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Ten candidates at CNN’s climate town hall explained how they’d hold industry accountable for climate change—but can we trust them?

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

This is the third installment and section of our conversation about what happened in the discussions last night around the environment with the various candidates for president in the Democratic party. In this segment, we’re going to really focus on this issue of environmental and individual responsibility, and look at what Elizabeth Warren had to say. We’re also going to talk about Julian Castro and Cory Booker, what they have to say, and Biden, and more with our two Climate Bureau mavens that we have with us here at The Real News, Dharna Noor, who actually got this whole bureau launched, and Steve Horn, who joins us as well from San Francisco, California. Somewhere in California.


STEVE HORN: San Diego. Close enough, other side of the state.

MARC STEINER: One of those Sans. He’s in one of those Sans out there in California, but good to have him with us as well. Let me begin this part of the conversation with, I think it was Elizabeth Warren who said, when she was asked a question about personal responsibility in all of this. Her response, I thought, was one of the most interesting responses I’ve heard in a long time from a politician. Let’s watch what she had to say.

SENATER ELIZABETH WARREN: There are a lot of ways that we try to change our energy consumption and our pollution, and God bless all of those ways. Some of it is with light bulbs, some of it is on straws, some of it, “Dang, these aren’t cheeseburgers,” right? There are a lot of different pieces to this, and I get that people are trying to find the part that they can work on, and what can they do. And I’m in favor of that, and I’m going to help, and I’m going to support, but understand this is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers, when 70% of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air comes from three industries. And we can set our targets and say by 2028, 2030, and 2035, “no more.”

MARC STEINER: Okay, so she hit a number of things here, which I thought were really interesting. It’s been part of the debate all the time about no more plastic, no more this, no more that in your lives, and stop eating meat, which is probably not a bad thing for you to do, but stop eating so much meat. But the reality is it’s taking on the fossil fuel industry, and also meeting the goals of all these candidates that we have to meet in terms of having a fossil-fuel-free economy and world.

So, Dharna, I mean, I thought that – I’m glad this is a part of the discussion. People have to wrestle both with what this individual responsibility, the limits of individual responsibility, and also the limitless conversation we have to have about holding fossil fuel industries accountable.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, there’s a war in here. I was so glad that somebody said this. Warren here really reminds me of my girl Mary Hagler, who wrote that piece that went viral a while back on Vox, “I’m a part of the environmental movement; I don’t care if you recycle.” I think one of the really fascinating things—

MARC STEINER: Oh, right, I remember that. That’s right. Right, right, right.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. It’s funny to see somebody like Elizabeth Warren talking like that, but I think something that really frustrated me was that there were so many good things that were nudged at. I think talking about animal agriculture is really important. Talking about plastics is really, really important. Even I think it was Pete Buttigieg who got a question about aviation and the carbon footprint of aviation. But instead of talking about how to take on any of these industries, everything was about should people eat less meat, should people fly less, should people stop buying plastic straws, as though you can do everything on the demand side and not actually change anything about the supply side.

I was excited, I guess, to hear the dimensions of things like the animal agriculture industry and aviation in this town hall generally, but if we’re really going to make any changes, I think Elizabeth Warren is right. They need to be changes on industry and not really on the backs of individuals.

MARC STEINER: Yeah. You’re not going to beat Donald Trump in 2020 by telling people not to eat their red meat, not at this point. That can be a discussion we should have, but it’s not going to take us there at the moment. So, let’s talk about what they did say about taking on fossil fuel. Steve, you want to start off a little bit about what was said by some of these candidates about taking on fossil fuel, how they would do it, and how they’d get us to a carbon-free economy by 2030-35, whatever number different people have?

STEVE HORN: Yeah. Just a real quick thing, this will – I think they’re interrelated, and the same person was talking about these issues. Kamala Harris also talked about straws. I think that just one of the failures of this debate is to explain where and why that came from. Straws are part of the oil and gas industry, and part of the oil and gas—The petrochemical plastics are produced through the petrochemical industry. That’s where the straw thing came from. That’s why California, when you go to a restaurant in California, unless you ask for a straw, they don’t give you a straw by default. It’s kind of like a small token, but I think that talking about the fracking boom and getting into that issue, the fracking boom has really created a petrochemical boom and a plastics boom.

Looking at someone like Harris— this is a rough transition here— but Harris says that the way that she will go about going away from straws, the way she’ll go about tackling, one of the major ways would be tackling climate change, would be basically using litigation, using her prosecutorial background to take on the fossil fuel industry in that way. Mostly, I think, through the lens— she didn’t really say it outright— but through the lens of the fact that this industry has produced so much climate denial over the past decades and misinformation that has led consumers to believe that climate change – there’s a debate over the issue, and that’s been the whole context of the Exxon Knew campaign that different environmental groups have pushed. So I think that that was an interesting thing that that came up through her not only yesterday, but also in her broader campaign when she said she would spend $10 trillion. She said one of the major things she would do is hold them legally accountable.

One of the interesting things that I saw was that she actually claimed to have already sued ExxonMobil. Actually, in California when she was Attorney General, they opened up an investigation. It’s unclear what that investigation found, and it’s definitely clear that whatever the investigation found, it didn’t lead to the state ever suing ExxonMobil. The only state in the country that’s ever sued ExxonMobil is New York, and that happened last year.

MARC STEINER: Right. She did open an investigation, but she did not sue. She keeps saying the word sue, I think.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. I think she sued some other oil companies. I think BP was one of them, but she didn’t sue Exxon.

MARC STEINER: What about taking on fossil fuel? How parse out what the candidate said and where they are with this whole notion of taking on fossil fuel? What did you learn from this, Dharna?

DHARNA NOOR: I think we can’t even begin to talk about this without discussing our lovely friend Joe Biden last night, who, shortly before the town hall began, a story broke that he was leaving right after his portion of the evening to attend a fundraiser hosted by a former fossil fuel executive. And we actually got to see a grad student last night ask Joe Biden about that. Let’s take a look at that clip.

GRADUATE STUDENT: How can we trust you to hold these corporations and executives accountable for their crimes against humanity when we know that tomorrow, you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser hosted by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?

JOE BIDEN: He is not a fossil fuel executive [inaudible]. He is not a fossil fuel executive, and the fact of the matter is that what we talk about is, what are we going to do about those corporations? What have we done? And everywhere along the way. For example, I’ve argued and pushed for suing those executives who are engaged in pollution, those companies who engage with—

DHARNA NOOR: I guess, in theory, he’s right. This is a former fossil fuel executive—

MARC STEINER: Former, former. Right, right.

DHARNA NOOR: But still, I—

MARC STEINER: But he also said, in fact, in the clip he says, “I didn’t know,” but he did know.

DHARNA NOOR: I don’t believe it for a second. I think he was not expecting to get that question. Shout out to folks for breaking that story at a very timely moment, but I’m really glad that people are pushing beyond even things like signing that No Fossil Fuel Pledge, which is essentially a pledge that candidates are being asked to sign to stop taking any fossil fuel money at all. I’m really glad that folks are pushing even beyond that and really saying, “Look at your own connections with the fossil fuel industry.” It’s a lot harder to hold an industry accountable when you’re in bed with it, so it was pretty cool to see folks call him out on that last night.

STEVE HORN: Just one quick thing about Biden. Yeah, that clip was its own thing, and the fundraiser, there’s a whole issue about that, but just to be clear about Biden, his top climate advisor for his campaign is a fossil fuel executive. She’s on the Board of Directors of the company Cheniere, which compared to this other guy, Andrew Goldman, it’s a startup LNG company. Cheniere is the pioneer of exporting fracked gas in this country, got the first permit to do so from the Obama administration back in 2012, that Biden was a part of as the Vice President. She is his main liaison on climate issues, and Heather Zichal was the White House Climate Czar under Obama. Under her time in the White House, she was part of a permit streamlining initiative that the Obama administration had to expedite permits on fossil fuel buildout in this country, so that’s the real – when you’re looking at Biden.

I think one of my real frustrations with this whole thing is all of these people are elected officials, and there weren’t that many questions about what have you actually done when you were in office as opposed to what’s your vision in the future. Like I said on Twitter, past is prologue on these kinds of things.

MARC STEINER: But let’s talk about what they said about the future. I’m curious what you’re getting. We’ll go back to this real quick before we run out of time, and try to get a little bit into environmental justice issues here, which we haven’t touched. Which is, what were the takeaways in terms of what they said about how they were going to take on fossil fuels? If you look at Julian Castro, when he talked about the whole question of fracking, he said, “My ideas have changed. I have a different way of looking at this now.”

MARC STEINER: People say one thing once because they’re in a particular situation, and they can—People can change their ideas and say where they want to go. The question is, where do they want to take us? What have you learned? Did we learn anything about whose lever you might want to pull?

STEVE HORN: Yeah. Since you brought up Castro, I think that yeah, he didn’t quite say that he would be opposed to fracking. He said that eventually he’d be in support of a phase out, he would [crosstalk]—

MARC STEINER: No, but he did say he changed his ideas, that he’s grown since that moment. He did say that.

STEVE HORN: Yeah, in a way. Yeah. It was sort of a parallel to Hillary Clinton when she was running, where she said that she would support bans on fracking if that’s what the community supported. But I think the more important thing about Castro and beyond fracking, I think Castro had raised – I think the only person who raised the issue of using the Clean Air Act, like the actual laws on the books. The EPA has oversight of a law that was passed under President Richard Nixon, which hasn’t really been used, but could be used to hold fossil fuel companies accountable and really reign in their power. And really, you can use the regulatory system in a way to create strategic ends. I think he may have been the only one that said that we have this law. Also, he may have said in the strongest terms, or one of the strongest terms, that these impacts are first and foremost impacting people of color and poor people on the front lines, so that’s why he said that it’s important to use laws like that to change that status quo that exists right now.


DHARNA NOOR: One thing we haven’t talked about that I was excited to see some debate over last night was the role of the public sector. There was a pretty interesting back-and-forth between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Bernie Sanders, speaking out in favor of public utilities; Elizabeth Warren, essentially saying, “I don’t actually think that necessarily making utilities public would make them transition to renewables any faster.” She said she wasn’t opposed to continuing to allow utility companies to actually make a profit. The profit structure of utility monopolies makes it kind of hard to take a real climate action sometimes, but there is some debate over whether or not that’s necessary, whether or not you can regulate your way out of that, so I think that’s something that I’m excited to hear more of.

MARC STEINER: She was backing—It was another way for her to back off the socialist label for a minute, saying that let companies make money and they could make money over solar. It’s fine, but Bernie Sanders saying no, we should have a public option, as he put it.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Sanders kind of seeming to back away from that socialist label a little bit too. I think one of his staffers actually even tweeted afterward, “Just to clarify, we’re not saying that we’re going to outlaw the profit motive on [crosstalk]—

MARC STEINER: We’re not nationalizing the industries.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah, exactly. If folks are interested in hearing more about that, I did an interesting interview a couple months ago with Johanna Bozuwa from the Democracy Collaborative about the power of harnessing the utility sector.

MARC STEINER: Before we—Very quickly, we’ll go through this, but the question of environmental justice. You raised that issue early on in our conversation, what to watch for in this. What did you walk away from with this?

DHARNA NOOR: The fact of having any questions about environmental justice at all, I thought, was really important. I was excited to see some questions, at least, from front line folks, folks who have actually been impacted by these kinds of climate disasters. I think Julian Castro is somebody who’s been really heavily praised for essentially centering environmental racism and that sort of structural inequity in the climate crisis in his plans, but I’m looking to see more of that from all of the candidates.

There could have been a lot more people in the audience who had come with questions that were informed by specific experiences, by their own experiences on the front lines. I think we could have heard a lot more about Indigenous folks and the way that they have been impacted disproportionately by the climate crisis. There was some talk, especially from Booker, about the disproportionate impacts of the climate crisis on black folks and environmental racism. But I think that really if we’re going to take a comprehensive climate action, we need to look at every part of this, and ensure that all of these aspects are actually just for people who are impacted worst not only by the climate crisis, but also by things like disproportionate wealth, and things like that.

MARC STEINER: Let me ask you both, before we close out, are there final thoughts that you wanted to make sure that we didn’t leave without getting to, or whatever else you want us to see? Very quickly, Steve, do you want to jump in? And then, we’ll close out with Dharna.

STEVE HORN: Yeah. I think just one little nugget that I really loved, it was a question that someone in the audience asked to Joe Biden. It was not really so much Biden’s answer, which I don’t think he really knew how to answer it, and I don’t know if any candidate’s super prepared to answer right now, but the question of insurance for climate damages. Someone asked him, “What are we going to do and how are we going to pay for wildfires? Or, if you live by the ocean, how are we going to pay for sea level rise for destruction of your property?”

I’m really interested to see how candidates talk about that going forward, especially from the context of California, where literal neighborhoods and cities are being destroyed and people’s houses are being destroyed. And insurance companies are saying, “Okay, we’re no longer going to pay for this anymore.” So people are really hurting right now in that area, and it’s going to become a new reality across the country.


DHARNA NOOR: I was also really excited to hear that conversation, and I wish that some folks, maybe specifically Sanders because of his mode of embracing the public sector, had really called out the profit motive there. Isn’t the answer like, if insurance companies are making a profit on that kind of disaster, that you should just outlaw the ability for insurance companies to make profit at all? So I’m looking for folks to push things a little bit further. Maybe that’s too much to ask.

I’m also, I think, interested in the future to hear a little bit more about how to move more toward collective solutions rather than individual ones, and not just things like whether or not you personally eat less meat or use fewer straws, but also things like, building out public transit for instance. Sanders had a good question posed to him about the role of electric vehicles, and he didn’t mention the role of public transit at all.

I think that there’s a lot of different places where we can see a lot more of the collectivizing solutions, which would bring, obviously, emissions down and lower carbon emissions more generally, but also would frankly just be better for people. If we’re going to talk all of the time about how much people are going to be losing and all of the sort of austerity in framing, how much money we’re all going to have to spend, how many fewer hamburgers we’re going to eat, I think we should also maybe talk about all of the shit that we all have to gain from this kind of great transition. So, maybe next time.

MARC STEINER: Maybe next time. There will be a next time. Dharna Noor, Steve Horn, thank you both so much for the work you do here for The Real News, and all the people watching. I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for watching. Let us know what you think. We’ll stay on top of all this, as you know. Take care.

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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.