Candidates Expound On Climate Change Fight at Georgetown/MSNBC Forum
WASHINGTON – Andrew Yang could hardly contain himself.
A day after he surprised a group of Georgetown University students by joining their pick-up basketball game, Yang had taken just three steps onto the stage at the university’s Healy Hall Thursday morning when he impulsively jumped into the audience, high-fiving students in the first and second rows.
Yang was one of 12 presidential candidates — 11 Democrats vying for their party’s nomination and one Republican mounting a primary challenge to President Donald Trump — who participated in the two-day, town-hall style Climate Forum hosted by Georgetown’s Institute of Politics and Public Service at the McCourt School Of Public Policy and broadcast both days by MSNBC.
The other official partners for the event, which continued through Friday afternoon, were Our Daily Planet and New York Magazine.
All of the candidates were invited, but three of the top five Democratic contenders – former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris did not participate, citing scheduling conflicts. Also absent were Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.
President Trump and the other Republican candidates, former Rep. Joe Walsh and former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford were also invited to participate, but did not attend.
Those who did participate fielded questions from MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi, and from students, both in attendance at Georgetown and at organized listening parties from campuses across the country.
The setting for the conversations was a natural, as several polls have identified climate change as a top issue for young voters.
College Reaction, a polling and research company, released a survey earlier this month that found almost 31 percent of respondents put climate change as their number one issue, followed by the economy and health care.
Yang’s exuberance was followed by serious discussion with Velshi, during which the candidate said in many ways the work that needs to be done to address a changing climate “should have been done 20 years ago.”
The world will continue to warm, and more areas will become uninhabitable, he said, adding “there is nothing humans can do to stop it.”
But he brightened again as he said “the second best time” to take steps to lessen its impacts, “is now.”
CHANGING HOW WE MEASURE SUCCESS
Yang has proposed taxing carbon production by corporations, subsidizing and investing in nuclear power alternatives and passing a constitutional amendment to “safeguard the environment” by equating environmental rights to human rights.
“We can’t just do less of the bad, we need to be doing more of the good,” he said.
At the same time, he has called for a fundamental shift in the conversation about climate change by revising how we measure things like “gross domestic product,” which he describes as both antiquated and as “driving us off a cliff.”
“The trap that Democrats are in when it comes to the way we talk about climate change today is that for a significant number of Americans, they hear a call to fight climate change and immediately think, my life is going to get more expensive or … I’m going to lose my job,” Yang said on Thursday. “We have to alleviate that tension.”
Yang said how Americans discuss GDP, a measurement concocted a century ago, heightens those tensions.
“Our system is designed to optimize profitability for corporations and Wall Street,” he said. “What I’m proposing is having a measure based on things we care about, like our health, our financial well-being, how much harm is being done to the environment in search of profits, and finally, our life expectancy.”
“If we tied our measure of the nation’s overall economic health to things we really care about, I believe this would have a dramatic effect on how we address climate change,” he added. “If we’re going to be successful, we can’t continue to be in this tug of war with the other side. We can’t continue to be perceived as scolds.”
Yang has also proposed providing every adult American with a $1,000 a month payment, basic income he calls a “Freedom Dividend.”
On Thursday, he said Americans impacted by the switch from fossil fuels to the use of renewable sources of energy, like wind and solar, should also be provided with assistance to help them move to where the new jobs are.
“The problem with renewable energy jobs is they will be located in different places than the traditional fossil fuel jobs,” he said. “Again that’s part of the tension built into the climate change discussion. We need to help people to the areas where the new green jobs are … if they want to.”
Although they differed on specifics, all of the presidential candidates who appeared promised to take “bold” action on climate change, with most saying some form of climate action would occur on their first day in office.
The candidate who was the farthest to the left on the climate issue was the best-selling author Marianne Willliamson, who told the audience that it’s time for some “radical truth-telling.”
“When it comes to our behavioral patterns toward the planet we have gone from dysfunctional to malfunctional and it is time for an intervention,” she said.
As she continued to speak, Williamson also spoke of waging a “revolution” — “peaceful,” she emphasized at one point — against corporations and the federal government.
“Americans are not hard-wired for incremental change,” she said.
But at the same time, Williamson said her administration would be willing to work with the fossil fuel industry.
“There is more money to be made in green energy, there is more money to be made in green jobs,” she said.
Likening the battle against climate change to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt mobilizing the nation during World War II, said the road ahead is not seeing ourselves as Democrats versus Republicans, or left versus right.
“We are all Americans and we are going to mobilize,” she said.
Invoking 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, Williamson also made the case for a one-year mandatory national service for young Americans, ages 18 to 26, to work on climate issues.
“I want to go to Washington and be a grown-up Greta Thunberg,” she said, adding that she wants to be a president with “moral influence” and “the highest ideals of humanitarian concern.”
Compared to Williamson, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the politician most credited with supposedly pulling the Democratic party to the left, came across as downright centrist.
Rather than calling for revolution, Sanders said he wants to harness the power of the presidency to address climate change in a decisive fashion.
“I happen to believe what the scientists are telling us and that means if we are going to save the planet we have to be extremely bold and extremely aggressive,” he said.
One of his first acts in the oval office, Sanders said, would be signing an executive order that would end fossil fuel extraction on public land, though he acknowledged that could severely disrupt an industry employing hundreds of thousands of people.
To temper the blow, he said he would implement a five-year timeline to wind down the industry.
In the meantime, his plans include offering training in new skills for people working in industries that contribute to climate change.
He said his plan would also include providing health care and other services to ease the shift.
“I intend to be commander-in-chief of the military but I will also be the organizer in chief,” he said. “We’re going to help rebuild states like West Virginia and states all over this country.”
Like Williamson, Sanders made the case that there needs to be a World War II type of mobilization in America to fight climate change across the country and around the world.
“I think you have to deal with the crisis associated with climate change in the countries they occur right now, to give people the option of staying in their home countries,” he said. “At the same time, acknowledging this is a crisis, you have to welcome people from all over the world. We’re talking about God knows how many billions and billions and billions of people are going to be dispossessed as a result of climate change.”
Although much has been written about Sanders losing his 2016 mojo as a candidate, that did not appear to be the case at Georgetown University, where students mobbed the stage as he prepared to leave the forum and stood 10 bodies deep in a circle around his car behind the venue.
Walking from the scene after Sanders left, one coed was overheard to say, “I know he’s older … but I just love him.” A friend concurred. “He’s really inspirational,” she said.
JOBS AND A CARBON TAX
Among the other candidates who participated in the forum, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Friday that dealing with climate change with urgency is “a moral issue” tied up with the issues of environmental stewardship and human rights.
He also spoke of the economic and job transition that will have to occur along the way as “retro-fitting” opining that the new green jobs are not necessarily “exotic” and require many of the same skills associated with the jobs they are replacing.
Former San Antonio, Texas Mayor Juliàn Castro described his climate plan as a public-private partnership that would result in the United States having net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
“I believe we can reach our goals if this is all hands on deck all across the federal government,” Castro said. “But we have to begin immediately.”
And job one will be undoing the damage President Trump is doing to the environment, he said.
“The next president is going to have to spend the next two and half years rolling back the bad things this administration has done,” he said.
Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney promised he would rejoin the Paris Climate Accord “before I sit down in the chair in the Oval Office.
He then went on to describe his three-prong approach to getting to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, including promoting the global development of clean technologies and remove 20 percent of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide through a Midwest pipeline — a piece of infrastructure he called “CO2 Thruway.”
The third prong of the Delaney program is imposing a carbon fee and dividend that would place a 3 trillion dollar tax on carbon dioxide emissions and redistribute the money back to American citizens.
He likened this model to the Alaska Permanent Fund, which pays an annual dividend to Alaskan citizens from investment earnings on mineral royalties.
Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio said his climate policy would include an effort to bring manufacturing jobs back to struggling industrial and rural areas in the Midwest and elsewhere.
But the main thing, he said, is that it’s time to get away “from the left-right conversation and get into the new and better conversation.”