On November 8, 2019, six 2020 presidential candidates — Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, and Tom Steyer, Marianne Williamson, John Delaney and Joe Sestak — participated in the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman and former EPA official Mustafa Santiago Ali co-moderated the event, which took place at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg. This excerpt from the event features her interview with Steyers and Warren. They are introduced by Democratic State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter of Orangeburg South Carolina, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators.
REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: At this time, I will introduce to you our two moderators for tonight. They, in turn, will introduce our candidates. We are pleased that we have six candidates who will be joining us tonight. Our moderators are Amy Goodman with Democracy Now! and Mustafa Santiago Ali with the National Wildlife Federation. Give them both a round of applause.
AMY GOODMAN: Well —
REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Thank you, moderators.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move right into the presidential candidates right now, from the grassroots activists on the frontlines of the environmental justice struggle. Again, the candidates who have agreed to attend tonight’s first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice are Tom Steyer, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, John Delaney, Joe Sestak and Marianne Williamson. We begin with three minutes of a public statement by Tom Steyer.
TOM STEYER: Good evening. Let me start by saying that environmental justice is not an afterthought at all for me. It is absolutely central to what I’m doing. I have said that climate is the number-one priority of my presidency and that I’ll declare a state of emergency on day one. But that climate plan is described as a justice-based climate plan. And environmental justice is the planning process that we’re going to use in order to make sure that it’s just and that the communities where pollution has been concentrated will be in the lead in terms of policy and execution.
I think a lot of the people who are going to follow me here at this podium are going to talk to you about what they’re going to do. But I want to tell you what I’ve done over the last decade. I led the fight for clean energy in California. And the reason we won was because environmental justice was at the heart. That fight has put together the biggest pot of money to redress frontline communities where pollution, air pollution and water pollution, have been centered. A billion-and-a-half dollars has already been spent. There’s 3 billion more dollars in the pot to redress that, and it will continue. I’ve also led the fight for clean energy outside California, in Nevada, in Michigan, in Arizona, and always environmental justice has been at the center. I worked with the activists in Oxnard to stop the last fossil fuel plant I hope is ever proposed for California, which they were going to put in a low-income Latino community where they already had a series of toxic plants and where they thought they could get away with it. And I’ve worked with activists around this country. I’ve gone to Flint, Michigan. I’ve been to Fresno, California. I’ve been to East Porterville, where you can’t drink the water. I’ve just come today from Denmark, South Carolina. It’s not my first trip to Denmark. I know what the water situation there is. And I also know that it’s going to be much broader than people know. You can’t do climate, you can’t do the environment, you can’t do pollution, unless you have environmental justice at its core.
Environmental justice is just another word for saying racism. They’ve chosen to concentrate air and water pollution in black and brown communities, and specifically African-American communities. So, if we’re going to repair that injustice, we’re going to have to do it deliberately in terms of clean air, clean waters. And as we rebuild this country in a sustainable way, the people from those communities have to be in the front of the line for the millions of good jobs that we’re going to create.
And I want to finish on a hopeful note. The best environmental justice project I’ve ever seen in the United States is in South Carolina. It’s in Spartanburg. It’s the ReGenesis Project. It’s fantastic. I know Mustafa has worked on it, started by a fantastic, brilliant man named Harold Mitchell from South Carolina.
MUSTAFA ALI: Tom, welcome.
TOM STEYER: Mustafa, nice to see you.
MUSTAFA ALI: It’s good to see you, too. You mentioned environmental racism, so let’s start off with a basic question that all candidates should be able to answer, especially for the audience that we have here tonight. How do you define environmental justice? And how do you define environmental racism?
TOM STEYER: Look, I don’t think there’s any — I don’t think there’s any question that this country has focused its air pollution and its water pollution in communities of color. And I think that if you look around — you can look at South Carolina, you can look at every part of this country, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg that we know right now. Yes, I know what’s happened in Denmark? I’ve talked to the activists there and worked with them. But I can tell you, I think we’re going to see that across South Carolina. I think it’s going to be based on race. I know — if you go to Flint, Michigan, ask who lives there. If you go to Newark, ask who lives there. Go to East Porterville, go to Fresno. West Fresno has a 15-year lower life expectancy than North Fresno, that’s two miles away. It’s based on pollution of every kind you can think of. So when I look around the United States of America, I know that the politics have concentrated the dangerous health of pollution in the communities of color, specifically African-American.
MUSTAFA ALI: So, let’s go a little bit deeper. Environmental racism is the new Jim Crow in regards to food, housing, jobs, education. What is your plan to address environmental racism?
TOM STEYER: Well, we are going to — look this, is my number-one priority, is to rebuild this country in a sustainable fashion and to make sure that we handle the climate crisis. But we’re going to do it with environmental justice in the lead. So that means, as we rebuild this country, whether that’s the $90 billion that we’re going to spend on residential water, whether that’s the $700 billion that we’re going to spend on the grid, whether it’s rebuilding the roads or the public transit systems, I am going to make sure that the planning process starts in the communities and they start with the leaders from communities like Denmark, South Carolina, to make sure that as we do this we redress the air and water problems specifically and that the jobs go to those communities first. So when I think about this redression, it’s everything. I mean, Mustafa, you asked a question that suggested, “Is it just air and water pollution?” No, it goes far beyond that. And I believe we can rebuild this country spiritually, as well as physically, by undoing this injustice and this racism, specifically through a gigantic program of rebirth.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Steyer, there’s been a lot of talk about billionaires in the last few weeks in the presidential race, and there may be another one entering the race: Michael Bloomberg. It’s not clear if one of the candidates. President Trump is one himself. But you, at this point, are the only billionaire in the Democratic primary as you run for president in 2020. How do you talk about the issue of environmental justice and economic equity? The Climate Accountability Institute did a study saying the world’s wealthiest corporations are most responsible for the climate crisis. And, of course, the communities of color, indigenous communities are most impacted by that crisis. The Climate Accountability Institute says more than 70% of global emissions come from just 100 companies. What have you done to challenge your fellow billionaires when it comes to this inequity? And what would you do as president?
TOM STEYER: So, let me say this. I started a business. I ran it for 27 years. I started it in one room, with no employees, not even any windows in the room. Then I took the Giving Pledge to give more than half my money to good causes while I was alive. I walked away from my business to build coalitions of normal American citizens to take on unchecked corporate power. And together, we’ve been beating them for over a decade. I’ve taken on the oil companies. I’ve taken on the tobacco companies. I’ve taken on the utilities. I’ve taken on the drug companies.
So, Amy, when you ask me what I’m going to do, the reason I’m running for president is because I believe these corporations have bought the government. That is my reason for running. We’re not getting what we want. We’re not getting anything we want, until we break — they are strangling our government, and they are strangling us. And until we beat them, we’re getting nothing, because that’s what they want us to have. So, when I look about clean air and clean water, when I look at environmental racism, we’re going to have to beat the corporation first.
And there’s no one else on — who’s going to come on this stage, there’s no one else running for president, who’s going to talk about term limits for every congressperson and senator of 12 years. There’s no one who’s going to talk about a national referendum to let the people of the United States pass laws when the Congress won’t do it, take away their monopoly to pass laws. So, this is my whole — look, I have a track record for a decade, as an outsider, of taking these people on. They’re not that smart. But they are that mean. And what I’ve seen — and honestly, environmental racism, a perfect example — they are willing to hurt people for money. And it’s not a heck of a lot more complicated than that. And so, what am I willing to do? I am willing to do whatever it takes to break that corporate stranglehold. And that’s my history.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think corporate executives should be put on trial? For example, in New York, you have the lawsuit against ExxonMobil. If you can explain the significance of this lawsuit? Just last week, 30 schoolchildren led a 42-minute die-in outside the ExxonMobil trial as Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, the former secretary of state under Trump, was testifying. Forty-two minutes, as on 13-year-old activist, Maria Riker, said to us, 42 minutes for the 42 years that ExxonMobil covered up climate change.
TOM STEYER: So, let me say this about corporations: They’re not above the law. I started the Need to Impeach movement because the president isn’t above the law. I promise you I don’t think corporate executives are above the law. So, what does that mean? It means if they paid $300 billion worth of fines because of the mortgage crisis and no one went to jail, how could that be right? If we put drug dealers in jail, why don’t we put corporate drug dealers in jail? If Exxon lied and endangered the health and safety not just of everybody in this room, but everybody in this country, are you telling me they’re above the law? Because they did it within a corporate system? No way. So, you’re asking me, Amy, what am I willing to do? I’m willing to hold them accountable for crime. And I’m going to — they are not above the law. If I’m not scared of the president, I promise you I’m not scared of the Exxon Mobil Corporation.
AMY GOODMAN: So, let me ask one last follow-up. In the last weeks, in a leaked audio recording, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, was captured on tape saying, and I — please excuse me for using this language — that if Elizabeth Warren were to become president, it would suck for his company. What are your comments about what he had to say?
TOM STEYER: Look, corporations think — and they’ve been right — that they can write the laws of the United States of America for their benefit. The government of the United States is supposed to be of, by and for the people. We have got to take away the rights of the heads of these huge corporations, like Mark Zuckerberg, to think they run our country for themselves and their corporations. That’s got to end. So, who gets elected president should be dependent on who’s going to do the best job for the American people, who can they trust, and who calls out the problem. This election is about calling out the problem. And the problem is, they own the government. And we’re not changing anything until we change that.
MUSTAFA ALI: Mr. Steyer, you talked about making sure that you’re holding people accountable. So, what would you do in the instance that we find ourselves in right now? So, at the Environmental Protection Agency, the enforcement work that has happened there has become minimized greatly — the cases that are brought forward, inspectors going out, making sure that businesses and industries are in compliance. So, what would be your plan to enhance enforcement that would help the communities that are here in the audience?
TOM STEYER: So, I just want to start with the fact that every American has a right to clean air and clean water, period. So, when you think about the Environmental Protection Agency, they’re there to enforce that. And if there are corporations who are poisoning us, then we have to know it, and we have to end it, and we have to punish it. So, when I think about the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s got to be an enforcement agency that is carrying out the right of every single American to clean air and clean water. And we’re going to make that happen. So, part of it’s enforcement, but a big part of this is bringing the money, bringing the resources to the communities that don’t have clean air and clean water, and making sure that we rebuild in a way that they do.
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, let me follow up on that just real quickly. So, we know that the funding to address the environmental injustices that have happened, both in the past and the present, is extremely limited. How would you redirect resources to help those communities?
TOM STEYER: So, Mustafa, I would declare a state of emergency on climate on the first day of my presidency.
MUSTAFA ALI: OK.
TOM STEYER: I would use the emergency powers of the presidency, because it’s an emergency, to change the rules without needing Congress. I’m going to ask Congress. I’m going to ask Congress. I’m going to give them a hundred days. “Pass the Green New Deal. I’m begging you.” But they’re O for 28 years. So, for everybody who’s counting on the Green New Deal, this is a group that’s O for 28 years. And I want to say, on day one, we’re getting going. So, what am I going to do? On day one, we’re using the emergency powers of the presidency to get going on this problem, with environmental justice, the redress of environmental racism, at the core of what we do.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Steyer, you make very clear that you support the Green New Deal. What about what is being called a Red New Deal for indigenous communities? What specific funding opportunities would your administration provide for tribal nations, communities who wish to make a just transition toward sustainable housing and renewable energy? And how would you negotiate with tribes? For example, what would you do around pipelines? Standing Rock Sioux Reservation wants the Dakota Access pipeline stopped now.
TOM STEYER: So, Amy, no pipelines. That’s my rule on pipelines: no pipelines. There is no reason that we should spend one more penny building more fossil fuel infrastructure that we’re going to have to tear down. It makes no sense. Look, I was an investor for 30 years. And people love to talk in politics about infrastructure. And they say — they make it sound like infrastructure is, in and of itself, a good thing. But if you’re an investor, infrastructure is just building something and paying for it. So, if you build something stupid, it’s stupid. And if you build something smart and sustainable, that’s valuable. So when we think about rebuilding America, we’ve got to think about doing it in a way that actually serves the American people, that makes it possible for us to preserve the natural world that God gave us, and lets us hand it on to the next generation. So, when I think about what we’re going to do with indigenous people, for starters, we’re not building any more pipelines across their lands. We don’t have to worry about it. That’s out. But I also think we’ve got to respect their knowledge and their awareness and give them the right of self-determination as they think about how they can proceed in a just way.
AMY GOODMAN: And what about the issue of environmental reparations? We just heard some very eloquent environmental justice activists talk about the destruction of their communities over decades by industrial polluters that destroy their communities and then up and leave. What would reparations look like?
TOM STEYER: They’d look like what we’ve done in California, is taking billions of dollars and directing them at frontline communities to make sure that we undo the damage that’s happened. And it means giving the jobs to the people from those communities to undo the economic damage that’s been done. It means acknowledging what’s happened, being aware of what’s happened, and then letting the leaders from those communities direct how we’re going to undo it. That’s actually what it looks like, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: And what would an activated Justice Department look like, if you were going to go after corporate crime —
TOM STEYER: OK.
AMY GOODMAN: — the corporate polluters?
TOM STEYER: Well, one thing you guys should know, I would put — I would create an Environmental Justice Department within the Justice Department. I don’t think there’s any way that we can actually deal with this in a significant fashion without separating it out, concentrating on it and giving people the right and the obligation to pursue it seriously. So that’s what it would look like. It would look like an organized group of people with the determination to make sure that we brought people to justice.
MUSTAFA ALI: And I think we’re going to go to a question from one of our students. Is Mr. Brandon Brown here? Mr. Brown, please approach the podium and share your question.
TOM STEYER: Call me Tom, Brandon. Make me feel young.
BRANDON BROWN: OK, Tom. OK. My question is, one of the issues to environmental justice is access to healthy food. What would you do to give access to healthy food to all Americans?
TOM STEYER: So, if you guys couldn’t hear Brandon’s question, it was access to healthy food. And this is actually a subject that’s really close to my heart, because in California my wife and I have started a program called California Food for California Kids, which is doing farm to table in the public schools. We’re in schools that provide 300 million meals a year to kids, and we — so, when I think what you have to do, we have food deserts in this country where people can’t find healthy food to buy in their neighborhoods. And that’s got to be addressed. But even more than that, we have hunger in this country. And, you know, I have talked to young people who have told me that they and their friends are routinely hungry, that they don’t have enough to eat. And it puts them in a terrible position in terms of trying to get access to food. So, when we think about the absolute basic job of a government, it’s to make sure that we provide for the basic needs of citizens, and food has got to be one of them. And the fact that we’re having this conversation in 2019, in the richest country in the history of the world, shows how far off we’ve gone from what’s right.
Look, I’m running because I believe these corporations have bought the government, and I believe that they’ve trashed, that they’ve stomped on the absolute rights of Americans. And that includes the right to affordable healthcare for every American, the right to quality public education from pre-K through college, the right to a living wage. Every — one job should be enough. The way the money is being distributed is shameful. And the right to clean air and clean water. But, good grief, food? The right to food and a roof over your head? That’s part of America.
So, when you ask me what am I willing to do — Amy was asking me: What am I willing to do to let people live without being poisoned? We’ve got to change the United States. Something has gone terribly wrong. And we like to make it seem too complicated. It’s not complicated. What they’re doing is cutting taxes on rich people and big corporations, and then they’re taking away education funds, healthcare funds, attacking unions and working people’s right to earn, and allowing pollution. That’s their whole economic program. And the reason we have to take away their right to write the laws, take away their stranglehold of our government, is we need to undo every single one of those things. We need to give back to the American people our share of this country. And it can no longer be run for these corporations. The idea that young people in America — that we would question whether it’s a good investment that young people be fed makes no sense.
Of course, the way we’re going to succeed is by investing in Americans. That’s how we’re going to prosper, by Americans succeeding. And so, if we invest, Brandon, in young people, including education and food and a roof over their head, that’s the best investment we’ll ever make. That’s the investment that will make us succeed. That’s the investment that will make us proud. And that’s the investment we will definitely make. But first we’re going to have to break these corporations. And that’s why I’m running for president, because I never want to hear that question: What are we going to do to provide food for young people? We should already have done that.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I’d like to ask you, Tom Steyer, about foreign policy, as president, of course, a critical area. We’re speaking to you just hours after a court in Brazil has released the former president of Brazil, Lula, after he was imprisoned under this administration of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who basically says the Amazon is open for business, the lungs of the planet. We’re speaking to you in the week that President Trump has said he’s moving forward with pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord. And we’re speaking to you just after Davos in the Desert, what many call the Disaster in the Desert, where President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, his Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and other corporate executives went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, essentially shoring up the regime there, as Human Rights Watch has come out with a report talking about the catastrophe that Mohammed bin Salman represents when it comes to, for example, human rights activists, particularly the abuse of women in prison. What would you do about these relationships with the fossil fuel giant that is Saudi Arabia, with the close relationship Trump has with Bolsonaro?
TOM STEYER: So, let me say this. Every single thing that Mr. Trump believes about foreign policy, I disagree with. It’s a simple rule. He doesn’t believe that we have real allies. He believes we can only confront people and compete with them and try and bully them. He doesn’t believe that we can cooperate with people and create coalitions, the way President Obama did. And in particular, he doesn’t believe that we can lead the world on values. His friends are all dictators. Everything he stands for, I disagree with.
And let me say this: The number-one thing I would do in foreign policy is lead the world on climate and restore the United States as the moral leaders of the world. Look, I don’t believe we can solve the climate crisis without putting environmental justice at the heart. But I also don’t believe we can solve the climate crisis inside the borders of the United States. I think we have to lead the rest of the world. In fact, we all know we have to lead the rest of the world. And there’s no second choice. So, if we’re going to rebuild the United States, if we’re going to undo the inherent racism in the way we’ve polluted, if we’re going to create millions of jobs and rebuild our spiritual center here, we’re also going to have to do it around the world. And that is actually going to be the rebirth of us as the moral leaders of the world and the technological leaders of the world and the financial and commercial leaders. This is what we’re going to have to do. We can do it. We can definitely do it. It’s going to make us better employed, more jobs, better-paying jobs, healthier. And it’s going to restore the moral center to the United States of America, to where it should be, where we stand up for our values here. Justice at home, values abroad. That’s what we’re going to do.
MUSTAFA ALI: You mentioned climate change. So what is the boldest move you would do to impact climate change?
TOM STEYER: Well, I do think declaring a state of emergency on day one counts as bold. I do think that making it environmental justice-focused and have the planning process go from community up is bold. And I think that making it the heart of my international policy is bold. But I think the biggest thing, Mustafa, that I see is we don’t have a choice here. And we don’t have a choice in succeeding unless we put morality at the center, which means justice at the center. This doesn’t — this isn’t going to work unless we do it in a way that we understand what’s been unjust, where there’s been racism, where there has been cruelty, we acknowledge it, and we undo it. That is actually how we’re going to succeed in dealing with climate.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Steyer, you’ve been leading a movement to impeach President Trump. When it comes to the issue of environmental justice and environmental racism, what would be the articles of impeachment you would write against him?
TOM STEYER: For Mr. Trump? Oh, my goodness gracious! Whoo! Well, let me say that one of the people — I started the Need to Impeach movement, that more than 8 million people signed onto, over two years ago. But I want to be clear that I wasn’t the first person, and there is a guy, a congressman from Houston, Texas, named Al Green, who beat me to it, who I have a lot of respect for. And I’ve talked to Congressman Green multiple times, and he always says to me, “Tom, I know that this guy’s a criminal, and you’re holding him up to the world as a criminal. But I’m pushing for him to be impeached and removed because he’s a racist. And that’s my reason, so everything else to me is secondary.”
So, when I look at what he’s done from withdrawing — the people he’s appointed to all of the environmental posts, who are apologists for fossil fuels, withdrawing from Paris to show the world he has disdain for even attempting it, trying to increase the subsidies to fossil fuels, cutting the heart out of the EPA, you know, he has under — he’s never missed an opportunity to do the right thing — to do the wrong thing. He’s never been right. It’s kind of like if you imagine the worst thing he could do, he immediately does it. So, there’s — but, look, you can’t impeach a president on policy. This president is a criminal. You can impeach a president who’s a criminal for criminal acts. And the fact that his policy is also dead wrong is not a coincidence. But you have to get him on the criminal acts, Amy, and he’s done a lot of them.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Tom Steyer, we want to say thank you very much for spending this half-hour with us.
TOM STEYER: Can I just say one thing, just so you guys know? This is where my heart is. Seriously, this is not — I started by saying this is not a side issue for me. This is the issue. This is how we rebuild a great country together. And we have to acknowledge where we are. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: You are watching the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. I’m Amy Goodman, with Mustafa Ali. And today we’re going to hear from six presidential candidates. All were invited. Coming up, Senator Elizabeth Warren, then Senator Cory Booker, John Delaney, Joe Sestak and Marianne Williamson. We’re broadcasting from South Carolina State University here in Orangeburg. Next up, Senator Elizabeth Warren will take the stage and give a three-minute address on environmental justice.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Hello. It’s good to see you. It’s good to see you. It’s always good to see you. Hello. How are you? It’s good to be here.
You know, the best part about this is not what we have to say, any of the candidates who are here. It’s that you’re here. It’s that you’re lifting this issue and making this a major issue in a presidential debate, that we’re not just talking about climate change, we’re talking about environmental justice. We’re talking about justice in this country. We’re talking about who’s been left behind, who’s been deliberately shut out of the process, and what we can do to make real change. And for me, that means big structural change. So I’m glad to be here. It’s good to see you all.
So, here are the points I want to make in my little bit at the top. And the first is, we know we’ve got a problem. And the problem is one of communities that just consistently have been the places for the location of the dumps, the waste, the environmental polluters. And the consequences have been devastating, devastating for our children, devastating generation after generation, devastating economically because of what it does to the value of those communities and trying to build economic strength in those communities. And understand, because we all know what’s happening, it’s communities that are poor and communities of color. It’s about racism, and it is about economic injustice. So, that’s part one.
Part two is it’s not going to be enough just to come out and say, “I care about that.” It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, this is a problem,” and while we’re talking about making changes, we also need to stop every now and again and think about environmental justice. For me, the way I think about this is, if you’re really serious, then you’ve got to have some concrete proposals, some real plans on the table.
So, I just want to mention, the way I see this is I’ve made a commitment. I want to spend $3 trillion on our climate change and how to fight climate change over the next few years when I’m president. I will spend one-third of that in the communities that have been most devastated by our past racism, by our past attacks on these communities and that have left them so devastated.
The other is, I will elevate this to a White House position. So, we will have a Council on Environmental Justice. And in my first hundred days, we will bring together the groups that have been trying to cope with environmental justice for generation after generation, and to say, “Let’s lay out a plan for how to spend that money. Let’s lay out a plan for how to lift up the communities that have been left behind. Let’s make a plan together for big structural change.” So, that’s why I’m here. Thank you.
It’s good to see you. I’m so glad to see you. Thank you. All righty.
MUSTAFA ALI: Senator Warren, thank you for being here.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yes, I’m glad to be here.
MUSTAFA ALI: So, many communities of color, low-income communities and indigenous populations are literally dying for a breath of fresh air. We have 100,000 people who are dying prematurely from air pollution in our country — communities like the Manchester community in Houston, Texas, to Cancer Alley running between Baton Rouge and Louisiana, oh, even here in Charleston, South Carolina. What would you do to address the epidemic that’s happening in our communities from air pollution?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, part of it is we need to strengthen the Environmental Protection Agency. Here’s a radical notion: How about if we don’t have a coal lobbyist to head up the EPA? You think that’s a good starting place? But it is. As they have tried to roll back — the Trump administration and the EPA, under his administration, have tried to roll back air quality standards. We need — no, we need to go in the other direction: We need to roll forward. And so we need to be much stronger on this.
But can I add a second part to that? Because I think it’s really important. And that is, I want to bring in the CDC. I want to treat this as the public health emergency that it is. Yeah. If people were dying of a mysterious virus, if it were cutting lives short in well-to-do communities, you better believe that we’d be coming in with the research, we’d be highlighting where the problems are, and we’d be figuring out how to fix them and to fix them fast. Instead, we just watch over and over and over how children who live in poor communities, who live in communities of color have higher rates of hospitalization for asthma. Why? Because what they burn in Ohio, you breathe in Massachusetts, and it’s hard on our children, because our children are the most vulnerable, and they live next to the places that are the dirtiest, that have the worst air. So, I actually want to treat this — I want to come in aggressively and treat this like the public health emergency that it is. I want the scientists on it, and I want to put the real resources behind fixing it.
MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Tom Steyer said he would declare a state of climate emergency the first day he were president. Would you do the same?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: We could. You know, here’s how I think of this. I want to use the tools available as president. And the way I think of using the tools, I want to think about what — I love saying this — a president can do all by herself. And the way I think of that is part of what I mentioned here. What I want to do is I want to make a position in the White House that is a permanent, ongoing position to address the injustices that we currently face on this issue. So, for me, what I have committed to do is both to create a position in the White House, and in the first hundred days not just to do it all by myself on this one, but to ask the groups that have been on the frontlines to be part of this, to come together and to start putting together an action plan.
And the reason I say that is, when we’re talking about the question of environmental justice, it’s a highly localized problem. You need national muscle. You need national money. You need a national will to get in there and fix the problem. But you don’t need someone at the national level saying, “Here’s the right answer.” Because the answer is different. It’s different on tribal lands out West than it is in sinking cities near the coast. It is different to be near a dump that smolders and burns than it is to be near a factory that continues to put poisons into the water. And so, for each of those, the way I see this is you make the concrete commitment on finances, you make the concrete commitment on bringing people together, and then you ask the communities to identify what needs to be done.
And then, if I can, the third part is we have to look at this holistically. It’s not just about cleaning up the dumps. It’s not just about making the factories either filter what they’re putting into the air and the water or shutting down. It’s also about lifting these communities up, because these communities have been damaged for generation after generation. So, it’s about investments — which I’d love to talk about — in housing. It’s about economic investments, investments in schools. It’s about making the investments in these communities, so we go from communities that, as you say, are literally killing people to communities that are actually thriving. That’s what I want to see.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you stand, not just on the Dakota Access pipeline being built? It has been now, and it’s operating at a great capacity. But now the Standing Rock Sioux are in court. They’re saying a proper environmental impact statement wasn’t done and that the Dakota Access pipeline should be shut down. Do you agree with this? What would you do as president, both on Dakota Access pipeline, the Keystone XL, that President Trump greenlighted, and pipelines, overall, across the country?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, let me start by saying I believe we ought to enforce our environmental laws. And when the appropriate environmental impact statements have not been done, then, yes, we should shut down the operations. That’s what it means to have these laws, is that we enforce these laws.
But if I can, I want to add an extra piece, because I think this really brings in the question of tribal governance and tribes’ abilities to be the good stewards of their land. I have already made a very public commitment to the tribes, both to honor that the tribes themselves make the decision about what happens on tribal lands — this is a nation-to-nation relationship. This is about our trust and treaty obligations. But I go a step further and to say on federal lands that abut tribal lands, that, as president, I will not approve any drilling, mining, pipelines that abut those lands, on these federal lands that abut the tribal lands, unless the tribes that are affected give their own informed consent in advance. I believe that they will be the good stewards of the land, and I believe they will protect the region.
AMY GOODMAN: Are you for the shutting down of the Dakota Access pipeline?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
MUSTAFA ALI: And how would you better protect? You know, we have this shrinking of our federal lands. You know, they have opened it up to mining and drilling and all these other types of things. What would you do as president to better protect our federal lands?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, like I said, this is one a president can do all by herself. And on day one, I will say, “No new drilling, no new mining, on our federal lands, and no offshore drilling.” You just shut it down. And, you know, that’s actually a pretty big impact, because, as you know, about a quarter of our lands are federally protected lands.
And right now this is really this fundamental question: who government works for. So, right now the mining companies, the drilling companies, that want to make big dollars by basically getting drilling rights and mining rights for pennies on the dollar and leaving behind waste for not only local communities to have to deal with, for the tribes to have to deal with, but destroying pristine land for generations to come. I believe that we have both a strong economic — I’ll start there — obligation, but also a strong moral obligation, to protect our public lands and make sure they remain safe. I have fought the Trump’s administration’s efforts to try to undo protection of our federal lands, and I will be a careful protector of those lands.
You know, I’ll just add on this. I know we talk about the huge ramifications. For me, it’s also personal. My husband and I are hikers. We’ve hiked much of these — many of these federal lands for decades now. And when we were hiking not long ago, we were talking about what it would mean if our grandchildren won’t come and see what we see, if our grandchildren will be denied the opportunity to come out and see some of the greatest beauties on this Earth. We have an obligation to future generations. It’s not about what they will inherit; it’s about what we are borrowing from them. And we must meet that obligation. We must meet it, because it is right for our country, because it is right for this world, but also because it is morally right. We need to live our values.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is wrong to say no to a debate specifically on the climate crisis?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: How can you prevail upon him and the DNC to change their mind?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’ve already weighed in on this one, quite publicly, and asked for a climate debate. Obviously, I haven’t prevailed on that. But I did this many months ago, because I think this is the urgent issue of our time. You know, I don’t have to say it to you, but it is worth repeating every chance we get, that climate change threatens every living thing on this planet, and that everything else we talk about depends on our having an Earth that we can live on for generations to come. So, I think, as Democrats, we should be happy to get together to lift this issue. As I said, I’m happy to be here now, in this forum, to lift this issue for people all around the country and all around the world. The United States is a leader on climate. We are. Right now we’re just leading in the wrong direction. We need to show that that’s not all of America, that is not who we are as Americans, that we treasure this land and we treasure this planet and we’re willing to put real resources behind protecting it.
MUSTAFA ALI: Well, Senator Warren, we know that communities of color, frontline communities, are hit first and worst —
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
MUSTAFA ALI: — from climate change, from Puerto Rico, where we lost over 3,000 lives, to Princeville, North Carolina, founded by freed slaves and have had to deal with these devastating floods. We used to talk about 50-year floods. Now we’re talking about 100-year floods and 500-year floods, all the way, of course, to what happened in New Orleans from Katrina. So, we asked the previous candidate who was sitting in the chair that you are, “What would be your boldest move on climate change?” What would be yours?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: A trillion dollars. That seems pretty bold. No, this is important. This is why I said I think it’s important to have specifics around this. And it’s really easy to say, “I’ve got a” — for someone, a candidate, to say, “Here’s a big climate plan. And, oh, yeah, we’ll think about environmental justice somewhere along the way,” and get it and say the right things, but somehow, in the decision-making, it just never happens. I don’t want to be that president. I want to be a president who commits in advance and says, “We know we have a serious problem here.”
So, I’ve got a plan to put about $3 trillion into climate remediation, direct dollars out of the federal government, a lot of leverage out of that. What I’d do is I’d commit to take a third of that and say we’re going to spend it on environmental justice. We’re going to spend it on going to the communities that are hit first, that are hit hardest, that have been hit the longest, generation after generation. As I said, I don’t want to dictate from Washington what it takes. You know, it may be a seawall in one place; it may be a sandbar in a different one. It may be relocation in some — you hate to say it, but it may be. There are all kinds of differences in how it should happen. And that’s the respect for the communities and for the community groups that have been fighting this for so long. But the role of the federal government is to protect. The role of the federal government is to provide the resources. The role of the federal government is to make sure that, as a country, we leave no communities behind.
MUSTAFA ALI: Let me just follow up real quickly on that. And I appreciate what you’re sharing with us. But the reality is, is that there are some states that have not had the best relationship with our most vulnerable communities. So, if we have a trillion, two trillion, three trillion dollars on the federal level, how will we ensure on the state level that they do the right things to address the impacts that are happening in our communities?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Good question. So let me do this both ways. On the federal dollars, they don’t have to go to the states. You can make the federal dollars go straight to the communities, so that communities have the ability to come in and say, “Here’s our problem. We qualify for federal funds,” so you don’t have a governor or state legislature in between sucking up that money, that comes in buckets and ends up being distributed to some communities with an eyedropper. So, that’s part one.
But the second part, I think, is — you are right. We need states to have their own environmental laws. We should do this at the federal level, but we need environmental enforcement at the state level, and environmental rules that are appropriate to those states. I think the best way we make that happen is when we strengthen the groups on the ground. So, think of it as an action like this. When you’ve got a federal government, when you’ve got a president who is really committed on environmental issues, and you’ve got a lot of local groups that both have the ability to get to funding, have the ability to make a difference in their communities, that strengthens those groups. That strengthens those communities. And that gives them a lot more muscle to deal with state governments that may otherwise have overlooked them.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren, you’ve said a crucial distinction between you and Bernie Sanders is that you’re capitalist and he’s a socialist. Many activists, though, say that an economic system based on perpetual growth is fundamentally at odds with a stable, clean and sustainable environment. How do you reconcile this?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, you know, the way I see this, I believe in markets. I think markets bring us a lot of innovation, a lot of creation, a lot of change, that’s good. I want to see, for example, markets for clean — not just clean energy, but how we’re going to clean the carbon out of the air, how we’re going to clean the filth out of the water. But understand this: Markets without rules are theft. They’re theft. It allows, whenever you get a chance, when you have a market that people get to — corporations get to cheat people, that’s theft. That’s not a market. And that’s not how markets are supposed to operate. So, my efforts, for many years now, have been about how we get those markets to function so that we get the best out of the markets, but that people don’t get cheated.
And maybe the best example of that is, in the early 2000s — I’ll just give you an example — toasters. I’m sorry, I’m not going to start with my toaster story; I’ll just start it with mortgages. Mortgages were so dangerous and so complex that someone who got a mortgage had a one-in-five chance of losing their home over that mortgage — not through a fire, but for through foreclosure. Communities of color were targeted for the worst-of-the-worst mortgage. And the government, they weren’t on the side of the people. They were deep in the pockets of the big banks — in fact, so deep that they let the big banks sell enough of those mortgages to crash the entire economy.
So, after that crash, I had an idea. And the idea was for a consumer agency, that would come in just like a consumer agency that protects you from buying toasters that would burst into flames, a consumer agency that would protect people who are buying mortgages and credit cards and student loans, and be on the side of the consumer. And people told me, “Don’t even try to do it, because you’ll never get it passed. The big banks will stop you — big money, the Republicans and, frankly, a whole bunch of the Democrats.” But it was the right thing to do. So I got in that fight. A bunch of consumer groups helped out in that fight. And we took on Wall Street, we took on the big money, and President Obama signed that agency into law in 2010. It has now — yes! And here’s the thing. It has now forced those financial institutions to return more than $12 billion directly to people who were cheated.
Now, we know how to make government work for the people. And that means you’ve got to have rules. I don’t want to get rid of those devices. I don’t want to get rid of credit cards. I kind of like my credit card. I just don’t want them to be able to cheat me or anyone else. For me, that’s what this is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: Can I follow up —
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Sure.
AMY GOODMAN: — ask you to respond to two different men? Bernie Sanders says there should be no billionaires. Do you agree with that?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: No.
AMY GOODMAN: Why not?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, somebody has a great idea, and they follow it through, and they work hard, and they build something. Good for them. But here’s my pitch. You build a great fortune in this country, good for you. But you built it, at least in part, using workers all of us helped pay to educate. You built it, at least in part, getting your goods to market on roads and bridges all of us helped pay to build. You built it, at least in part, protected by police and firefighters all of us helped pay their salaries for. So, here’s my view. You make it to the top, to the tip-top, then the answer is: Pay a wealth tax, so that we can invest and create opportunities for everyone else. That’s what my two-cent wealth tax is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the second man I want you to respond to is Mark Zuckerberg — right?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — CEO of Facebook, who said that a Warren presidency would suck for his company. That was in an audio leak that came out.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Boo hoo.
AMY GOODMAN: Which brings me to the Climate Accountability Institute, which said the world’s wealthiest corporations are most responsible for the climate crisis —
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — which of course impacts most, people of color and poorest communities. More than 70% of global emissions come from just 100 companies.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think should be done to challenge this, change this? What would you do as president? And what are you doing as senator?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Well, part one is we can regulate it. Look, three industries — three industries, we put serious regulations in place and say there can’t be any new buildings, any new homes built — after 2028, zero carbon emission; 2030, zero carbon emission on all automobiles and light trucks produced; and by 2035, zero carbon emission on all electric production. Three industries. We can cut carbon emission in the United States of America by 70%. Three industries. So, there’s one of your tools, is regulation, right there. You’ve got to be willing to come in on the regulation.
But let me make another point about this. Understand, those giant companies you’re talking about, yeah, they do a lot of terrible things, but they also have a lot of power, and they exercise that power. They exercise that power over their workers. They exercise it over their customers, over the communities where they’re located, and over the government in Washington. That is corruption, pure and simple. And we need to call it out and fight back. What I want to do on the first day as president, the legislation I want to push through is anti-corruption legislation. I want to get in there and fight the oil companies, the big polluters, because here’s the deal. Anybody who comes up here and tells you about their climate plans, who doesn’t have an anti-corruption plan, who doesn’t have a plan to beat back the influence of money in Washington, is not serious. Oh, we’ll end up with a plan that has some great name like “Cleaned Up the Entire World and It’s Now Full of Unicorns and Butterflies,” but what it will really do is continue to carve out enough exceptions that the profits keep flowing to the same people who are getting those profits right now. So, I’m out there to fight this corruption. That has to be step number one, is to go after them. I will —
AMY GOODMAN: Should corporate executives who pollute go to jail?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: If they do harm to people, they need to be held responsible. And I actually have a bill already on this. You shouldn’t be able to walk away from the injuries you create. No one should be able to do that in the United States.
We’ve got a problem right now in this country. And the problem we’ve got is too much power is concentrated in the hands of the wealthy and the well-connected. And they are using it every single day to keep Washington exactly where they want it. You know, it’s not only what Donald Trump has done and the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s decades of this. People talk about a Washington that doesn’t work. Puh! Washington works great — if you’re rich! Washington works great — if you run a giant corporation.
Understand, when this administration wanted to get something done — tax cuts for their big donors — you know how long it took them? Five weeks. They went behind closed doors with their big donors and the lobbyists, scribbled out the bill, and passed it, and a trillion-and-a-half dollars went out the door, mostly to giant corporations and rich people. They know how to get something done.
When nothing is getting done on climate, when nothing is getting done on gun safety, when nothing is getting done on the cost of prescription drugs, ask yourself who benefits from that. Right? It’s the gun industry. It’s the polluters. It’s the drilling industry. It’s the pharmaceutical industry. They are getting the Washington they want. What 2020 is all about is it’s time for us to get the Washington that works for the people, not the one that just works for the big corporations. Yeah.
MUSTAFA ALI: Senator Warren, we’re going to go to a question from one of our students.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Sure.
MUSTAFA ALI: So, if Vladmire Haynes could come forward and pose your question to Senator Warren?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: It’s good to see you.
VLADMIRE HAYNES: Hello. How are you?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: I’m good.
VLADMIRE HAYNES: I’m Vladmire Haynes. My question for you, Senator Warren, is: How can you ensure that no community will be left behind when it comes to the fight of environmental injustice? And I am a junior agribusiness major, as well as a member of the SCSU football team.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Whoa! What position do you play?
VLADMIRE HAYNES: Fullback and tight end.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: All right! All right! It’s good to see you, and it’s a good question.
I think the way we do that is we make specific commitments. We can’t make environmental justice an afterthought. It has to be a part of our climate plan design from the beginning. So, partly, this is why I talk about a commitment, a financial commitment, that goes to the frontline and fenceline communities. Partly, it’s why I talk about the commitment to our Native American tribes and their dominion over not just their tribal lands, but the lands that are adjacent to them, because that’s what it takes to protect our Earth. Partly, it’s about attacking the health aspects, coming at this from a different perspective, so that we start to look at this as a public health problem and we lift that up. I think, in each case, the more attention we can bring and the more directions, that’s how we make sure that the communities that have been hardest hit are not left behind.
This is why, as president, I want to make this a part of what I do in the White House. I don’t want it something that people just come in — and by the way, I should add to that, I want to make it a part of what every agency does. So, I want our agencies, I want our banking regulators, to be thinking about climate risk. Think about that. I want them to be thinking about that. I want the — I want our Department of Labor to be thinking about what it means. The Trump administration has rolled back protections for people who work in dangerous areas, what they breathe, what kind of chemicals they’re exposed to. I want each and every one of our departments to have someone at the top, near the top, who is thinking about the environmental impact of what happens, what that agency approves of, what that agency is responsible for, and what it means in the communities that are most affected. We need a lot of change, big change, but I believe we can do this together. This is one of these that’s about leadership at the top, and it’s about powerful communities at the grassroots all across this country. That’s how we make change.
MUSTAFA ALI: Senator Warren, just a quick question. So, many of our most vulnerable communities are being gentrified.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah.
MUSTAFA ALI: They’re being gentrified from the impacts from climate change. They are being gentrified by the guise of revitalization. What would you do about this displacement that is continuing to happen?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: So, can I just do this one — I’ll start on housing, because this is the biggest area. We’ve got a housing crisis in this country. Gentrification is certainly part of it, but think about it in a larger context. Two generations ago, where was the source of new housing for working families, for the working poor, for the poor poor? Where was it? You had two places. One were private developers. They’re not there anymore. They’re not building that housing; they’re building McMansions. And I’m not mad at them; that’s where their profits are. But they’ve left the area. I grew up in a two-bedroom, one-bath little house. It was in the last row of — last street in Norman, Oklahoma. The garage had been converted into a bedroom for my three brothers. Nobody is building that house anymore. There are not private developers.
Second part is federal government, that used to pump money into housing and has really largely backed out of that. So, I have a plan for that. And that is to build about 3.2 million new housing units across America. We need more housing in America. And this is housing for working families. It’s housing for the working poor. It’s housing for the poor poor. It’s housing for the homeless. It’s housing for seniors who want to be able to age in place. It’s housing for people with disabilities who need specially outfitted housing. It’s housing for people who are returning from prison and who need a place to be able to live. We need to build more housing in this country. An independent analysis shows that my plan would reduce rents across the nation by about 10%. And what they do is they let people — we’ve got to get these down into the communities. They let people stay in the communities. They let people have new housing in those communities, housing that they can afford and be part of.
And then, one other little part, when you’re talking about housing, is the role that housing plays in wealth. You know, the number-one savings plan in America is buy a house, for middle-class families. Number-one retirement plan, live in your house and try to pay it off and then live on your Social Security when you retire. It’s the number-one way that wealth is transmitted from one generation to the next. If grandma and grandpa can hold onto the house until they pass, there’s something there for the kids and the grandkids and the great-grandkids. So it should be no surprise to you that for generations the American government, the federal government, subsidized the purchase of housing for white people and discriminated against the purchase of housing for black people. It’s called redlining. And it created a black-white wealth gap that continues even to this day because of the generational effects, as well as what’s happened in these communities.
So, my housing plan is not only about 3.2 million new housing units across this country, in little communities and big cities all across America. It also says we’ve got to stop and recognize the racial dimension of what happened here. So, I have first-time homebuyer assistance for people who live in formerly redlined communities, and people who were targeted during the financial crash and lost their homes, so we give people a chance to get back on level footing. We can’t keep passing these laws that are racially neutral on their face, where we say, “Oh, same housing for everybody.” We’ve got to acknowledge the past wrongs that are still felt today, the past official discrimination of the United States government that is still felt today, and we’ve got to take steps toward making that right. And that’s what my housing plan is about.
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren, just 30 seconds left. But speaking about racial injustice, do you think the order of the primary states should change? You have Iowa and New Hampshire —
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Wait, let me make — let me just — before you finish, are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?
AMY GOODMAN: No, I’m asking about the order.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: No, that is what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about.
AMY GOODMAN: But let me just ask. They’re two of the whitest states in the country, and then we move to South Carolina with a very significant population of people of color, and it means the candidates spend so much of their time catering to those first two states. Overall, do you think that should change?
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I’m just a player in the game on this one. And I am delighted to be in South Carolina. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much.
MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you, Senator.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: It’s good to see you.
AMY GOODMAN: Thank you.
SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Yeah. Oops, want to keep this?
AMY GOODMAN: Senator Elizabeth Warren.