CNN Democratic Presidential Town Hall: The Climate Crisis New York, NY 2019

Disclaimer: Dharna Noor donated $27 to the Bernie Sanders for President campaign.

Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls took to the stage on Wednesday night for CNN’s back-to-back forums on the climate crisis. Each candidate fielded questions from moderators and the curated audience about their climate action plans, which range from bold (Bernie Sanders’ $16.3 trillion Green New Deal blueprint) to bizarre (Andrew Yang’s proposal to build giant mirrors to reflect the sun’s light back into space).

In this seven-hour event—seven hours!—the candidates laid out their proposals to take on the greatest existential threat, competing for voters’ approval. But the real winners of the town hall weren’t the candidates—they were climate movements.

For months, the youth-led environmental organization the Sunrise Movement, who forced their way into the public eye last Fall when they staged a protest in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office demanding she support the creation of a Green New Deal, have been pressuring the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to hold a debate focused entirely on the climate crisis. Dozens of other organizations pushed for a climate debate, too. 

By June, every major Democratic endorsed the proposal. But the DNC rejected it, and they won’t even allow presidential hopefuls to “participate in multi-candidate issue-specific forums with the candidates appearing on the same stage, engaging one another in discussion,” hence the seven-hour marathon of individual town halls. But the event’s framing—and the fact that CNN held it at all—shows the organizers’ power.

“All 5 presidential frontrunners used the words ‘Green New Deal’ to describe their plans,” said Victoria Fernandez, Sunrise’s internal organizing director, in a statement. “When candidates disagreed, it wasn’t over whether to have a Green New Deal or not. It was about what a Green New Deal should look like.”

Several Sunrise members and other young climate activists attended the invite-only event. One was Vic Barrett, a 20-year old trans Afro-Latino climate justice organizer and plaintiff in Juliana v. United States (and who we interviewed back in July). He asked Andrew Yang directly if he thought the federal government had the responsibility to “end federal support of a fossil fuel energy system.” 

In response, Yang said he would end all fossil fuel subsidies and “propose a Constitutional amendment that makes it a responsibility of the United States government to safeguard and protect our environment for future generations.” 

Another question came from Katie Eder, the 19-year-old executive director of the Future Coalition. “Older generations have continued to fail our generation by repeatedly choosing money and power over our lives and our futures,” she asked Joe Biden. “So how can we trust you to put us, the future, over the wants of large corporations and wealthy individuals?” 

“Because I’ve never done it,” Biden responded, which, as we have discussed on TRNN, lol.

Perhaps the most notable question of the night came from 27-year-old doctoral candidate and Sunrise volunteer Isaac Larkin. He asked Joe Biden how he could hold fossil fuel corporations accountable for their role in the climate crisis when he was slated to hold a fundraising event the very next day hosted by former fossil fuel executive Andrew Goldman. The meeting was first reported before the town hall by CNBC. 

Biden claimed to have had no idea about Goldman’s ties. “What I was told by my staff is he did not have any responsibility relating to the company,” he said. “But if that turns out to be true, I will not in any way accept his help.” 

Goldman is a co-founder of Houston-based natural gas producer Western LNG. Soon after, the Sunrise Movement called for Biden to cancel the fundraiser, but CNBC sources predict he won’t. 

Whether or not Biden cancels the fundraiser is hardly the point, though. Either way, posing a question like this to Joe Biden on CNN is a feat. 

Even though it wasn’t the climate debate organizers wanted, the event was clearly the best conversation on the climate crisis of this election season—or any other election season ever. This year’s first DNC-sanctioned debates featured just 15 minutes on the climate crisis in four hours, even though climate was the top issue voters wanted to hear about. And in 2016, the debates featured just 7 minutes of climate coverage total, according to Media Matters

But at CNN’s town hall, each candidate spoke about the climate crisis for 40 minutes. And this isn’t even the only time they’ll have to talk about it: There’s another climate forum planned for September 19-20 on MSNBC, and at least 12 candidates have confirmed their attendance. 

Wednesday night’s event was far from perfect: Some questions were softballs, and many went unanswered. Also, seven hours of CNN is a lot.

But for seven hours, we got a glimpse of a world where candidates seriously reckon with the climate crisis—not just if it’s real or human-caused or urgent, but what they’re going to do about it. 

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