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At CNN’s seven-hour climate town hall, ten Democratic candidates disagreed about fracking, nuclear power, and how much to fund the Pentagon. TRNN’s Marc Steiner, Dharna Noor, and Steve Horn discuss.

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.

Last night, it seemed that the crisis we face with climate change took center stage, and while the DNC still opposes a climate debate between Democratic primary candidates and challengers, the activists are having none of that, and have forced the conversation, and CNN took up the challenge. Well, one by one over seven hours, each Democratic candidate for president for forty minutes, spoke, answered questions, laid out their ideas and plans. And The Real News Climate Bureau Team— Dharna Noor and Steve Warren— watched the entire thing and join us to explore the most important takeaways from last night’s conversations that took place on television over those seven hours. Good to see you both. Good to have you both here.

DHARNA NOOR: Thanks for having us.

STEVE WARREN: Good to be here.

MARC STEINER: So let’s begin with Naomi Klein’s tweet about the significance of this event, and what she said really I think grabbed me. Let’s take a look at what she said. So, Naomi Klein, after watching all of this said that, “Gotta say that just seeing the words “Climate Crisis” in red on screen is a victory for our movements. Finally the starting premise is correct. And none of it would be happening without the work of millions.” And that’s kind of how we started this conversation off. Dharna, let me let you grab that first. I mean, I think this is, really was a move by the movements in this country that forced this debate.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think many of us watching would maybe have preferred a two-hour climate debate, which is what activists were pushing for, selfishly, because I’m pretty tired right now. But I mean, I will say I agree with Naomi Klein that it was pretty incredible and shouldn’t be overlooked, that CNN really did take this up. For the most part, I think that the framing actually did in some ways speak to the level of the crisis that we face. Although, there were still I think some questions that I think played a little bit into, or a lot a bit into Republican talking points like we always sort of see. But it was pretty incredible to see such an in depth discussion about the climate crisis all on a network like CNN, and to see so many great folks get to ask questions.

MARC STEINER: One of the things, see, the positive aspects of this I suppose is that each candidate actually had forty minutes, so plans were really outlined in ways we might not have heard before. But again, I think that what Dharna was saying, and what Naomi Klein said, that without the power of the movement over these years, especially in these last couple of years, pushing for this, this might have never happened.


STEVE WARREN: Yeah and I think that, well, I was saying this when the movement, broadly speaking, a lot of the movement was upset that there wasn’t, there hasn’t been, there maybe won’t be a climate debate, an officially sanctioned one by the DNC, but I think that having each person speak this long about where they stand on a policy, it kind of gets away from those “gotcha” moments, and trying to back someone into a corner. They really have to be in the limelight for a long period of time, and there was really no time limit on how long they could speak to those issues, so I thought that was an important element.

The other thing I’ll say is, just looking at the history of CNN and cable news, I mean, looking even like a couple decades ago or maybe even one decade ago, they were having climate deniers on panels and stuff to counterbalance talking about climate change, so this is kind of like a pretty landmark moment. I’m not sure if they’ll continue to have those kind of climate deniers, or if there is an actual seat change, but yeah. For example, Pat Michaels, who’s a long time climate denier for the Cato Institute, was a regular guest to speak on as a representative of climate denial on CNN for a long period of time.

MARC STEINER: In this part of the conversation, let’s kind of get to the heart of what these people actually said, and how they were really different in how they want to phaseout using fossil fuels, and how do we get there. So let’s briefly talk a bit about, Dharna, what happened in this town hall and how fast that transition might be, and the money part we’ll get to a bit later, but I think this kind of a very critical element here.

DHARNA NOOR: Mm-hmm. I think a lot of the candidates were adhering to this idea that we need to phaseout of fossil fuels by 2050, but there was a lot of disagreement about how we get there. I mean, two bigger issues that came up were what to do about fracking and what to do about nuclear power. Some candidates came out saying that they would support fracking bans. Warren, I think for the first time said that. Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and others came out saying that they wouldn’t support a fracking ban. Amy Klobuchar I think kind of funnily said that she “Would not support a fracking ban, but would go over every fracking permit in the United States.” Which seems like, good luck with that girl, but I think that there are some pretty different ideas of how to actually take this on.

MARC STEINER: Let me ask you, I was trying to pull those pieces out. I was not like the two of you. I did not stay up all night watching each and every minute of this, maybe I shouldn’t admit that to everybody, but I didn’t. But I did watch a lot of it and I kind of read a lot about it this morning very early. It seemed to me, part of this debate has to do with how you frame the climate debate for the larger American audience. And seeing that some of these democratic candidates, especially Biden and Klobuchar, and Booker, and Yang to an extent as well, it’s about how you become a “realist” as you address this. How do we actually get there? People look at fracking and say, “Well, fracking, yeah, we have to stop it maybe, but we have to get there.” So talk a bit about that kind of debate. I mean, this seems a debate kind of between appealing to a broader audience, realism vs. necessity, so how do you parse that out?

DHARNA NOOR: Well, I don’t know. I’d be interested to hear from Steve on this too, but I think it kind of depends who you ask. I think if you have never been impacted by fracking, and all you know about it is what you hear on the news, maybe you believe that natural gas is a transitional fuel, as Amy Klobuchar and others call it. But people who have been directly impacted by the public health effects of fracking, I don’t think would ever say that they would like to see that in the transition to renewables. So I guess it sort of depends who you’re asking. I mean, also we should say this debate, or this town hall rather, comes after so little climate coverage in previous elections and in the previous debates. And I think that viewers aren’t super primed to really get into the more nitty gritty elements of these kind of plans. So really, I think in some sense, these folks are more talking to people who are already familiar with the issues, on things like fracking or nuclear waste and things like that. And then, where they’re really going to be appealing to a broader audience is by talking how to pay for things, how many jobs are going to be created, and things like that.

MARC STEINER: Steve, you want to jump in on this?

STEVE WARREN: Yeah. I think just talking, it didn’t really come up that there was any nuanced discussion of what does that mean to be a transition fuel from a climate perspective. So basically, fracking is methane gas, and methane is a greenhouse gas that in its first 20 years in the atmosphere is like anywhere from 50-100 times, depending on the study, more potent than carbon dioxide. So I mean a lot of scientists, climate scientists, scholars, say that actually it’s a lot worse than maybe even coal, especially how it’s being built out. And there’s so much, so many areas where there could be leakage, like in pipelines or different facilities. So that didn’t really come up, but that’s a key thing undergirding a claim that natural gas is a transition fuel. The scientific reality has proven a lot more complex than that as an example.

MARC STEINER: Part of the debate also had to do with nuclear power, which really became, I mean, it really became a significant part of the debate. It is a significant part of the debate, for most of Americans as well. So how did this play out?

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. I think so Andrew Yang and Cory Booker were the two people who really envisioned the new kind of nuclear reactor, a new age of nuclear reactors. And Bernie Sanders came out and said that he didn’t think that nuclear had any place in this transition at all. I don’t, I’m certainly not the expert on this, and I think there are very intelligent people who believe that nuclear has no place in the transition, and very intelligent people who believe that it certainly does and that it can be done more safely. But again, I don’t think that there was very much discussion about – there was a lot of, “Well nuclear waste can be very dangerous,” but there wasn’t so much a discussion of anything that could be done to mitigate some of those dangers, or even why nuclear waste is so dangerous and what harms it actually poses.

MARC STEINER: So a question, talk about what you two walked away with in terms of, and what America walked away with in terms of how do we get there? I mean, that was a big push by Bernie Sanders, a big push by Warren, and a couple of few others, Kamala Harris. How do we get there? So what did you walk away from? What did they tell us? What do we know?

STEVE WARREN: Well so, I mean, 8 out of the 10 said that the way that you get there to a transition or phasing out of fossil fuels is a carbon tax or a carbon fee. I’m not really – a couple said carbon fee and they didn’t really explain if that’s the same thing as a carbon tax. So Kamala Harris was one who said that she supports a fee and so was Julián Castro, as opposed to a carbon tax, which was the other half dozen. And then, Bernie Sanders has a multi-varied way of raising $16.3 trillion for his phaseout. And then, I think that the one kind of the old guard of the group was Beto O’Rourke, who said that there should be a cap and trade system, which will put a fee on it and then that money will be used to phase it out, so kind of like a parallel to the California system that exists now.

DHARNA NOOR: And one really interesting thing, just to add to that, that Sanders mentioned that didn’t get as much coverage from others was the need to phase out of funding the military because the Pentagon is the largest industrial emitter of fossil fuels. Or rather, the largest consumer of fossil fuels, the largest emitter, industrial emitter of greenhouse gasses. I think that’s something I was really excited to hear said on a network like CNN. Biden, on the other hand, talked quite a bit about how to green the military and how the military could play an important role in fighting the climate crisis. I think increasingly, some of the activists who’ve been pushing for a climate debate and other types of actions are having none of that.

STEVE WARREN: One quick note on that. I’m not sure if Sanders said that. It was more in the context of the expense, of how much we spend on the military. I’m not sure if he got into how dirty or how polluting the Pentagon is, but I also, to that green thing you’re talking about, not only was it Biden. Also Buttigieg went into that same thing, and I think he even propped up the benevolence of the Pentagon almost as like a progressive actor within the US political system.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure, yeah. The because here is, I guess, my reading on Sanders’ proposal. But I mean other more progressive, I guess, candidates have also talked about the need to green the military. I mean Elizabeth Warren, sort of infamously in more left climate circles also spoke about the need to make the military more sustainable and work with our brothers and sisters in the military to fight the climate crisis, so pretty interesting to see so many different perspectives there.

MARC STEINER: And I think coming out of that is how you pay for all this, and what the cost will be, and how do we get there? And so, we’re interested in that. We know America’s interested in that. And we’re going to end this section of our panel right now with our two guests, Steve Warren and Dharna Noor from the Climate Bureau here at The Real News.

We’ll have another segment, which I hope you will watch, which we’ll hear what the candidates said about, “How you pay for this? Where’s the money come from? How do we get there?” We’ll find out. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Check the next one out, so you can find out as well.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.