CNN Climate Emergency Town Hall: Never Let A Crisis Go to Waste
Many like myself feel alone in conservative circles (which I have aligned with for my adult life) regarding my level of concern about climate change. I’m equally alienated in environmentalist circles (who I am often around due to my millennial age bracket and work in energy policy) for my belief that market-based solutions focused on innovation can both reduce emissions and avoid hindering economic growth. Many on the Right doubt the veracity of claims that climate change is a serious threat, and assume all of the solutions proposed are basically socialism-lite and will cripple the energy industry and wider economy. Others balk at the hyperventilating overreaction of the Left to the potential apocalyptic scenarios in our climate future. CNN, and media writ large, does its fair share of overdramatizing the situation, perpetuating the nonsense idea that the world will end in 12 years (as recently stated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) if we do not achieve net-zero emissions by then. But the network, by virtue of giving a platform to thoughtful discussion, gave insight into both the seriousness of the problem as well as the seriousness of the proposed solutions and the candidates advocating for them.
Climate change is a serious and pressing danger. There is virtually universal and unanimous scientific consensus that we are at the tipping point of being able to address the problem before the man-made damage to our atmosphere and ecosystem results in permanent consequences. In a seven-hour long candidate-by-candidate marathon, the Democratic candidates for President shared their policy proposals.
Town Hall Format
The format of the seven-hour marathon unfortunately gave an individual platform to demagoguery and frivolous discussions. Despite this, the town halls did successfully provide clarity to who is actually earnest about addressing what many in America (57 percent, according to Pew, up 17 points in just five years) increasingly see as a serious threat to our country and our planet. Despite CNN insisting on strange and ancillary questions around “lifestyle environmentalism”, focusing on individual decisions like using plastic straws and eating hamburgers, there was still substantive policy discussed.
The “Climate Crisis”
The network and other outlets have changed their journalistic standards to refer to climate change as an “emergency” or a “crisis”. Climate has been added to a laundry list of “emergencies” and “crises” including mass shootings, income inequality, healthcare, and more. All of these may be actual crises, but when everything is an emergency, nothing is. While the threat of climate change is absolutely severe and urgent, it is hard not to see Democratic rhetoric motivated less by genuine concern and more by the same kind of populist demagoguery that motivates the President’s claims of “emergencies” involving migrant caravans, Islam, and international trade.
The “Green New Deal” is a prime example of invoking the language of climate crisis for political ends. The proposed resolution (which is not, in actuality, an attempt at a legally-binding policy proposal or budget) includes provisions for universal healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee, and increasing the minimum wage. Candidates alluded to these regularly throughout the night, even using proto-eugenicist arguments in favor of abortion and population control to limit emissions, which has been a pernicious aspect of historical environmentalist movements that ultimately gave rise to many anti-immigrant groups. If the candidates genuinely believe that climate change is truly, in the words of virtually all of the candidates in the CNN event, “the greatest threat we face”, it is hard not to be skeptical towards solutions composed of cobbled-together progressive hobbyhorses at best loosely related to environmental sustainability.
Climate Big Picture
Here is the context for the Town Hall: If climate change is a serious threat to human life and health, which it appears all the candidates agreed on, it will require radical, economy-wide solutions, and there needs to be a platform to discuss those solutions, free from the drama of debates or gratuitous media spin. As Elizabeth Warren said, “they want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers,” but global climate change will require substantive corporate, economic, and policy changes, both domestically and abroad. Mayor Pete Buttigieg stated “the reality is no individual can be expected single-handedly to solve this problem. It’s going to require national action.” The damage climate change could cause if temperatures increase at the current rate economically is estimated at 7.2 percent GDP by 2100. If that is to be taken seriously (and not even accounting for the tail risk of worst-case scenarios), radical-sounding proposals are reasonable and consumer-based choices are absurd to consider. However, not all radical solutions are created equal, and the plans proposed contained varying degrees of seriousness and effectiveness.
Climate Litmus Tests
This primary campaign season has not been lacking in a wide range of progressive litmus tests. Medicare for All, free college, abortion on demand, decriminalizing border crossings, and racial reparations have all become demands of progressive activists to their presidential candidates, regardless of political realism or actual merit. At the forum, groups like the Sunrise Movement proposed litmus tests including 100 percent renewable standards, radical public spending (well into the multiple trillions) to get there by 2030, ending the use of nuclear energy, and banning hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.
As Nate Silver astutely observed, most of these proposals are popular with the Democratic base, but unlikely to actually reduce emissions, and thus address the problem of climate change. Going 100% renewable by 2030 is likely impossible, nuclear energy produces more than half of our emissions-free power, and the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas is responsible for the unprecedented reduction in emissions over the last decade in the power sector (which former HUD Secretary Julian Castro acknowledged as a “bridge fuel”, to his credit). Litmus tests like the ones proposed are often less about substantive solutions to climate change, and more about virtue-signaling progressive bona fides to the Democratic base.
As a result of this environment of political incentives, many candidates appear to lean into the cynical view of their climate proposals, as they appeal to politics rather than practicalities. Extreme ideas are rewarded, regardless of effectiveness, so candidates are motivated to prove their radicalism over pragmatism. The best examples of this are the mostly arbitrary price tags they attached to their proposals. During his time on stage, former Vice President Joe Biden stated, “don’t tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.”
This led to candidates like Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders drawing rapturous applause after promising to spend $16 trillion over 15 years. To put this in context, the entire energy industry has an annual GDP of $1 trillion in the U.S. Sanders’ plan would spend another trillion on top of that, including bizarre amounts like half a trillion on electric school buses, but only $300 billion on public transit nationally.
Other signals to the environmental activist crowd during the event were fairly transparent, including anti-scientific proposals to end nuclear energy production from Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, and promises to ban fracking nationwide from Warren, Sanders, and California Senator Kamala Harris. Cynicism should not be withheld from these proposals, since they are in a context in which many progressive climate activists are the ones paying close attention. Those who are truly concerned about climate change should call these candidates out accordingly.
With the apocalyptic language around climate change, it is hard not to be defeatist about the problem. It will require massive, worldwide efforts to undo centuries of damage. This has led many young people into “climate grief”, which NBC describes, saying “[t]he increasing visibility of climate change, combined with bleak scientific reports and rising carbon dioxide emissions, is taking a toll on mental health, especially among young people, who are increasingly losing hope for their future.” Nihilism and grief seemed to play a significant role on the stage throughout the evening. Most visibly, Joe Biden was asked about climate “mitigation”, preparing communities to deal with purportedly inevitable effects of climate change like rising sea levels and worsening storm seasons. Biden bizarrely seemed to not know what “mitigation” meant in this context, and pivoted to energy-efficient appliances. Other candidates (such as Julian Castro) spoke of their anguish witnessing the images of the Amazon rainforest burning (many of which were not recent).
However, no candidate embodied climate nihilism more than former tech executive Andrew Yang. Yang inexplicably proposes his so-called “Freedom Dividend”, a $1,000 per month universal basic income, as a solution to the disasters that are predicted to happen more often in the future. In a previous debate, he argued this money could be used to “move to higher ground”. There is no more pessimistic answer to the climate crisis than “Here’s $12,000. Move inland.” But it so perfectly typifies the Silicon Valley, bunker-building, “black-pill”, tech-bro view of climate change. Even Yang’s mitigation proposals are similarly ridiculous. From using mirrors as a means of reflecting sunlight, to utilizing volcanoes (no I am not kidding) to decrease the Earth’s temperature, this kind of nihilistic fantasy was exemplified by Yang. To make matters worse, that nihilism appeared to be echoed by the individuals posing questions to the candidates, and at times, the other candidates themselves.
The town hall did deliver opportunities for candidates to actually signal how pressing the issue of climate change is to them. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been thus far the most clear-eyed in the field on the issue of climate change, often pointing to his relative youth (at 37, he’s a millennial). In 2050, where he is proposing we set the goal of net-zero emissions, he will be almost ten years younger than Joe Biden is right now. The issue is personal to him, because he will see the worst effects in his lifetime in a way few other candidates will. This is reflected in the first policy he brought up, the dreaded carbon tax.
In fairness to other candidates, Harris, Warren, and Biden all acknowledged the need for a carbon tax, and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said he was in favor of a cap-and-trade carbon pricing program. All of these candidates seemed to treat the most promising policy for addressing greenhouse gas emissions as an afterthought.
Mayor Pete even acknowledged that “you shouldn’t say the ‘T’ word in a campaign”, but correctly stated that a carbon tax is the most effective tool at our disposal to reduce emissions, according to a large, bipartisan group of economists, since it leverages the behemoth of the market itself to pull millions of levers at once, rather than relying on micro-managing regulations with limited scope. The political difficulties come with the criticisms that a carbon tax will increase energy prices, which he would offset by proposing a dividend for consumers paid for by the revenue from the carbon fee.
There was also thoughtful discussion of America’s role in leading the world in what must be a global effort to address a global problem. Almost all of the candidates mentioned not just re-joining, but strengthening the Paris Climate Agreement to ensure temperatures don’t pass the 2°C threshold, thus avoiding the worst impacts of climate change. Biden spoke to his record in the Obama administration in bringing the world together around the Paris Accords, and promised to hold a global climate summit. This sense of global leadership is vital. The U.S. only accounts for 15 percent of global emissions. We could cut domestic emissions to zero tomorrow and the world would still be on the path to unprecedented warming.
Climate change is a tangible problem. Greenhouse gas emissions have real externalities that can be addressed, accounted for, and mitigated with pragmatic solutions. If policymakers are not talking about carbon pricing, nuclear energy, and America’s role leading a global endeavor to reduce emissions, they are either being politically opportunistic or depressingly apocalyptic. Cable news is often a hellscape of outrage porn and vapid screaming matches, making the relatively mild and nuanced CNN Climate Town Hall a welcome space for substantive discussion to distinguish those prepared to address climate change, and those who see it as merely another “crisis” to manipulate for political gain.