Seven. Freaking. Hours.
CNN bodyslammed America with climate coverage last night. Here's what happened.
So it’d be natural to assume I’d be happy today, the morning after CNN’s epic 7-hour Climate Crisis Town Hall, during which reporters and citizens probed the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates about the potential collapse of human civilization.
Well guess what.
I’m not happy.
HEATED! AWWWW YEAAAH THAT’S RIGHT!!! WELCOME TO THE FIRST ISSUE!! *airhorn sounds* (I am so sorry).
Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis. This is a special pre-launch issue for all you wonderful nerds who signed up early. I can hardly believe it, but there are more than 8,000 of us already! Who says people don’t care about climate change??
Daily, Monday through Thursday coverage begins officially on September 9th. If you like it, please forward it a friend—it would mean the world to me. If you’ve been forwarded this, you can sign up here:
Now let’s get to it!
It was not so bad, actually.
Maybe this is because I’m a cynical jerk, but I really thought CNN would mess this up.
I’m old enough to remember when the network’s president Jeff Zucker said he intentionally avoided climate coverage because of the public’s “lack of interest” in the subject. And when CNN did cover climate change, it invited deniers on so often that Media Matters deemed the network a “national platform for false balance” on climate. Two years later, Media Matters also reported that CNN aired advertisements for the fossil fuel industry five times more often than climate-related news. And in 2018, there was one week where three separate CNN guests claimed that climate change was a vast conspiracy to enrich climate scientists.
So I was shocked at how productive Wednesday night’s town hall was. The moderator’s questions, for the most part, were tough and in line with the science. The outside questioners the network brought in were youthful, diverse and engaging. Both moderators and candidates called out the fossil fuel industry repeatedly for delaying climate action and spreading misinformation.
And most importantly…
It was a climate accountability bonanza.
On Wednesday night, every single Democratic presidential candidate was asked at least one question that attempted to hold them accountable for controversial decisions they’ve made, or questionable positions they’ve taken regarding the most existential threat of our time.
A high school student and Sunrise Movement activist confronted former Housing Secretary Julián Castro about his previous support for fracking, and asked why her generation should trust him. Castro responded: “She’s right. When I was mayor of San Antonio, I did believe that there were opportunities to be had with fracking … We saw it as a bridge fuel, [but] we’re coming to the end of the bridge.” Castro said he wouldn’t ban fracking nationally, but would support state and local bans.
A Columbia University graduate student pressed entrepreneur Andrew Yang on his support for “risky” geoengineering, and asked him to quantify how much he wants to rely on it to solve climate change. Yang said it would not be his “primary approach” to solving the problem, but that it must be considered. He said he’d convene a “geoengineering summit” with other countries to figure out an approach.
CNN anchor Erin Burnett confronted Senator Amy Klobuchar with her previous statement that it “doesn’t make sense” to “get rid of all these industries … in a few years.” Burnett asked: “Are the scientists wrong? What’s your timing on this?” Klobuchar responded: “The timing is to make this our mission, like landing on the moon, or the civil rights movement.” She did not give specifics.
Burnett asked Senator Kamala Harris about her claim that climate change can be solved “without much change to our lifestyles.” Burnett asked: “Is that realistic?” Harris responded: “I’m not saying there won’t be any change,” but said that through innovation, she believes not much will be different. (I think that’s wrong, but would be interested to hear ya’ll’s thoughts!)
This one was a doozy: A doctoral student at Northwestern University asked former Vice President Joe Biden: “How can we trust you to hold [fossil fuel] corporations accountable when you are holding a high-dollar fundraiser held by Andrew Goldman, a fossil fuel executive?” Biden, who has signed a pledge not to accept money from fossil fuel executives, first retorted that Goldman was “not a fossil fuel executive.” (He is). Later, Biden said he was told by his staff that Goldman had only previously worked in fossil fuels, and did not currently. “But if that turns out to be true, then I will not in any way accept his help.”
A New York University student pressed Senator Bernie Sanders on his opposition to ending the filibuster, which has effectively made it so no legislation without more than 60 votes can pass the Senate. She asked: “How do you intend to implement climate policy … if bad actors like Mitch McConnell intend to use the filibuster to block climate legislation?” Sanders responded that he supports “major filibuster reform," and insisted that "there are ways" to pass legislation with a simple 51-vote majority through a budget reconciliation loophole. (Yeah I’m confused too, don’t worry).
A climate organizer asked Senator Elizabeth Warren if she would be willing to “call out capitalism” by requiring the government to seize the means of electricity production from private companies—something Sanders has called for, but Warren hasn’t. Warren responded that she doesn’t believe it’s an effective solution, because she wants private companies to be able to make money off clean energy. “I'm perfectly willing to take on giant corporations, I think I've been known to do that once or twice,” she said. “But for me, I think the way we get there is we just say (to fossil fuel companies), sorry guys, but by 2035 you’re done.”
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo asked South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg to defend the fact that he’s spent $300,000 to fly on private planes during his campaign so far. Is it inconsistent with his environmental message? Buttigieg said he’s “interested in decarbonizing the fuel that goes into air travel”—but because that fuel doesn’t exist now, he has to use private planes sometimes. “I took the subway today, but sometimes I fly, because this is a very big country and I'm running to be president of the whole country.” Buttigieg said he’d travel more by train if we had a better train system. “I’m not even asking for Japanese-level trains,” he said. “Give me like, Italian-level trains, and we’d be way ahead of where we are right now.”
A New York University student told Congressman Beto O’Rourke that his climate plan was “unclear” about his support for taxing carbon dioxide emissions, and asked him to clarify. O’Rourke said specifically for the first time that he opposes a carbon tax, and instead supports a cap-and-trade system, where there would be pollution “allowances granted or sold to polluters ... [and] a set number of allowances that would decrease every year." More on that here.
CNN anchor Don Lemon asked Senator Cory Booker to defend his support for nuclear power as a climate solution, given disasters in Fukushima, Japan and elsewhere. “The fact is that there are currently no safe ways, or permanent ways, to dispose of the most dangerous radioactive waste,” Lemon said. Booker replied that he’d make a “massive” investment in research and development for nuclear, because “Right now, nuclear is more than 50 percent of our non-carbon causing energy. So people who think we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren't looking at the facts."
So why are you mad, then?
First of all, don’t even test me, I’ve always got a reason to be mad. This time I have a four reasons.
NUMBER ONE: Ya’ll, that thing was seven hours. Se. Ven. How. Wers.
You know that scene in Matilda where the Trunchbull catches Bruce Bogtrotter eating a piece of her chocolate cake, so she forces him to eat a completely unreasonable amount of cake in front of the whole school, so everyone can watch him get really sick and regret his decision to want cake in the first place? I feel like that’s what CNN did to America.
NUMBER TWO: Like reason number one, but different. Wednesday night’s climate town hall was a critical conversation about the future of the country, but for many people across the country, it was inaccessible.
The average American cannot just watch television for 7 hours straight on a Wednesday night. They work. They have kids. Even if they could, lots of people don’t have cable. And unlike regular, Democratic National Committee-sanctioned debates, Wednesday’s climate town hall was not easy to stream for free online. It was essentially pay-walled, available only to those of us with lots of time and flexibility (and in my case, a dope neighborhood bar that blocked off a whole section for people to watch CNN).
NUMBER THREE: Bigger picture. The whole reason this thing was seven hours and pay-walled and wildly inaccessible was because Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez refused to hold climate change debate, and refused to allow Democratic presidential candidates to participate in non-DNC debates. So if we wanted all the candidates to talk substantively about climate at one event, this was the only option we had.
And yes—in some ways, CNN’s town hall was probably better than a debate, since the candidates actually had the time and space to speak substantively on this complex issue. But the way I see it, its success only highlighted the DNC’s failure. Perez said climate change was a single issue, like abortion, immigration, transportation, or the economy—that’s why there couldn’t be a climate debate, because he’d have to allow debates on all those other single issues. But literally every one of those issues was touched on in CNN’s town hall. And that’s because climate change is not a single issue. It is every single issue.
It really pisses me off that the Democratic Party establishment still doesn’t seem to get that.
NUMBER FOUR: Over the course of seven hours and many signs of progress, the CNN climate crisis town hall contained so many reminders about how the fossil fuel industry continues to distort the climate conversation today.
Those reminders came in the form of all the questions that focused on whether candidates would take things away from Americans—whether they would ban hamburgers; whether their policies would force people to change their light bulbs; whether they would rip plastic straws from the mouths of babes.
I could explain why those kinds of questions reflect fossil fuel industry talking points. But I don’t have to, because Elizabeth Warren did:
This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. … They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws, and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries. …
And why don’t we focus there? It’s corruption! Its these giant corporations that keep hiring the PR firms so we don’t look at who’s still making the big bucks off polluting our earth. And the time for that is past. We have a chance, a chance left in 2020 to turn this around. But we are running out of time on this one.
For what it’s worth, that line made the crowd watching CNN at my neighborhood bar last night burst into applause.
OK, that’s all for now—thanks so much for reading the pre-launch bonus issue of HEATED! If you liked it, hated it, or want to pitch me a story idea, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, I’ll see you guys for the official launch on September 9th.