NH Students Press Presidential Candidates on Climate Issues at Town Hall

February 11, 2020 | 12:29 pm
Roger Stephenson
Alden Meyer
Former Contributor

Last Wednesday, six presidential candidates came to Concord, New Hampshire to participate in a youth town hall on climate and clean energy issues, hosted by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation, Stonyfield Organic, and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University.  (Two candidates–Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren–were unable to make it because of the impeachment vote in the Senate and were represented by surrogates.)

I was honored to moderate the discussions with the first three candidates appearing at the town hall: Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and former Governor Bill Weld. Henry Herndon of Clean Energy New Hampshire and Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters moderated the discussions with the three other candidates as well as the surrogates for Senators Sanders and Warren.

Climate emergency a top issue for voters

Panels of graduate, undergraduate, and high school students engaged in climate research, clean energy, sustainable business, and environmental studies at colleges and high schools across the state pressed each of the candidates and surrogates to lay out in detail how they would address the climate emergency. Each candidate/surrogate had 45 minutes to respond to questions on a range of issues, from the role of nuclear power and natural gas in our energy system to how they would generate enough pressure from the American people to get ambitious climate legislation through Congress. Several of the questions focused on the disproportionate impact of climate change on communities of color, and the need to ensure that climate solutions are grounded in economic and environmental justice.

The students put a lot of thought into framing their questions, and it showed. Senator Klobuchar told the students questioning her that “These are literally the best questions I’ve ever had at a forum. Maybe we should just take you guys on the road to all the presidential forums!”

The town hall was livestreamed, with the archived webcast available online, and it received extensive coverage from national, regional, and state media outlets, including the New York Times, Washington Post, and New Hampshire Public Radio. The event took place as polls are showing that climate change and the environment rank as the most important issue for likely Democratic voters in today’s New Hampshire primary.

Here are some of the highlights from the town hall for each of the candidates and surrogates, listed in the order that they appeared.

Senator Klobuchar plans to “get to carbon neutral by 2050”

In her opening remarks, Senator Amy Klobuchar said that “great leaders make decisions not just for this generation, but for seven generations from now. It’s on us in this election to make sure we have a president that’s going to take this on and work with the rest of the world to get it done. I am convinced we can do it. But we have to have a president that can bring people with her and talk about it in a way that makes sense to people.”

She asserted that “the money that we bring in from a carbon tax, cap-and-trade, or a renewable electricity standard–or some combination of all of it–we need to make sure that money goes right back to people, to help them with their heating and cooling bills, or we’re never going to get it passed. Some of that money will go for incentives to areas that are going to see job changes. Making sure that this policy is airtight so that the money goes to the people who…most need the help is going to be critical, because it’s right for the country, it is right for the world, but it is also right practically–because it is the way that we pass it.”

She was asked about methane emissions from oil and natural gas production, and the need for a “managed phase-out of natural gas as a source of fossil energy;” she responded that as president, she would put strong methane regulations in place, halt permits for new natural gas production, and review all existing natural gas permits for both safety and environmental impacts. She said that “the only way you can get to carbon neutral by 2050…is by phasing out these kinds of fossil fuels,” and that we need to pursue “all the exciting possibilities we have as we look at replacing fossil fuels, including natural gas.”

The final question to Senator Klobuchar was “how will you inspire Americans who have given up hope in our nation’s ability to tackle the climate crisis, and how will you yourself remain hopeful when things get tough?” She replied that while “we lost an election in 2016, we didn’t lose hope,” and pointed to “the day after the inauguration, where millions of people peacefully marched across this country.” Then “on day 100, my favorite march – the March for Science [took place] and my favorite sign: ‘What do we want? Science! When do we want it? After peer review!’” She closed by saying to the students that “it is your generation that is leading the way when it comes to climate, when it comes to gun safety, when it comes to education policy.”


Pete Buttigieg backstage with New Hampshire students (Tuck School of Business)

Mayor Buttigieg: Look at “what laws were broken” by fossil fuel industry’s disinformation campaign

Pete Buttigieg called climate change “the global security challenge of our time,” and said that “if everybody is vulnerable to climate harms, everybody can participate in the solution. And that’s the corner I think we have to turn in order to actually get anything done. This is too big, too important, too existential to be another partisan, political tug-of-war.” He added that “we need to make sure that when we think of our approach to climate, the main thing we feel is pride–an emotion that will propel us into actually getting these things done.”

Responding to a question on the role of agriculture in addressing the climate crisis, he said that “farming holds a big part of the key to carbon removal–soil has the potential to remove as much carbon as the whole global transportation system puts out.”

On whether nuclear power should play a role, he asserted that “this is not a time to be dogmatic, because the carbon emergency has reached crisis proportions. I don’t believe that we should be adding new nuclear,” but we “shouldn’t take a meat cleaver solution when we’re talking about the nuclear capacity we currently have.” Talking about all of President Trump’s rollbacks to protections of air, water, and public lands, he said “my hand will be very sore from reversing a lot of executive orders with that presidential pen on day one.”

I asked Mayor Pete what the federal government should do about the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign about the harms of climate change. He replied that “part of what law enforcement is about is examining what laws were broken during that process. Any kind of wrongdoing that can be demonstrated, any kind of liability that was created through knowingly deceptive practices that caused concrete, measurable harm–that’s part of why we have a justice system to begin with.”

Buttigieg closed on a hopeful note, saying that “at a moment when US credibility is hanging by a thread, here is an opportunity for us to be leading the world on doing something about something the world knows is very important. If there was such a thing as global climate diplomacy being practiced by the United States, that would be…the kind of thing that we could unite on as a country…and that would have appeal across the partisan divides right here at home.”

Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld delivers his opening remarks (credit: Roger Stephenson)

Governor Weld: Would declare climate national emergency, join climate protests as president

When Governor Bill Weld was asked what immediate actions he would take on climate change if elected president, he replied that he would seek a price on carbon of $40 to $50 dollars a ton with the money returned to the American people through reductions in the payroll tax. “Ideally it would be done by an act of Congress, but if Congress wouldn’t play ball, if elected president, I would most certainly declare a national emergency.” He added that “by using the bully pulpit, I would make it completely socially and financially undesirable to finance fossil fuel industries.” But, he said, “because this is a planetary emergency, it is no longer responsible to say we’re going to absolutely have no natural gas, just as I think it’s even more irresponsible to say we’re going to have no nuclear power in our mix.”

He said he accepts the idea of some intrusion into business and consumer freedom on the climate issue, which he calls an exception to his overall libertarianism. “The economies of scale, the amounts of money that have to be spent or diverted in the environmental area are so massive that you can’t really rely on a single business or single individual to solve that problem,” he asserted, “so it has to be the government.”

Asked how he would respond to youth climate protests if he were president, Gov. Weld replied “I think sufficiently like a young person so that I would be joining the protest, even if it was on the steps of my building. I would hope to be participating in – not leading – but participating in that protest.”

Sanders Surrogate Varshini Prakash: Bernie’s Green New Deal is grounded in science

Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash (Twitter profile picture)

Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash, who stood in as a surrogate for Senator Bernie Sanders, started by laying out the workers’ rights and racial justice elements of Sanders’ $16-trillion-dollar Green New Deal plan. “Bernie Sanders has been the most consistent on this issue his entire political career,” she said. “What Bernie Sanders understands…is that we need to tackle the climate crisis along with the crisis in economic insecurity in this country, along with the crisis of white supremacy in this country.”

Varshini noted that “people have called his plan too ambitious or unrealistic or impractical. But the truth is, the reason why his plan is so ambitious and far-reaching is because it is actually grounded in the science and grounded in what justice has mandated is necessary to save millions of people’s lives.”

She called out the fossil fuel companies that knew about the implications of their products for the climate crisis back in the 6os and 70s: “they knew that their profit model was contributing to the eventual breakdown of our ecological and our global society – and yet they continued to burn and pollute; even worse that that, they doubled down. They waged massive misinformation campaigns, they elected politicians to office who were climate deniers, who were using the strategy of climate denialism for political gain.”

Asked how Senator Sanders would protect those vulnerable to job loss in the transition to a clean energy economy, Varshini replied that Sanders believes that “workers have to be protected in the transition…and that this can’t be an afterthought – it has to be foregrounded in the creation of any kind of climate policy.” She said Sanders would push for passage of a “workers’ bill of rights,” with those affected by the transition getting priority in placement for jobs in the new economy, worker retraining, guarantees of 3 to 5 years of equivalent pay to what they were making in their previous jobs, and if they were older, the opportunity for early retirement.

Former Governor Deval Patrick with the author (left) and UCS Northeast Regional Advocacy Director Roger Stephenson (credit: Roger Stephenson)

Governor Patrick: A track record of “setting most aggressive standards in America”

Deval Patrick started off by asserting that when he was governor of Massachusetts, he set “the highest and most aggressive standards in America for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.” He noted that “all the signatories to the Paris Accords are going to have to step up our commitments and in fact set more ambitious goals.” He called for either a cap-and-trade regime or a carbon tax to be put in place, “with all of the proceeds plowed back into accelerating our move to a carbon-free future.”

He said that he found “that as governor, the greatest power I had was the convening power, meaning you call a meeting and people will come. A lot of people will come to your table who need to be part of the conversation [but] who wouldn’t talk to each other outside of the conversation. I very much look forward to using that kind of power in service of our climate change response as president.”

He focused on the need to deal with the impact of the energy transition on fossil fuel-dependent communities, saying “we do innovation well, but we stink at transition, in my view. We get around to the impact of innovation later, if at all. I’d love to be able to go to coal country and say look, the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. We have a better idea, and you [can] be a part of it, and how about you take this or that part of our transition to a clean and green future.”

He ended by noting that “it is often people who look like me who are right in harm’s way. I am so grateful that we are thinking about the impact of this climate crisis on everybody, and the fact that the most vulnerable are likely to be the most deeply affected. I am interested in policy where it gets right down to touching people and affecting how they have the opportunity – how we have the opportunity – to live better, more prosperous, more just lives.”

Andrew Yang delivering his opening remarks (credit: Roger Stephenson)

Andrew Yang: We’re losing on climate because “our government does not respond to the people”

Andrew Yang outlined the political challenge we face: “When you say we need to fight climate change,” he said, “what [people] hear is you want to raise prices, you want to make my life more difficult and inconvenient, and you want to eliminate jobs. Right now there’s a mindset of scarcity that is making it very, very hard to address big problems like climate change.” He noted that most people are thinking month to month, and we need to give them a sense that their future is assured if we’re going to make progress on climate change. We also “need to let Americans know that doing nothing is actually incredibly expensive.”

In response to questions from the students, he said that we “need to make really significant changes to encourage sustainable agriculture, small family farms, regenerative agriculture,” and that when it comes to climate policy, a carbon fee and dividend approach “will reward more efficient operations in a way that [companies] can actually measure and profit from.”

In his closing remarks, he asserted that on climate, “we are losing on a colossal scale, and we are not losing because our people don’t know what to do. It’s because our government does not respond to the people anymore.”

Tom Steyer onstage with students and moderator Tiernan Sittenfeld of LCV (credit: Roger Stephenson)

Tom Steyer: If climate “isn’t priority one, we’re not going to solve it”

Tom Steyer started by asserting that “I’m the only person [in the presidential race] who’s saying this is my number one priority; other people have plans and I’m sure that other people care, but if you look back at history, in at least the 21st century, the president gets one thing.

President Obama got health care, Mr. Trump got his tax plan, George W. Bush got the war on terror, but it’s pretty much one thing, and I’m saying this is my one thing. And if you don’t say it’s your one thing, you can have a plan, but the question is, is that plan ever going to happen?” He said the climate threat “is a crisis, and there’s no second place for this crisis that we’ll get to it after. I know we have a lot of issues in the United States of America, and I believe we can address them. But if this isn’t priority one, we’re not going to solve it.”

He pledged to “declare a state of emergency on day one,” and to set strong rules on how fast we’re going to move to clean energy, on what kind of cars get built in the US, on how we develop or don’t develop) oil and gas on public lands, how the federal government buys things, and whether we export oil and gas. “The president can do a lot of things just by declaring a state of emergency and acting. And I would do that.”

Steyer challenged other candidates by saying “if this isn’t your number one priority, and you don’t declare a state of emergency, than explain to me how with any credibility and effect, you can go to India, China, Brazil, Poland and Turkey and explain to them what they have to do. There is zero chance.”

He noted how he “follows the climate science on a daily basis, just to make myself nervous.” He said if you’re looking at someone who’s running for president and talking about climate, ask [them] what they’ve done,” then proceeded to outline his decade-plus worth of activism on the issue. He said his in his climate plan, “we start with environmental justice, we start in the black and brown communities where this society chooses to concentrate its poison,” and he outlined examples of his support for front-line communities in their fights against dirty water, polluted air, and toxics.

Responding to the students’ questions, Steyer touched on a wide range of issues, including healthy soils and carbon sequestration, the importance of girls’ education in developing countries, phasing out single use plastics, how Republican voters support clean energy, and getting away from consumerism as a source of meaning. But he said it all comes back to politics and the need to rein in the power of corporations in shaping our lives. “That’s really what this 2020 presidential election is about – the fight between the people of the United States against the corporations who want to do whatever they can to make money, including poisoning us and ruining the world. That’s my honest-to-god feeling.”

Steyer closed by saying “this will be so fun. Good grief! When is the last time America kicked ass doing the right thing? We’re like the empire in the Star Wars movie: ‘do what we want, or we will shoot you.’ Since when is that America? I’m being serious – when is the last time we stood up for what is right and did it and led the world? And isn’t that the whole point behind America, seriously? So why don’t we just go and have a ton of fun and kick some ass; why not? That’s what I want to do.”

Warren surrogate (and UCS Science Network member) Dr. Ayana Johnson backstage with the author and Roger Stephenson (credit: Roger Stephenson)

Warren surrogate Ayana Johnson: “youth activism has moved the needle on climate policy”

The final segment of the day saw Dr. Ayana Johnson, a marine biologist, CEO of Ocean Collectiv, and a member of Union of Concerned Scientists’ Science Network, speaking as a surrogate for Senator Elizabeth Warren. She started by talking about Sen. Warren’s anti-corruption plan, “which is key to climate policy so that we don’t have elected officials who are in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry, we don’t have lobbyists writing our laws.”  She described Sen. Warren’s twelve separate climate plans, “on topics ranging from green jobs to environmental justice to farming to clean energy…of the scope and scale to address the crisis we are facing.”

Dr. Johnson quoted another Warren supporter, Representative Ayanna Pressley, as saying “Warren speaks my love language, which is policy,” and she outlined her own role in helping craft Sen. Warren’s “Blue New Deal” plan to protect the oceans. Responding to a question on the cost of implementing climate solutions such as a carbon tax, Dr. Johnson said we need to put this in the context of the massive costs of climate inaction. She noted that, in addition to carbon pricing with the revenues returned to consumers, we need regulations and other policies.

Discussing how to take care of workers affected by the transition away from fossil fuels, Dr. Johnson said “if there’s one thing I’ve learned from working with the Warren campaign, it’s that they are very deliberate and strategic and caring about the impacts of all on this on people; all of the plans are centered around people. It’s really about how do we support communities and jobs in this transition.” She acknowledged that “the honest answer to your question is that all the details are not worked out yet, but of all of the candidates, I most trust [Senator Warren] to get in the weeds on those details and make sure that it is a transition that will, in fact, work for everyone.”

Asked how Senator Warren would get ambitious climate legislation through Congress, Dr. Johnson pointed to Sen. Warren’s call to abolish the Senate filibuster, as well as her record of building bipartisan support for legislation over the years. “It’s hard to get major, ambitious policy through the Congress; that’s always been the case,” she said. “But we are at a very different moment in history now, where even Republicans are having to introduce climate policy for the first time…because young Republicans are concerned about climate.”

Dr. Johnson ended by saying that “youth activism has moved the needle on climate policy in America, the way that young people are holding their elected officials accountable – every single Democrat who is running has had to come out with a robust climate plan, and this is first time that has happened in the history of our nation.  We’ve had nationally televised climate town halls; that is because of youth climate activism. We’ve had Senator Warren and others signing the no fossil fuel money pledge because of youth activism. So I just want to encourage all the young people to really keep it up because that’s important, and that is what creates the political climate for climate policy to become what it needs to become.”

There couldn’t have been a more fitting note upon which to close this amazing day of inspiration and commitment.