Live commentary: How to solve the climate crisis

11:22 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

The only thing that matters

Democratic candidates are spending an entire evening of town halls discussing climate change on CNN. The candidates have used their time to promote different plans for dealing with this global crisis. In contrast to the Republican silence on this issue, each of the Democrats have a vision about what needs to be done. Center and left agree that Washington needs to act.

But the one proposal that came out of the town halls, more important than any other, is getting rid of the filibuster. When Senator Kamala Harris joined the chorus calling for an end to the practice that allows a minority of senators to block the desires of the majority, she revealed a growing recognition within the party that it will be impossible to tackle climate change without this reform. Following the town hall, she reiterated the point,

tweeting: “If Republicans continue to block progress, I’ll get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.”

Under Senator Mitch McConnell, Republicans have shown repeatedly that as a majority they will not support substantive legislation to curb emissions and as a minority they will use the filibuster to prevent Democrats from passing such bills. In other words, regardless of who controls the Senate in 2021, none of the Democrats seeking the presidency would be able to make progress via the legislative branch unless they have a 60-vote majority. And executive action, as President Barack Obama learned, can be easily reversed.

To paraphrase what Speaker Pelosi likes to say about needing to have 218 votes to move forward with an idea, without ending the filibuster Democrats are just having a conversation.

The time has come for action. The damage and threats that the world faces from a ravaged environment get worse every year. And as of now, most of Republican leaders have moved firmly into the denialism camp and reject the need for legislative solutions.

Democrats, as we saw tonight, do want to do something about climate change. But without filibuster reform, it will just add up to a lot of talk.

Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author of the forthcoming book, "Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party."

11:00 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Biden misses an opportunity

At nearly every opportunity at the CNN climate crisis town hall, former Vice President Joe Biden weaved in his experience on the international stage and on national security issues. His basic message was, ‘I will bring the world together -- and that’s what we need to address climate change.’

In that vein, he brought up the Paris climate agreement. Now, while that issue is important, it is not what will move the general public to sustain the kind of activism we have seen from young people and progressives who have pushed this issue to the forefront.   

However, it may be a preview of how Biden will attempt to differentiate himself from his opponents at the next debate. His experience as Vice President and as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee do stand in comforting contrast with the current inept leader of the free world.

But at this stage in the primary process he would benefit from talking more about children struggling with asthma because of increased pollution than leading with his negotiating skills with China.


Jen Psaki, a CNN political commentator, was the White House communications director and State Department spokeswoman during the Obama administration. She is vice president of communications and strategy at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Follow her at @jrpsaki

10:45 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

The most realistic action we can take

Let’s be clear, taking no action on climate change is the riskiest action we can take. This includes proposals that commit us to continuing to invest in fossil fuel infrastructure -- including natural gas which emits greenhouse gases not only when it is burned to make energy, but also in its extraction, refining and distribution. Senator Elizabeth Warren aptly called the current state of affairs where inaction rules “a nightmare.”

Let’s be clear, climate change is a monumental problem (as Senator Amy Klobuchar put it) and an existential crisis (as Senator Bernie Sanders reminded us) that we have spent over a century creating. It is a driver of the intensity of Hurricane Dorian, which is being reported on during this town hall.

Let’s be clear, we need a monumental solution but we do not have a century to enact it. We need bold, rapid action. Senator Kamala Harris’ commitments to use legal recourse and regulatory tools to spur this change, and Sanders' economy wide plan may seem risky if you have not been focused on climate change and its impacts. However, these strategies are anything but risky, they are lifelines in the heavy seas that surround us.

These approaches lead us to former Vice President Joe Biden’s reflection on how these solutions create new jobs. They also lead us to Harris’ reflections on improvements for air and water quality. Sanders even discussed the concomitant advantage of joining the global community to fight the common enemy of climate change -- it can help to reduce global conflict.

Indeed, these proposed solutions are rich with benefits beyond simply reducing the rate and extent of climate change.

Lara Hansen is the Chief Scientist, Executive Director and co-founder of the not-for-profit organization EcoAdapt, and co-author of Climate Savvy.

11:23 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Klobuchar spoke directly to real Americans' concerns

Amy Klobuchar had a great night tonight. She really did her homework and shared her climate plans through the eyes of real Americans. 

Mychal Estrada from Green For All (an organization I helped to create) asked Kamala Harris an important question before Klobuchar took the stage tonight: “As we make the transition from dirty diesel and coal, our industry workers -- many of whom voted for Donald Trump in the last election -- may fear losing their jobs, benefits, and ability to provide for their families. How will you work across the aisle to support all workers, and build trust with the Republican constituents dependent on a fossil-fuel economy?"

Unfortunately, Kamala Harris failed to directly answer the question. But later Klobuchar took the challenge head-on: We can’t build a green economy that leaves anyone behind, she said. 

Her grandfather was a coal miner, so it’s personal to her. She talked about the need to support impacted workers and help them make the transition while still being able to provide for their families. She shared ways farmers can be part of the solution by sequestering carbon in the soil. She talked about how low-income Americans might save money through clean economy solutions.

She also talked about the importance of environmental justice for communities of color living on the front lines of pollution; she touted plans for moving money from polluters' pockets into programs that can lift these communities up with a price on carbon. 

Klobuchar laid out a vision for a green economy where everyone has a place and no one gets left behind. That’s something that can resonate with the voters watching tonight. 

Van Jones is the host of the "The Van Jones Show" and a CNN political commentator. He is the co-founder of Green For All, a program of Dream Corps, and the CEO of the REFORM Alliance.

8:42 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Are the candidates living in a fantasy?

11:01 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Klobuchar has laundry on her mind

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar began her segment by making the connection between climate change and people’s lives. That was good. A survey shows that people are more likely to care about climate change when it is connected to their lives. But much of her discussion focused on the “personal action” theme, such as doing laundry with cold water (which she said she got from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, but that was probably the least important aspect of his plan). For what it’s worth, I’ve been washing my clothes in cold water all my adult life, and while it makes me feel virtuous, it hasn’t moved the needle on climate change.  

Maybe she’s got laundry on her mind, because her discussion felt more like a laundry list than an integrated program. For a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, she seemed oddly lacking in clear priorities. When asked about jobs, she said that wind and solar were a growing area of the economy. But they are not just a growing area, they are the fastest growing job sectors in the US. And, sorry, but stronger levees are not climate mitigation -- they are climate adaptation. They are not a means to stop climate change, but only a means to try to live with its effects.


Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and the author of the new book Why Trust Science?

8:54 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

The single most important goal of the candidates' climate plan

The most urgent climate challenge of the next two years is to get Donald Trump out of the White House. Unless that happens, there is no way to restore sanity to US climate policy. Four more years of Trump is unthinkable.

Therefore the most important climate plan is not the most eye-wateringly dramatic version of the Green New Deal, but the one that – as part of an overall winning strategy – stands the best chance of persuading the widest spectrum of American voters possible, and across political divides.

It won’t be easy, because climate change has become part of the culture wars, and many right-wing voters see climate denialism as a core part of their political identity.

For this reason it is a mistake for Democrats to go too far to the left with their Green New Deal and climate wish lists. What matters is reducing emissions to zero as quickly as possible, nothing else.

One way for candidates to show they are serious is to endorse the current grassroots campaign to keep nuclear power plants open across the US as alternatives to fracked gas.

Yet Buttigieg, Castro and Sanders, for example, all oppose nuclear, for no good reason. Nuclear is still by far the largest-source of emissions-free electricity in the US. It is also largely supported by Republican voters and politicians.

A climate plan that phases out the nation’s largest source of emissions-free power indicates more clearly than anything that a candidate values political tribalism over the urgency of the climate crisis.

The starkness of the two parties’ divide is illustrated by the mere fact of this CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall. The Democrats are debating sensible and thoughtful ways forward to tackle the climate crisis.

The Republicans are persisting in outright denial of the basics of climate science, and their leader, the President, is calling climate change a hoax and trying to keep the US hooked on coal--after pulling the nation out of the only international climate treaty that matters, the Paris Agreement.

If we continue with the politics of Trump, the climate crisis will not be solved, and the world will tip into a spiral of rapid global heating, bringing temperatures that this planet has not experienced for millions of years, endangering human civilization and causing a mass extinction of other life.

Nothing else matters. Whatever climate plan has the best chance of defeating Trump is the one to go for.

Mark Lynas is the author of several books on climate change. He is currently writing an updated version of Six Degrees, due to be published next year. Twitter @mark_lynas

7:54 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Harris didn't have all the answers -- but was overall impressive

Kamala Harris was impressive. Making a lot of references to her record in California -- which has great environmental policies and has tackled climate and other environmental issues more effectively than any other state -- Harris was very self-assured. Her California record is a big plus - though a lot of distinctive California policies predate her. 

But she waffled on some issues. Nuclear was one. Should we replace nuclear power stations at the ends of their lives by more of the same, or by renewables?

This is a complex question and Senator Harris didn’t seem to have thought it through. She talked mainly about the disposal of nuclear waste and Yucca Mountain – a big issue but not central to the choice.

And she said she’d leave it to the states.  But we need action at the federal level if we are to develop and implement new nuclear technologies. She would ban fracking and the production of oil and gas on federal lands – I agree, but this is controversial and perhaps not necessary. If we can reduce the use of oil and gas by promoting new technologies, this will automatically reduce demand for oil and gas and so its production.

Overall she seemed very emphatic about the importance of climate.

Geoffrey Heal, the Donald C. Waite III Professor of Social Enterprise and a Chazen Senior Scholar at Columbia Business School, is the author of "Endangered Economies -- How the Neglect of Nature Threatens Our Prosperity."

10:55 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Kamala Harris short on specifics

Kamala Harris seems to be confused. She dodged the opening question—would you declare a climate crisis?—by saying she would declare a drinking water crisis. She segued to the Montreal Protocol, but that deals with the ozone hole!

On the big policy questions—like carbon pricing—she seems lacking in specifics and repeatedly resorts to the slogan, “leaders have to lead.” Sure, but how exactly? She talked about a lot of small-bore issues like plastic bags, drinking straws, and cheeseburgers. Not eating cheeseburgers might be a good idea, but it is not a policy. 

Harris also talked at some length about climate change denial, in part in response to a question about its parallels with tobacco harm denial. My colleague Erik Conway and I literally wrote the book on that parallel, but I don’t think that is the central issue now. Polls all show that the American people are on board about climate change; our central challenge is to implement the policies that will accelerate the renewable energy transition. 

How do we do that? She had very little to say. I’d say her heart is in the right place, but both Castro and Yang are in front of her on the specifics of the issue.

Naomi Oreskes is Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University and the author of the new book Why Trust Science?