest form of energy is wind, he said. In the other five counties, it’s solar.

Castro’s plan also calls for planting 1 billion trees a year for 30 years.

Castro’s program also targets environmental racism and calls for “new civil rights legislation to address the disparate impact of environmental discrimination and dismantle structures of environmental racism.”

“The problem is that, like our neighborhoods, pollution is segregated,” says Castro’s proposal. He references a 2007 study that found over half of 9 million people living near hazardous waste sites were African-Americans.

Castro’s first campaign visit was to Puerto Rico. He denounced the racist neglect of the Trump administration to the devastation of Hurricane Maria. And he called for massive relief aid, rebuilding the island’s infrastructure, and ending its colonial status.

“(On climate) Trump is a nightmare,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sporting a green jacket at the forum. “We see what happens if we don’t make a change. Now is the moment to dream big and fight hard.”

Warren has introduced two companion green plans. Her overall green transition calls for spending $3 trillion to become carbon neutral by 2050.

“Will we put resources into it? Yes, because the alternative is unthinkable. Life on Earth is at risk,” said Warren. She also called for eliminating the Senate filibuster so a Democratic majority Congress and president could act without obstruction.

While most were focused on the real damage caused by Hurricane Dorian, President Donald Trump continued to insist he was right about the storm being projected to hit Alabama. Here, he holds a chart hand-altered with a black marker as he talks with reportersin the Oval Office, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019. | Evan Vucci / AP

Warren applauded the Green New Deal for setting targets to decarbonize the economy. She said it would also create a New Deal to address “justice for working people whose communities have been destroyed. And racial justice” for communities that suffer from environmental racism.

Earlier this year Warren introduced a second plan to create millions of jobs in green research, development, and manufacturing. She said a $17 trillion market exists for wind turbines, solar panels, water purification systems, and other technology.  U.S. workers could build these products, which would then be sold worldwide. She would pay for the plan by rolling back the tax cuts for the rich passed by the GOP and signed by Trump.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., called for creating an Environmental Justice Fund. The fund would spend $50 billion annually to replace all lead drinking water pipes, clean up polluted sites, and clean household wastewater properly.

Booker also called for planting billions of trees, promoting sustainable agriculture practices and reestablishing the Civilian Conservation Corps to employ young people. The original CCC was promoted under FDR during the Great Depression.

Most of the candidates stressed the importance of global cooperation in combating the climate crisis and assistance to developing countries. While decarbonizing the U.S. economy is essential, it represents only 15% or 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions. All said they would rejoin the Paris Climate Accords.


John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the CPUSA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.