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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Democrats Debate Climate Change

Air Date: Week of

In the first Democratic presidential debate for the 2016 election season, Bernie Sanders singled out climate change as the, “greatest national security threat,” facing the U.S. (Photo: Phil Roeder, Flickr CC BY 2.0)

The Democratic presidential candidates recently squared off in their first debate. All five hopefuls spoke on climate change and the need for action, but differed on how to address the issue. Host Steve Curwood recaps their statements and looks back on a conversation with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders about carbon tax and the climate bill he introduced in 2013, a plan that was referenced in the debate.


CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston and PRI, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The recent debate among the Democratic Party candidates for president hosted by CNN in Las Vegas set a precedent for the debate season and perhaps the campaign as well. Every one of the candidates directly addressed climate change, and unlike the 2 Republican debates so far, where it was scarcely mentioned, four of the five democratic contenders referred to it in their opening remarks. But they differed about global warming’s importance.

When CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates to name the greatest threat to national security, former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee cited the chaos in the Middle East. What worried former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton most was the risk of terrorists getting nuclear weapons and former Virginia Senator James Webb named China, cyber warfare and the Middle East. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley also couldn’t chose just one, pointing to the climate, along with Iran, and ISIL. But Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders declared for him there is one over-riding threat to national security.

SANDERS: The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis.

Later in the debate CNN’s Don Lemon turned to a video taped question for Martin O’Malley from Anna Bettis of Tempe, Arizona.

BETTIS: As a young person, I'm very concerned about climate change and how it will affect my future. As a presidential candidate, what will you do to address climate change?

LEMON: So, Governor O'Malley, please tell Anna how you would protect the environment better than all the other candidates up on that stage.

O'MALLEY: Yeah, Anna, I have put forward a plan, and I'm the only candidate, I believe, in either party to do this, to move America forward to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050. We did not land a man on the moon with an all-of-the-above strategy. It was an intentional engineering challenge, and we solved it as a nation. And our nation must solve this one. So I put forward the plan that would extend the investor tax credits for solar and for wind. If you go across Iowa, you see that 30 percent of their energy now comes from wind. We're here in Las Vegas, one of the most sustainable cities in America, doing important things in terms of green building, architecture and design. We can get there as a nation, but it's going to require presidential leadership. And as President, I intend to sign as my very first order in office the - an order that moves us as a nation and dedicates our resources to solving this problem and moving us to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050.

National front-runner Hillary Clinton took command of the stage during the first Democratic debate. (Photo: Gregory Hauenstein, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

COOPER: Governor...

O'MALLEY: We can do it.

COOPER: ...Governor O'Malley, thank you very much.


COOPER: Senator Webb, you have a very different view than just about anybody else on this stage, and unlike a lot of Democrats. You're pro-coal, you're pro-offshore drilling, you're pro-Keystone pipeline. Are - again, are you - the question is, are you out of step with the Democratic Party?

WEBB: Well, the question really is how are we going to solve energy problems here and in the global environment if you really want to address climate change? And when I was in the Senate, I was an all-of-the-above energy voter. We introduced legislation to bring in alternate energy as well as nuclear power. I'm a strong proponent of nuclear power. It is safe; it is clean. And really, we are not going to solve climate change simply with the laws here. We've done a good job in this country since 1970. If you look at China and India, they're the greatest polluters in the world. Fifteen out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in one of those two countries. We need to solve this in a global way. It's a global problem and I have been very strong on doing that. The agreements, the so-called agreements that we have had with China are illusory in terms of the immediate requirements of the Chinese government itself. So let's solve this problem in an international way, and then we really will have a way to address climate change.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, are you tougher on climate change than Secretary Clinton?

SANDERS: Well, I will tell you this. I believe, and Pope Francis made this point, this is a moral issue. The scientists are telling us that we need to move extremely boldly. I am proud that, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, a few years ago we introduced the first piece of climate change legislation, which called for a tax on carbon. And let me also tell you that nothing is gonna happen unless we are prepared to deal with campaign finance reform, because the fossil fuel industry is funding the Republican Party, which denies the reality of climate change.

Martin O'Malley, former Governor of Maryland and former Mayor of Baltimore, pledged to make electric power generation carbon-free by 2050. (Photo: Gregory Hauenstein, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


...And certainly is not prepared to go forward aggressively. This is a moral issue. We have got to be extremely aggressive in working with China, India, Russia.

COOPER: Senator, thank you, Senator.

SANDERS: The planet, the future of the planet is at stake.

COOPER: Secretary Clinton, I want you to be able to respond, then I'm gonna go to (ph) (inaudible).

CLINTON: Well, that's exactly what I've been doing. When we met in Copenhagen in 2009 and, literally, President Obama and I were hunting for the Chinese, going throughout this huge convention center, because we knew we had to get them to agree to something, because there will be no effective efforts against climate change unless China and India join with the rest of the world. They told us they'd left for the airport; we found out they were having a secret meeting. We marched up, we broke in, we said, "We've been looking all over for you. Let's sit down and talk about what we need to do." And we did come up with the first international agreement that China has signed. Thanks to President Obama's leadership, it's now gone much further.

COOPER: Thank you.

CLINTON: And I do think that the bilateral agreement that President Obama made with the Chinese was significant. Now, it needs to go further, and there will be an international meeting at the end of this year, and we must get verifiable commitments to fight climate change from every country gathered there.

CURWOOD: In that exchange Senator Sanders referred to carbon tax legislation he and California Democrat Barbara Boxer offered in the Senate in 2013, when, by the way, the price of gasoline in the US was about $3.50 a gallon. Senator Sanders explained the carbon tax plan in detail to LOE at the time – here’s a portion of that interview.

Jim Webb, previously a Republican, is a former U.S. Senator for Virginia and former Secretary of the Navy. He was the only candidate onstage who did not mention climate change in his opening statement. (Photo: John Pemble, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

CURWOOD: So the centerpiece of your bill is what you're calling a fee and dividend on carbon emissions. How would that work?

SANDERS: Well, the good news here is that what we are doing is focusing on the 3,000 largest emitters of greenhouse gas in the country, putting a fee of $20 per ton of carbon or methane equivalent.

CURWOOD: So this will be what, the oil refinery?

SANDERS: Coalmines, the oil refineries, the natural gas processing plants, or at the point of importation as well - which would deal with about 85 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. So this is not going to be a fee, which impacts tens and tens and tens of thousands of entities. It's kind of what we call an "upstream”, where the emissions take place.

CURWOOD: So how exactly would it work? How would you impose this?

SANDERS: Look. Here’s the point. Here's the point before we get into all of the details. The important issue to understand right now is that according to the scientific community, we stand the danger of seeing the planet earth temperature rise by 8°F by the end of this century. If that happens, and we’ve talked to many of the leading scientists who study this issue, what they are telling us is this will cause catastrophic - underline catastrophic - damage to the planet. What we already know is that 12 out of the last 15 years have been the warmest on record. We already know that we’re looking at unprecedented levels of drought, of floods, of extreme weather disturbances like Hurricane Irene or Hurricane Sandy. We’re looking at the continent of Australia burning up. We’re looking at heat waves in Europe the people have never seen before.

The most important issue before we worry about every line of any legislation is: Is the Congress of the United States going to wake up and say we have a planetary crisis here and we have got to address it? And if you ask me, and I already deal with a lot of issues out there, my greatest embarrassment of being a member of the United States Congress right now, it is that you have a major political party, the Republican Party, who refuses to listen to what the scientists are saying. You have the ranking member, from a ranking member of the Environmental Committee telling us if you could believe it, that the climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore and the Hollywood elite and the United Nations. I mean that's where we are. And my fear is that if Congress does not get our act together, you're gonna see more and more extreme weather disturbances, more and more problems which will cost this country and this planet a hell of a lot more than the legislation that Barbara Boxer and I have introduced.

CURWOOD: This carbon fee, this effective carbon tax, where would the money raised from these fees go?

SANDERS: Good question. Among other things, a lot of the money - actually the majority of the money - would go back to the people of United States to help them with any increased energy costs they may incur as we begin to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels. Will some people be forced to pay more for fuel? They will. A lot of money we’re raising, we expect to raise about $1.2 trillion over a 10-year-period. The majority of that money goes right back to the American people to help them pay for increased fuel costs. Significantly we also put a whole lot of money in weatherization, we would rather weatherize a million homes a year. We would put money into research and development for breakthroughs in energy...how can we move more aggressively to sustainable energy? A lot of research being done out there, and we want to be cutting edge in that. We would also invest in worker training to make sure that we had the people available to do the work that we need to transform our energy systems. So, by the way, this also becomes a jobs program because we can put a whole lot of people to work in energy efficiency and weatherization and in sustainable energy.

CURWOOD: So quickly to bring it down to the individual listening to this, maybe he works in Wyoming, drives this truck hundred miles a day to get to work and is worried about the price of gas going up. How does it help him?

Lincoln Chafee is the former Governor of Rhode Island. He also previously served as a U.S. Senator and Mayor of Warwick. (Photo: John Pemble, Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0)

SANDERS: It helps him because we would be creating a nation in which his grandchildren and his children would be able to live comfortably. If we do nothing, if we do nothing, the projections are that the droughts that were seeing in the southwestern part of this country, the forest fires that we’re seeing, will only intensify. So the main point to be made is that we don't have much of a choice on this. If we want this planet to be habitable for our kids, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, we have to act.

CURWOOD: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, speaking in 2013 about how he would tax carbon to fight climate change; incidentally, the bill didn’t pass. One final note from the first debate among the Democrats: Lincoln Chafee didn’t get much of an opportunity to lay out his climate plans, but there was one question where he didn’t miss a beat.

COOPER: You've all made people upset over your careers—which enemies are you most proud of?

CHAFEE: I guess the coal lobby. I've worked hard for climate change and I wanted to work with the coal lobby. But in my time in the Senate, tried to bring them to the table so that we could address carbon dioxide. I'm proud to be at odds with the coal lobby.

Thanks to CNN for the audio, and the Democrats’ next debate is on November 14th.



Climate change features heavily in the first Democratic debate

It’s Wonderful to Watch Democrats Compete Over Climate Change

The Sanders-Boxer Climate Protection Act

About the carbon fee and dividend policy proposal


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