2020 Election
By Justin Worland
September 5, 2019

The ten leading Democratic candidates for president gathered at a town hall meeting in New York City Wednesday, broadcast on CNN. They answered questions about how they would address climate change. Here are six takeaways.

1. Jay Inslee’s long shadow

Washington’s Gov. Jay Inslee dropped out from the presidential race last month, but he cast a long shadow on the climate forum and the race more broadly—from former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, who opened his remarks with a shout out to the governor, to California Senator Kamala Harris, who credited him for one her oft-repeated lines on climate change. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren may have given him the biggest nod though: parts of her climate plan, released this week, were taken explicitly from Inslee’s.

2. Fossil fuel animosity

Perhaps the most intense moment of the evening came as an audience member asked former Vice President Joe Biden about a fundraiser hosted on his behalf by the co-founder of a natural gas company. Biden defended the event, saying that the donor — Andrew Goldman — “is not a fossil fuel executive” and that he would not have attended if Goldman were.

The exchange highlighted how the fossil fuel industry is toxic for the Democratic candidates. For the most part, the candidates made no qualms demonizing the industry and calling for range of measures to disarm it.

Warren said she would “attack the corruption in Washington that keeps Washington working for these big fossil fuel companies.” Harris touted that she had sued Exxon Mobil as California’s state attorney general and said she would continue to pursue them aggressively. “They are causing harm and death in communities, and there has been no accountability,” she said.

3. A ban on fracking but differences on natural gas

The opposition to fossil fuels got specific. In the lead up to the forum, all ten candidates participating said they would ban new leases that allowed fossil fuel drilling on federal land. But beyond that, the candidates were split during the forum on how far they would go to halt the industry.

Before the event even started, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders called for a ban on all fracking, a position that Harris said “there’s no question” she supports. And a range of candidates from entrepreneur Andrew Yang to former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke said they would ban drilling for oil offshore. “The price of offshore drilling, when we make mistakes, they are big ones,” said O’Rourke. “They’re hard to reverse.”

Others took more measured approaches. Castro — who served as the mayor of San Antonio, in Texas oil country — said he supported local communities that wanted to ban fracking but did not support a blanket ban. Klobuchar said she viewed natural gas as a “transition fuel” that would help the U.S. move toward a low-carbon future (that was the position of the Obama administration, but climate advocates say such a policy is outdated).

4. The return of carbon tax

Many climate change activists thought the rise of the Green New Deal earlier this year would lead to the death of discussion about a carbon tax or at least sidelining of the policy. In the past, the policy was seen as a potential bipartisan solution, but more recently some have argued that the policy was too little too late and no longer politically feasible.

Wednesday’s climate change forum showed the policy is still very much on the minds of the presidential candidates. Warren endorsed the idea on stage, joining the majority of her other top-tier competitors who had done so already including Biden, Buttigieg and Harris. “I know you’re not supposed to use the T-word when you’re in politics,” said Buttigieg. “But we might as well call this what it is.”

O’Rourke took a different approach, calling for a cap-and-trade program, a policy that sets a cap on the amount companies can pollute and requires them to pay if they exceed it. A federal cap-and-trade program passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009 but never got a vote in the Senate and has been largely absent from the national conversation since.

5. Putting climate change first

Candidates universally agreed that climate change needs to be a priority, but varied in how they portrayed it among other top issues. Sanders said “it must be a major priority” but that “Congress can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time,” alluding to other key issues.

Warren and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker both made a case for seeing everything through a climate change lens. “Everything that I do,” said Booker, “will be done through a green lens and the urgency of climate change.”

6. Conveying a coherent message

Candidates offered climate messages in line with the overarching themes of their campaign. Biden played up his status as a party elder statesmen and suggested that it would lend him credibility on the world stage that would allow him to push other countries to act. Buttigieg, the race’s youngest candidate, stressed his age, saying he would be alive to see the worsening of climate impacts. “Lord willing, I plan to be here,” he said. Klobuchar portrayed herself as a more moderate candidate, calling for the renewal of many Obama-era regulations.

Warren, who had previously lagged some of her competitors in producing climate plans, portrayed the issue as part of her bigger push to eliminate corporate influence and corruption. “Washington is corrupt,” she said. “It is taking money from the fossil fuel industry, from the big polluters.”

Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com.

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