U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado worries that American democracy is not up to transitioning to a clean energy economy. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang would invest in the next generation nuclear power and propose a constitutional amendment to "safeguard the environment." Those were some of the candidate stances during a forum focused solely on climate change.
They were appearing Thursday and Friday to talk about tackling what has become a top issue for the 2020 election. MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Ali Velshi hosted the forum at Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service in Washington, D.C. Students from other universities countrywide were posing questions, too.
The forum follows a similar event on CNN at the beginning of the month and as young people across the world are preparing for a climate strike on Friday, inspired by activist Greta Thunberg. Thunberg, who is visiting from Sweden ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit, will participate in the New York City mobilization.
The Democratic National Committee, meanwhile, has not agreed to a climate change debate.
Twelve candidates are explaining their environmental plans over the two days: 11 who are competing as Democrats and one Republican. The lineup on Thursday included Bennet, Yang, author Marianne Williamson, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former U.S. Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
Missing from Thursday's forum were former Vice President Joe Biden, Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
Bennet said Democrats cannot compromise on science while trying to curb climate change but also must try to reach all Americans and produce a set of policy choices for everyone.
They must build "a durable coalition of Americans all over this country,” he said.
Bennet, whose plan would reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, said that, for example, the country could talk to farmers and ranchers about paying them to use their land to store carbon.
As to where to find the money to tackle climate change, he noted the more than $10 trillion the United States has borrowed from China since 2001 — and spent on enacting GOP tax cuts that have mostly benefited rich people and fighting wars.
“There should never be another climate denier in the White House,” he said.
He urged the college students in the audience to get others their age to register to vote.
Yang defended saying earlier that it was too late to stop all global warming. The time to have started trying to curb warming was decades ago, he insisted.
“It's worse than you think,” he said.
That is not to say that he did not want to make big moves in the right direction, he said. “The second best time is now,” he said.
Yang made his early comment when he said people will need to move from coastal areas, and he repeated that assertion at the forum. His plan sets aside money for people to leave flood-prone homes but also to protect coastal communities.
Yang would employ new generation nuclear reactions, which rely on the more abundant element thorium, not uranium. He would put a tax on carbon as a way to pressure companies to decrease their carbon emissions and propose a constitutional amendment to protect the environment. He would encourage the United States and other countries to plant trees in deforested areas.
Yang’s plan for a universal basic income, his "Freedom Dividend" of $1,000 a month to every American adult, would help alleviate the economic disruption of moving away from a carbon economy, he said. By getting "the boot off their throat economically," Americans could consider the problems of climate change in a reasonable, rational way, he said. But current socioeconomic inequality in the United States is driving the country’s dysfunction on climate change, he said.
Yang would also replace the GDP with other measures of prosperity, ones that looked at life expectancy, children’s health and the cleanliness of the country’s air and water. Stock market prices and the unemployment rate do not give an accurate picture of the state of the country and its environment, he argued.
Williamson called for a revolution to combat climate change, saying she was heartened by the passion young people were bringing to the fight. The self-help author compared it to the fervor with which her generation fought the Vietnam War.
"I want to go to Washington and be a grown-up Greta Thunberg," she said.
Williamson rejected an incremental approach to combating climate change, a problem that needs a cultural and spiritual buy-in from the country, she said.
"Americans are hard wired for big things," she said.
They must challenge both Republicans and Democrats, both of whom receive lobbying money from the fossil fuel industry, she said. She called President Donald Trump "an opportunistic infection."
She rejected an implication that she was anti-science because of a tweet that she has since deleted in which she suggested prayer could deter Hurricane Dorian."I'm Jewish, I go to the doctor,” she said. "There's nothing anti-doctor about me, there's nothing anti-science about me."
Mocking Americans’ belief in God was a bad political strategy, she added.
Sen. Sanders, an independent from Vermont, said the country has to stand up to the greed and corruption of the fossil fuel industry to save the planet.
"The product they are producing is destroying the planet," he said.
Sanders has put forward the most expensive candidate plan for curbing climate change at $16.3 trillion, and he was asked how he would mobilize the country on a World War II-level in the absence of an attack such as the one on Pearl Harbor.
The devastation caused by climate change is already visible, he responded.
"Climate change is not going to be one attack," he said.
Climate change legislation failed in Congress before, he conceded, but today young people are prepared to confront the fossil fuel industry.
"The world is very different today than it was back in 2009," he said.
His plan would create 20 million new jobs and do everything possible to help fossil fuel workers with five years of pay, health, job training and education. They are not the enemy, he said.
"We don’t hold you responsible for causing climate change," he said.
Asked if he could get the support of the senator from coal-dependent West Virginia, Joe Manchin, on climate change legislation, Sanders said that he would be in that state and others rallying the residents around the notion that now is the time to save the planet and transform the country’s energy system.
"I intend to be commander-in-chief of the military, but I will also be the organizer in chief," he said.
The former congressman from Maryland, who said the country must reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050, stressed that he was one of the first in Congress to oppose the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline, which would bring tar sands oil from Canada through the United States and which has been tied up in the courts.
He also promoted his ability to introduce bipartisan legislation on a carbon fee but conceded the bill never moved forward.
Delaney emphasized the need to remove 20 percent of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and called for investing in vacuums to capture it directly. It could be stored in the ground.
He also supports investing in nuclear energy — smaller, more stable reactors that are being developed — to provide a base fuel in a mix of renewable energy.
“I want to be tackling this on all angles,” he said.
The Ohio representative said he was hopeful that a new green economy was ready to break out and could be up and running by 2050.
"This thing can go," he said. "It's ready to go."
Ryan said that the United States cannot green its economy without both a free-market system and the right government policies.
But Ryan also said the country must move past its political divide if it is to move forward.
"This left-right thing is just broken," he said.
He said he stood for solving problems, such as using regenerative farming to curb contributions to global warming. Regenerative farming focuses on improving the land, including the buildup of carbon in the soil.
"We’ve got to heal," he said.
Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary under the Obama administration, has focused on the up to 200 million people around the world who could be displaced by climate change in the coming years and has included a new category of refugee in his immigration plan: climate refugee.
"It's massive, it's enormous, it's another reminder of what a huge human challenge this is," he said.
Asked about the United States’ role in taking in refugees, he said the country had a moral responsibility as a leader of nations.
He has also stressed the need for environmental justice as the country addresses climate change because it affects the poorest, most vulnerable communities.
Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, said that some of the fastest growing occupations are in renewable energy, such as solar panel installers and wind turbine engineers. The job landscape is already shifting, he said.
Too often, the focus is on large cities, but he would also stress the need to make investments in smaller communities and rural America.
He said he would phase out fracking but defended his former support for natural gas. He has since learned more about fracking, he said, but also viewed natural gas as a bridge fuel whose time is coming to an end. He said he is not eager to use new nuclear energy and would instead focus on renewable energy.
He said he supported holding executives accountable for the damage that their corporations cause and would appoint people to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice who would lead those efforts.