After DNC Rejects Climate Debate, Candidates Discuss Green New Deal, Environmental Justice at Forum

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Ten Democratic presidential hopefuls took to the stage in New York City Wednesday night for a climate town hall hosted by CNN. The event was held less than two weeks after the Democratic National Committee rejected a resolution that would have allowed candidates to participate in a debate focused on the climate crisis. For months, the Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups pushed the DNC to hold a climate debate, but the party refused. We host a roundtable with former EPA official Mustafa Ali, journalist Kate Aronoff and Sunrise Movement digital director Mattias Lehman.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Mattias Lehman and ask you about Senator Kamala Harris, who said she’d do away with the Senate filibuster if Republicans fail to work with Democrats in passing the Green New Deal.

SEN. KAMALA HARRIS: On the issue of this climate crisis, I’m going to tell you, I strongly believe this is a fight against powerful interests, and leaders need to lead. So, lead, follow or get out the way. And get out the way starting with Donald Trump. So, yeah, we need to work across the aisle. But I’m going to tell you, I’ve been there now two years and some months. I’m seeing no evidence of it. I’m seeing — I was — I kid you guys not. In our United States Congress, I was part of a committee hearing during which the underlying premise of the hearing was to debate whether science should be the basis of public policy. This on a matter that is about an existential threat to who we are as human beings. So, again, back to the United States Congress, here’s my point: If they fail to act, as president of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Kamala Harris at last night’s climate crisis town hall in the midst of Hurricane Dorian barreling through the Caribbean, decimating the Bahamas, making its way now to the Carolinas. Mattias Lehman, if you can respond to what she said? And also, Senator Harris, among other people, did talk about environmental justice. Can you talk about this issue, what it means, and the issue of environmental racism?

MATTIAS LEHMAN: Sure. So, on the filibuster, simple answer, this is just important, yes. If you look at some of the opposition, we’re talking about people like James Inhofe, who brought a snowball into Congress to say global warming wasn’t happening. And even going back to your question about regulation, what it means to be tough on fossil fuel companies means having some sort of leverage. And, like, we’ve had all the regulations we’ve wanted on housing; did not stop redlining from discriminating against African Americans. We have regulations on healthcare; does not stop people from going into bankruptcy because of their medical debt. We had regulations on financial speculation; did not stop the 2008 recession, which was caused by rampant speculation. So, regulation is one part of a toolkit, but that toolkit really only matters if there is a credible threat of following up on it. And so, I think when you look at energy companies, we don’t have a credible alternative. We can’t say, “Oh, I don’t want to put gas in my car. I’m going to go to the solar car industry.” Right? That doesn’t exist. And so, we need these alternatives separated from profit in a lot of ways for us to be able to do that. We need some leverage against fossil fuel companies coming from our government, and it needs to be very strong leverage. And so, I think that’s like a fundamental point.

But also, what you’re saying about Kamala Harris is superimportant. I grew up in a heavily polluted, majority-minority community. I have asthma. This is a reality for a lot of people of color, for a lot of poor people. They bear the brunt of the beginnings of what climate change is bringing. In the Bahamas, we’ve seen mass devastation. And like you said, we can’t wait for 2045 to prevent, basically, the death and destruction and the genocide of the Bahamian people because we won’t act. That’s ridiculous. And there are so many communities facing things like that right now. The refugees coming up from Honduras, and from Central and South America as a whole, up to our border right now, that is a climate crisis. We are letting these people die. We are letting these people die in concentration camps because we’re not willing to act on climate change. That is just wrong. And I really have to wonder how much less willing we would be able to tolerate this death if we were talking about white people and not people of color, if we were talking about people that people who have a more white nationalist orientation don’t care about and don’t think about.

So, I think when we look at climate change, racial justice and environmental justice has to be at the forefront of everything we’re thinking about and everything we’re doing, because we can’t just abandon the Global South. We can’t just abandon minorities and poor people and sort of run to the hills and save a fragment of humanity. This is a fight for the future of our species and the future of our planet, and we have to all be in here together. And we have to take into consideration everyone, not just a select few.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another issue that was quite contentious during the town hall was nuclear power as part of any kind of climate crisis program. Cory Booker, Senator Cory Booker, defended the use of nuclear power.

SEN. CORY BOOKER: My plan says that we need to be at a zero-carbon electricity by 2030. That’s 10 years from the time that I will win the presidency of the United States of America. And right now nuclear is more than 50% of our noncarbon-causing energy. So people who think that we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren’t looking at the facts. … Where the science is going is — to me, at first, it sounded like science fiction. We’re talking about historic plants, but where the science has gone right now is, new nuclear actually portends of exciting things, where you have no risk of the kind of meltdowns we’re seeing, where they eat spent fuel rods. We actually can go to the kind of innovations that make nuclear safer or safe.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Mustafa Ali, that’s New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders came out very clearly against nuclear energy. Your response?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, let me start by saying, you know, that Senator Booker has one of the strongest environmental justice plans that’s out there. A number of the candidates have actually introduced plans or built language into it. And also, Senator Booker has actually spent time in frontline communities in a significant way listening, so I give him kudos for that.

But we also have some real concerns when it comes to nuclear and nuclear waste. Indigenous brothers and sisters have been dealing with uranium tailings for years and the exposure that’s in that space. We also know — people talk about Yucca Mountain, but the other locations where we place our nuclear waste is of significant concern to many frontline communities and other communities, as well. Then we also have to think about the transportation routes when people are moving that waste. In many instances, our transportation routes have been built through communities of color and low-income communities. So, if there is a train that derails or a truck or whatever it might be that’s moving that waste, there are significant concerns that have to be addressed in that process. And Senator Sanders is probably saying, beyond the fact of where we place things, also in the transportation we’ve got to be considerate of those communities that could be impacted by an accident. So, all of that needs to be put into the mix. And that’s why when we have these candidates who are talking about climate or they’re talking about environmental issues, if we haven’t had candidates also talking about environmental justice analysis in the policies and practices and activities, then we’re going to leave these gaps in the process. And nuclear is one of those.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Kate, could you talk about the venue for this town hall debate — it was held at Hudson Yards here in Manhattan — and also the fact that it was hosted by CNN, you know, the fact that the media, corporate media, kind of control the kinds of questions that are asked in these debates? So, both things, Hudson Yards and CNN hosting this town hall.

KATE ARONOFF: Sure, yeah. I mean, the debate was held at Hudson Yards, which was the recipient of one of the largest giveaways from the city of New York maybe in the city’s history and is sort of a haven for the wealthy, right? It’s a luxury mall with a luxury housing development tacked onto it. And it’s hard to think of a more stark example of, you know, what we might call eco-apartheid — right? — this development that’s sort of created to be insulated from the weather and insulated from most of New York City, as well. And, you know —

AMY GOODMAN: Though not exactly, because part of that giveaway was they extended the subway to go directly there.

KATE ARONOFF: Right, right, right, right. The subway, you know, where we could have more functional bus lines, or we could invest, you know, in building out the MTA between Brooklyn and Queens.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s near empty when it goes there.

KATE ARONOFF: Exactly, yeah, yeah. And so, you know, I think this speaks to just how — yeah, I mean, how absurd it is to have this be the venue for a debate in a predominantly working-class city, where people actually have felt real climate impacts in the last several years, in Hurricane Sandy. Why not have the debate in the Rockaways — or, have the town hall in the Rockaways, right? Which was hit by Sandy, continues to deal with its impacts, right? So, I think, you know, having it in this sort of sheltered place is pretty absurd.

And just on the point about CNN, I think, you know, we saw a lot of preparation, and I think they should get some credit for putting on a seven-hour event. But I think we also saw, you know, as I think Senator Warren rightly pushed back against, some really right-wing framings, sort of called right from the fossil fuel industry’s playbook, to focus on things like straws, focus on things like, you know, should the government have a say in what kind of car you drive. These are all things that fossil fuel companies and trade associations have said for decades to refocus away from the fact that some 90 corporations are responsible for two-thirds of emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Age, right? We know who the enemy is here, right? And it’s not sort of the people who are wanting a more convenient way to drink their coffee in the morning. It’s these companies. And I think, you know, there’s very few candidates on that stage who rightly named that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, this Hudson Yards developer, billionaire developer Stephen Ross, was recently in the headlines, longtime friend of Donald Trump, recently held a $100,000-a-plate fundraiser for him in the Hamptons. Mattias Lehman, where does this leave Green New Deal at this point? And what do you want to see these candidates questioned about in the next debate, even if it isn’t exclusively a climate crisis debate? And do you think the DNC will relent with the tremendous pressure from many pushing for an official debate? This was, again, one-by-one candidates.

MATTIAS LEHMAN: Right. So, well, let’s start with Green New Deal. The Green New Deal has been talked about like it’s a bill, right? Like there’s this one small bill, and we just need to pass it, and then there we go — Green New Deal, awesome! But the name choice is very intentional: New Deal. The New Deal was not a bill. It was a series of plans rolled out over a long period of time, aimed at a specific goal. So, when we’re talking about the Green New Deal, we’re talking about a framework, and lots of bills are going to fall into that framework. Lots of regulations are going to fall into that framework.

And so, we can continue to talk about what’s going to happen with the Green New Deal, but a lot of that, like you said, is going to come from pressure. It’s going to come from pressure to shift to green energy. It’s going to come from pressure for regulations on, you know, even the things that they did talk about, like light bulbs. Yeah, that’s going to be a part of the toolkit, but it’s not the primary thing. But looking at this overall, because it’s so many issues, it’s just going to take constant pressure. And so, we have seen this feedback loop of put in some pressure, get out a town hall. Right? Sunrise, other activist groups. So now we need to figure out how to operationalize that, and that’s what we’re going to be doing going through 2019, through 2020 and all the way through to the end of this climate crisis, is continuing to put pressure.

I think step one is the climate strike on September 20th. Sunrise is standing with a lot of other partners and young people all around the world. And we’re going to walk out of our schools, we’re going to walk out of our jobs, and we’re going to say, “Hey, the adults in the room haven’t been acting on climate change for decades, and so we’re going to put pressure now, because this is our future on the line. And we need to be a voice in that room. We need to be heard. And we need action.”

Two, there’s a big election coming up. And I know, especially in primaries, a lot of presidential candidates think they don’t have to worry too much about the youth vote. You know, “Millennials don’t vote. Gen Z doesn’t vote. The turnout is going to be low.” That’s going to be different this election. We are going to colleges and to high schools and to young people out of school, and we’re making sure that they understand that registering in this primary and voting is the most important thing they can do for their future.

AMY GOODMAN: Mattias Lehman, I want to thank you for being with us, Sunrise Movement; Mustafa Ali, former EPA official, now with the National Wildlife Federation; and Kate Aronoff of The Intercept and Jacobin.

When we come back, nearly 2 million people in the northeast state of Assam, India, are at risk of being rendered stateless after India effectively stripped them of citizenship. It’s been described as “the biggest exercise of disenfranchisement in human history.” Stay with us.

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