Live commentary: How to solve the climate crisis

Updated 12:54 p.m. ET, September 5, 2019
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10:45 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

The most realistic action we can take

By Lara Hansen

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

By Van Jones

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

By Naomi Oreskes

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

By Mark Lynas

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

By Geoffrey Heal

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

By Naomi Oreskes

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?

9:22 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

What the candidates aren't discussing

By Jessika Trancik

There’s a fine line that the candidates have to walk. On the one hand, so much more needs to be done to fight climate change -- and so much more quickly. We need to step up our efforts, and the candidates are right to focus on this. On the other hand, there are policy successes that the candidates should cite and build on. So far, we haven’t had enough discussion of the policies that have driven technological innovation.

Of course, this is not to say there has been no discussion of innovation and smart policies. Sen. Kamala Harris mentioned the process of innovation in passing, and businessman Andrew Yang discussed the importance of pushing industrial efforts toward more low-carbon innovation.

But we’re still missing some of the most inspirational evidence of recent progress in batteries, wind power, electric vehicles and solar energy. In the case of solar energy, the costs of solar panels dropped 99% over four decades. This drop in costs was driven by government policy, with an estimated 60% of the cost decline driven by market-expansion policies around the world to grow solar energy, and 30% from global government support for research and development.

It’s easy for people to feel discouraged when talking about the climate change challenge. The problem seems enormous, and many feel their individual decisions and votes don’t matter. But recent history shows something different -- with real and tangible policy successes in driving technological innovation. Candidates should cite this evidence. And the American people should recognize how powerful their votes can be.

Jessika Trancik is an Associate Professor in Energy Systems at MIT’s Institute for Data, Systems, and Society.

9:11 p.m. ET, September 4, 2019

Yang hits the ball out of the park

By Naomi Oreskes

Andrew Yang just hit the ball out of the park. He moved the debate right where it needs to be: into the economic and politics of climate change. 

In a few short minutes, he raised three crucial points that economists have been trying for years to get front and center in our debate.

1.) The GDP is a terrible measure of well-being and needs to be replaced by something that takes into account health and environmental sustainability.

2.) We currently subsidize the fossil fuel industry to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars per year. (Most Americans think that renewables are heavily subsidized, when, in fact, permanent tax expenditures that subsidize fossil fuels exceed renewables by a 7-1 margin)

3.) Jobs versus the environment is a false dichotomy. He is totally right about that. More than that, it is a pernicious myth. I’ve never understood why Democrats don’t do more to reject it. Good for Yang for calling this out in no uncertain terms.

I don’t know if this man is qualified to be President, but he’s on track on this issue.

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