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Sanders Shines and Biden Crumbles During Epic Town Hall on Climate Crisis

Seven hours was a lot, and not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks in College Park, Georgia, on August 17, 2019. On September 4 at CNN's climate town hall, Sanders offered specifics on his ambitious $16 trillion climate plan and how he would pay for it.

Adding climate change to school curriculums. Geoengineering. Thorium fuel reactors. A Blue New Deal. The Syrian war was a climate war. Climate distress included in asylum petitions. Food deserts. Climate denial is a literal sin. “Democracy” is a verb.

For the first time in the history of the country, these topics and others like them were discussed in detail by presidential candidates on live television, and all with the words “Climate Crisis” in huge letters above them on the stage and flashed in chyrons across the screen. Underscoring the gravity of the topic were constant updates on the ruinous progress of Hurricane Dorian, which reclaimed Category 3 status as it clawed its way toward landfall once again.

“Be careful what you wish for” was the first thing to cross my mind when I heard about CNN’s plans for a climate-related town hall involving the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates. I’ve been howling about the short shrift the climate crisis has gotten since the debates began, and gadzooks, was this ever an answer to that complaint.

For the record: Climate activists got this done, in the face of incomprehensible resistance from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), which resoundingly rejected a proposal for a climate-only debate late last month. “I’m so proud of and grateful for the climate activist community,” Michelle Deatrick, representative to the DNC Women’s Caucus and co-sponsor of the defeated climate debate proposal, told Truthout, “which fought for a climate debate and succeeded in getting us this town hall.”

Ten candidates were given 40 clean minutes each to answer pointed, detailed, climate-specific questions over the course of seven hours. A cynic (or a Trump fan) might argue this was unwatchable overkill; who is going to sit through such a marathon?

I did, and I was glad to do it. I imagine many of the viewers who tuned in opted to dip in and out of the broadcast throughout the night, and though they may have missed the totality of the event, whatever parts they saw were generally uniform in content.

Virtually every candidate described climate change as an “existential crisis” that needs to be addressed immediately, and whatever parts people missed will be clipped and shared on social media for weeks to come. Everything they said is out there now, and will be for the rest of the race.

It’s about damn time.

The overarching message rang loud and clear, and refreshingly, the format did not involve the candidates attacking or interrupting each other. Cory Booker even praised his rivals for their insight and attention to the issue he described as the lens through which we must view everything else.

There was unified consensus on the pressing nature of the crisis, with enough nuance within the proffered policies to provide clear differentiation between 10 people running for the same nomination. Any damage done was self-inflicted (looking at you, Joe Biden), which was the best possible outcome for a party seeking unity around the belief that defeating Donald Trump must come first.

By far and away, Bernie Sanders owned the event. His forceful yet understated advocacy for policies he has championed over the entire course of his life in public service placed him in a different category than even Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker, who also comported themselves well. Warren and Booker’s grasp of the details, along with their enthusiasm in imparting them, set them apart from the crowd, but this was Sanders’s home turf, and it showed.

Sanders brought specificity to how he would pay for the $16 trillion price tag on his climate plan. More than that, he was honest about what this crisis will require of us all. “There will be a transition, and there will be some pain,” he said. “We are going to have to ask people to make those changes now, even though they may be uncomfortable, for the sake of future generations.”

This was needed medicine on a night when many of the candidates — Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke and even Warren — preached the gospel of the market as a cure-all: We can only address climate change if someone can make money doing it.

Corporations, corporations, corporations went the drumbeat of blame from the candidates; but corporations, after all, are but a symptom of the disease, and only Sanders was bold enough to suggest that the voracious nature of U.S.-style capitalism must first be confronted if true climate reform is to be undertaken: “We are going to have to change the nature of many of the things we are doing right now,” he said. The meaning behind his words was unmistakable.

The evening saw its fair share of clunkers, to be sure. Amy Klobuchar spent a sizeable portion of her 40 minutes telling the audience what can’t be done while reminding everyone she was “being honest.” Kamala Harris weaved story after story, simultaneously demonstrating her talent as a politician even as she tap-danced around her faint grasp of the details. Julian Castro, like Harris, was engaging personally but ultimately failed to stand out.

Andrew Yang and his supporters have complained about not getting a fair amount of media coverage. Personally, I think he should be grateful for that; if people had seen more of what Yang had to offer on Wednesday night, he probably wouldn’t have made the cut. “The Earth is likely getting warmer around us,” he said at one point. Likely? Yang laughed his way through much of his time, and though he landed some good zingers — “You know what’s expensive? Poisoning our kids!” — his oft-professed belief in the market as a solution to climate disruption was disqualifying.

And then there was Biden. Picture in your mind a plane crash on top of a train wreck in the middle of an earthquake after an attack by Godzilla, and you’ll still fall short of fully encompassing what the former vice president did to himself on Wednesday night.

The story of the night was Biden’s defenestration at the hands of a young man who asked why Biden was set to attend a big-dollar fundraiser co-hosted by a fossil fuel executive, despite his pledge not to accept fossil fuel campaign money. “I didn’t know he did that,” Biden exclaimed, which was a curious statement: The executive in question, Andrew Goldman, was the northeast director of finance for Biden’s doomed 2008 presidential campaign. Biden’s feigned (or actual) ignorance about the company he was set to keep the very next night was as hollow as it was humiliating.

Had that been the extent of the damage, it would have been a mercy, but it was not. Biden did not need nine other candidates to interrupt him, because he interrupted himself time and again as he staggered through a series of fathomless half-statements that exposed his gossamer grasp of the subject matter. Biden’s prattle about “safe fracking” rang about as true as “clean coal.” Topping it all off was his left eye, which visibly filled with blood halfway through his allotted time. I suppose it could have been worse, but I’m not quite sure how.

With the glaring exception of Biden, all the candidates had their moments to shine. “It’s happening right now,” said Klobuchar of climate change. “It’s happening today.” O’Rourke’s suggestion that climate distress be added to the list of reasons why migrants can petition for amnesty, which he pointedly offered in the context of the Dorian catastrophe suffered by the Bahamas, brought a welcome dollop of humanity to an immigration debate that has been deeply stained by cruelty and racism.

Among the many themes that stood out on Wednesday night was the shared consensus that climate disruption is inextricably entwined with racial and economic justice. “Race and ethnicity is the best predictor of your proximity to a polluter,” said O’Rourke at one point. Castro, Booker, Warren, Buttigieg, Sanders and Harris eloquently echoed their versions of this truth.

For all the good done by CNN’s town hall, the Overton Window of permissible debate was very much on display. Voters with a keen grasp of the stakes may well have come away from it rightfully disappointed, either by the candidates’ climate plans or by their words from that stage.

Wednesday night was not intended for those voters, I suspect. It was aimed at the large and growing body of citizens who may not have the minutiae in hand, yet still feel strongly that climate disruption is as much a here-and-now issue as the economy and health care.

Climate change voters are now numerous enough to compel a major news network to devote seven solid hours of broadcast time to a single topic, and that’s not nothing. Bernie Sanders, as has been his practice since the 2016 presidential campaign, led the way on Wednesday night.

Everything has a beginning. It is far too late to “fix” climate disruption, but CNN’s town hall on the topic may serve as a needed catalyst for a mass movement toward mitigating the damage, or at least toward a general acceptance that it is really happening, right here, right now. Seven hours was a lot, and not nearly enough, but it’s a start.

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