The top half of the Democratic presidential field gathered last night in New York City for a seven-hour forum on climate change, and the marathon session revealed several unifying themes among the 10 candidates who appeared — and a few key differences.
President Trump was a frequent target — more so than usual — as were fossil fuel executives. Climate change was described repeatedly by the field as a dire threat that would require trillions of dollars in government spending to address. And several of the candidates gave homage to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who made climate action the foundation of his short-lived 2020 presidential campaign.
"All of us are basically using the same language," said Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., during his session. "We’re talking about an existential threat; we’re talking about urgency; we’re competing over which one of our targets is more accurate. But the fundamental question is how we’re actually going to get it done."
To that point, there were sharp differences on whether the Senate filibuster should be abolished to deal with climate change. And there were various takes on how a carbon tax might be used to address global warming.
Here are seven takeaways from the forum.
Trump was a constant foil
During the Detroit debates in July, the Democratic field clashed frequently over the Green New Deal and the ambitiousness of their climate plans — with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) complaining at one point that he was "tired of Democrats afraid of big ideas."
That wasn’t the case last night.
Instead, Trump was the main target — a change likely due to a couple of factors. One was the format. Rather than appear onstage together, the 10 candidates each had 40 minutes alone with a CNN moderator and a town hall audience.
Another possible explanation: a series of Twitter posts Trump leveled yesterday at the Democratic field.
"The Democrats’ destructive ‘environmental’ proposals will raise your energy bill and prices at the pump," Trump wrote in one. "Don’t the Democrats care about fighting American poverty?"
The Democratic response was swift.
"I mean, listen, guys. Let’s just be really clear," said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif). "Donald Trump — he’s got everybody excited about those crazy tweets. Meanwhile, with this hand, [he’s] quietly undoing regulations that were built over years, including incredible stuff that the Obama administration did."
Added Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.): "I think you all know we have a guy in the White House that is pretending that [climate change] isn’t happening."
And Sanders: "Donald Trump thinks that climate change is a hoax. I think that Donald Trump is dangerously, dangerously wrong."
Inslee shifted the field
Inslee’s campaign for president didn’t last long, but it did have one noticeable effect — it set the bar for the rest of the field on climate change.
By the end of his short run, Inslee had released 213 pages of climate policy and the mammoth effort was cited frequently last night by candidates from Harris to former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
"Donald Trump says wind turbines cause cancer, and Jay Inslee famously and … with great humor said, ‘No, they don’t cause cancer; they cause jobs,’" Harris said.
Warren went one step further.
"I want to say, I proudly adopted many of Gov. Inslee’s plans," she said. "My view is you go everywhere where there’s a good idea."
For Warren, that includes Inslee’s proposals for cars, buildings and electricity. It doesn’t hurt, either, that his former supporters now are looking for a candidate to support.
"You may remember that Gov. Jay Inslee said let’s get tough on this and let’s put in place some real rules about this," Warren said. "So what I’ve adopted is, by 2028, we don’t have any more new building that has any carbon footprint. By 2030, we do the same thing on vehicles, on our cars and light-duty trucks. And by 2035, we do the same thing on electric generation."
All of that led climate activist RL Miller to note yesterday on Twitter: "Pssst. @jayInslee already won 2020."
The filibuster was a sticking point
Of all the candidates, Harris probably faced the most heat headed into last night’s forum. The California lawmaker initially had balked at attending the event, and only after pressure from environmentalists did she change her plans.
With that storm cloud in the background, Harris declared last night that she would support the elimination of the Senate filibuster to pass ambitious climate legislation — a big step.
If Congress fails to act, she said to applause, "I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal." The stance aligns Harris with Warren and Inslee, and it got a big thumbs-up from climate activists.
Ironically, Harris’ position puts her crossways with Sanders, one of the biggest climate champions in the field.
Asked about it last night, the Vermont senator said he doesn’t back an end to the long-held Senate tradition of requiring the support of 60 senators to stop debate on a piece of legislation. That hurdle has led to the death of many bills.
"What I believe is the Senate should not be the House, and we shouldn’t simply have a majority body," Sanders said. "But what I have said repeatedly is we need major filibuster reform."
He also added this caveat: "And second of all, just as Bush got through major tax breaks for the rich through the Budget Reconciliation Act, we can do that, as well. So if your question is, are we going to need 60 votes to save the planet, the answer is, no, we will not. There are ways — there are ways to get that through the Budget Reconciliation Act, which will require 51 votes, and that’s the method we will use."
That didn’t sit well with Evan Weber, the political director for the Sunrise Movement.
"The frustrating thing about this is that @BernieSanders has the biggest and boldest vision for a #GreenNewDeal yet!" he wrote on Twitter. "But it’s literally impossible if he doesn’t change his stance on this!!!"
Dems wrestled with fossil fuels
Throughout the night, the candidates tried to walk a fine line between attacking the fossil fuel industry and reaching out to its workers — with mixed results.
"So let me be very clear, is that the coal miners in this country, the men and women who work on the oil rigs, they are not my enemy," Sanders said. "What is my enemy is climate change."
Warren made a similar point and — like many of the candidates — pledged to try and take care of these workers in the green economy she envisions.
But amid these olive branches was an obvious effort to paint the industry as a key obstacle to climate action.
"We have a chance, a chance left in 2020, to turn this around, but we are running out of time on this one," Warren said. "So we’ve got to do this in 2020, and that means the first thing we’ve got to do is we’ve got to attack this corruption head-on in Washington and say enough of having the oil industry, the fossil fuel industry write all our laws in this area."
The attacks may play well in the Democratic primary, but it could cause trouble for the candidates in swing states such as Pennsylvania, which relies heavily on the industry.
Former Vice President Joe Biden appeared to wrestle the most with this conflict.
Not only was his rhetoric less heated than that of his rivals, but he came under fire last night for a planned fundraiser with an energy investor. At the end of his segment, Biden vowed to look into the event hosted by Andrew Goldman, co-founder of a company called Western LNG.
"What I was told by my staff is that he did not have any responsibility relating to the company, he was not on the board, he was not involved at all in the operation of the company at all," Biden said. "And — but if that turns out to be true, then I will not in any way accept his help."
Democrats rallied to carbon taxes
Though a tax on carbon emissions doesn’t have the same ring as the Green New Deal, the idea has caught fire with the Democratic field — and several candidates have thoughts on how to put the proposal into practice.
"We need to have a carbon tax because we need to have polluters internalize the cost of their pollution," said entrepreneur Andrew Yang. "And so you start at $40 a ton and then you ramp up to $100 a ton to give them time to adjust."
Notable about Yang’s proposal is that he actually assigns a dollar figure to his tax — which is not the case for Harris or Buttigieg.
Part of the calculus there is simple politics — a dollar figure could provide fuel for opposition attack ads, even if the strategy leaves voters and workers in the dark.
"I know you’re not supposed to use the ‘T’ word when you’re in politics, but we might as well call this what it is," said Buttigieg when describing his carbon tax proposal. "There is a harm being done, and in the same way that we have taxed cigarettes, we’re going to have to tax carbon."
Another area of division is how the candidates would spend the money raised from a carbon tax. Some would use it to help fight climate change; Buttigieg said he would return the revenue to taxpayers.
"The difference with my plan is that I propose that we rebate all of the revenue we collect right back out to the American people on a progressive basis, so that low- and middle-income Americans are made more than whole," he said.
Climate change is a civil rights issue
There is little question now that the Democratic Party plans to make environmental justice a key pillar of its 2020 climate platform.
The candidates last night repeatedly tried to link climate change and civil rights, a strategy that speaks to their dual desires of helping frontline communities and turning out core Democratic voters.
"Too oftentimes, it’s people who are poor, communities of color who take the brunt of storms that are getting more frequent and more powerful," Castro said. "And so my plan actually calls for new civil rights legislation to be able to address environmental injustice, including making sure there is a private right of action to file lawsuits against polluters."
Both Harris and Klobuchar said money raised from their carbon fees would go toward preparing vulnerable communities for the dangers of climate change.
"Under my plan, there will also be a carbon fee," Harris said. "And that money, a lot of it, is going to … empower those communities that for too long have been ignored."
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) has made the issue a central plank of his climate plan.
"People of color, low-income communities and family farmers are on the front lines of climate change — economic and environmental justice demands we transition to a carbon-neutral economy as soon as we possibly can," Booker wrote yesterday on Twitter.
Hurricane Dorian played a role
A longtime struggle for climate activists is getting voters to care about a problem that feels far off in the future — even if the impacts are happening now.
Major storms such as Hurricane Dorian, however, can provide a window to bring the issue to bear, and several politicians and CNN moderators tried last night to make that connection.
"We are seeing storms that are intensifying, and that’s just one sign of the dangerous world that scientists tell us we’re entering if humans don’t cut carbon pollution in half in the next 11 years and then to net zero by 2050," said CNN host Chris Cuomo, amid network updates on the storm.
Some of the candidates picked up on the trend, too.
"You mentioned Hurricane Dorian that’s about to hit landfall," Castro said. "These hurricanes are happening more frequently, and they’re happening with greater intensity. It seems like these floods, that they call 500-year floods, are happening every other year now."
Yang, for his part, tried to use the idea as a way to sell voters on his proposal for universal basic income.
"Freedom dividend — everyone gets $1,000 a month, $12,000 a year," he said. "That would help citizens of this country protect themselves in a natural disaster, because we all know, when Hurricane Dorian or Hurricane Harvey hits, who suffers? Poor people, people of color, people who don’t have a car they can get into and just drive to some — some relative’s house."