2020 Climate Forum: Memorable Moments and Key Quotes

ON THE RECORD STAFF: Last week, twelve 2020 presidential candidates — eleven Democrats and one Republican — flocked to the Hilltop for a groundbreaking forum on climate change. For an hour each over the course of two days, the candidates answered questions from students and moderations about a wide range of climate topics, from energy policy and fossil fuels to the Paris climate accords and the Green New Deal.

Six staff writers for On the Record covered the forum, a joint project of MSNBC, the Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service, Our Daily Planet and New York Magazine. Here are each candidates’ most memorable moments and key quotes.

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Bernie Sanders

By Grady Stevens

Memorable moments: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) got on his feet early in the talk in an apparent moment of passion, and after asking the audience whether his standing was alright with them, he showed no sign of sitting back down. After a few minutes, moderator Chris Hayes joined Sanders on his feet, and the pair stood for the rest of the hour.

Sanders also backed the student strike for climate action, which was scheduled for the day after he spoke. “There's going to be a student strike — when is that, tomorrow?” Sanders asked. “I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow, but I’d like to be out on the picket line with you guys.”

Key climate quotes: Sanders previewed one of the most aggressive approaches to climate change proposed by any Democratic presidential contender. He pledged to use executive orders “very frequently and very aggressively” to address climate change in the event that he wins the White House but Democrats do not take the Senate.

Sanders likened his plan to nationalize parts of the energy industry to the country's mobilization during World War II. Sanders said the federal government would “be a major producer of wind, solar, and other sustainable energy, and then sell that out to utilities.”

Asked if he could get moderate vote on a climate change bill, Sanders said he would pressure recalcitrant legislators with appeals to the public. As an “organizer-in-chief,” he said he would visit states like West Virginia to make it clear to their elected representatives “that the time is now to save the planet and to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel.”

Pete Buttigieg

By John Woolley

Memorable moments: Pete Buttigieg, the Democratic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, received one of the strongest welcomes from the student crowd. One of his greatest applause lines came on the question of whether, as president, he would appoint a “climate czar” to head climate change efforts. “I think the climate czar has to be the President of the United States,” Buttigieg said.

“The way I think of it is that every choice we make has some moral weight,” Buttigieg said. “Through the gift of science, we have a better understanding of how things come to pass and a better understanding of our responsibility.”

Key climate quotes: “I think climate is a moral issue,” Buttigieg said. “This is about stewardship and this is about justice.” 

Buttigieg, more commonly known as “Mayor Pete,” called for a carbon tax and a major investment on climate reform: “I don’t want to minimize how much we’re going to invest in this because it’s over a trillion dollars.”

Buttigieg took a distinctive approach to the matter of job displacement, one of the most commonly raised issues during the forum. The mayor said that other candidates’ promises of new, green jobs to replace fossil fuel jobs neglect a key point — a person’s job is  often connected to their identity. “There’s a lot more to a job than a paycheck,” Buttigieg said.

Andrew Yang

By Jacob Denninger

Memorable moments: Businessman Andrew Yang’s signature campaign issue is his universal basic income plan for the federal government to give every American adult $1,000 every month. He connected this policy pitch to climate change at the forum, arguing that people can’t focus their efforts on climate change when they are having trouble paying their bills.He argued $1,000 a month would give people the breathing room to focus on the future and the issue of climate change. 

Yang also said that a climate change czar would be a good idea, and suggested former Washington governor Jay Inslee (D), who recently ended a presidential campaign focused squarely on climate change, for the position. On electric vehicles, Yang promised to lead by example and make the whole White House fleet electric. 

Key climate quote: Yang said climate change is an existential threat to mankind, calling it “Priority 1A.” But he connected it to his “Priority 1B” — automation, job loss, and inequality, his central campaign issues. He argued that it would be difficult to address climate change until those other issues were dealt with. 

Yang also said he didn’t know why other candidates were shying away from nuclear energy, given that other countries countries have been using nuclear energy effectively. “To me it would be irresponsible if you were a leader and manager not to consider every option.” Yang argued that next generation nuclear reactors are “almost ready for prime-time” and cleaner and safer than old plants.

Marianne Williamson

By Jacob Denninger

Memorable moments: Marianne Williamson, the Democratic presidential field’s dark horse spiritual adviser, warned of a “social collapse that is heading our way if we do not deal with climate reversal” and called for a “revolution in consciousness that starts with all of us waking up and recognizing the shift that needs to occur.” 

Williamson rejected the label of “anti-capitalist.” However, she said that the current economic system is “a virulent strain of capitalism that puts short-term shareholder profits before all else,” including the well-being of the environment.

Key climate quotes: “Our biggest problem when it comes to the issue of climate change is a psychological problem,”  Williamson said. Striking a familiar note, Williamson said that addressing climate change requires social, cultural, psychological, and spiritual buy-in from the public. She called for a mass mobilization akin to preparations for World War II. 

Williamson proposed appealing to a skeptical fossil fuel industry with patriotic appeals for help solving the problem of climate change. “Global catastrophe will be bad for everybody’s economy.”

Cory Booker

By John Woolley

Memorable moments: More than any other candidate in the two-day forum, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) emphasized climate change as an issue deeply intertwined with race and class. “I’m the only person in this race—only person in the United States Senate—who lives in a black or brown community below the poverty line,” Booker said.

 “Although there are issues of mass incarceration … environmental justice is one of the biggest crises in my community.” He pointed to asthma rates multiple times higher than suburban areas.

Booker also joked about his well-known vegan lifestyle. Respond to a question about his diet, he joked emphatically about his “radical vegan agenda.”

Key climate quotes: American achievement is a perpetual testimony to the achievement of the impossible,” Booker said. He struck an urgent, inspirational tone about the ability of the country to mobilize in response to the climate crisis. “This is the moral moment, now.”

Speaking of professions such as coal mining, Booker said “the Democratic Party cannot look down on any profession.”

“What we need to do is show them a future,” Booker said. “We have a plan.”

Julián Castro

By Jacob Denninger

Memorable moments: Julián Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and secretary of housing and urban development during the Obama administration, said he could help Democrats win his home state of Texas — a traditional Republican stronghold and major fossil fuel producer — despite his support for clean energy. He said that places like Houston that were part of the traditional energy economy are becoming a part of the clean energy economy, and that places like East Texas that have been battered by storms see the benefits of combating climate change. 

Castro said his first executive order as president would be to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords to signal to the world that we are ready to lead on climate. A Green New Deal package would be a lead legislative priority. He has also proposed creating a climate council to coordinate an all-hands-on-deck federal response. He said he thinks we can reach our climate goals if it’s an effort across all levels of government and the private sector. 

Key climate quotes: Castro argued in favor of lawsuits against fossil fuel companies and their executives who knew their companies were contributing to climate change. “We should not be bashful about holding individuals who were part of corporations and the corporations itself accountable.” 

Castro addressed his past support for fracking as mayor of San Antonio, saying natural gas was a “bridge fuel” from traditional fossil fuels to cleaner alternatives, and “we’re coming to the end of the bridge.” He has called for an immediate ban on fracking on public lands and a slower phase-out of the practice altogether.

Bill Weld

By TJ Mukundan

Memorable moments: Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, a Republican challenging President Trump for the 2020 Republican presidential nomination, was the only Republican to speak at the climate forum. His comments on climate represented a moderate approach to addressing climate change, while many of his most significant comments were sharp criticisms of Trump and other leaders of his own party. 

“I don’t know if [Republicans in Congress] have Stockholm syndrome and identify with their captor or are so obsessed with reelection that they can’t think about anything else,” Weld said of Republican officials’ reticence to speak out against Trump.

Trump, he said, “figures out the absolute worst thing he could say and then triples it. It’s simply unbelievable,” Weld said after listening to Trump’s comments about Puerto Rico after a pair of powerful hurricanes struck the territory.

Key climate quotes: Weld distinguished himself from many of the Democrats who spoke before him when it came to the specifics of climate policy.

“I do think the drafting of the Green New Deal is hopelessly unrealistic when it says ‘We’re going to offer everybody guaranteed basic income’,” Weld said, criticizing a plan proposed by progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and praised by many Democratic presidential candidates. Weld also said “we cannot turn our backs on nuclear power if we want to do this thing right … Being anti-nuclear power is an ideological luxury which we cannot afford.”

Weld called himself a “lifelong environmentalist” and said “the environment always was a Republican issue.” He identified stopping global temperature rise as one of his “top two issues,” the other being reducing the national budget deficit. He expressed support for carbon pricing — another term for a revenue-neutral carbon tax. And, Weld said, members of his party have to stop calling climate change a “hoax.”

Michael Bennet

By Shelby Jayne

Memorable moments: After a Georgetown student asked Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) about his vote for the Keystone XL pipeline, Bennet said he voted for it because he “thought that Mitch McConnell was very effectively weaponizing it.” 

The characteristically understated senator had harsh words for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He referred to the filibuster, as employed by Mitch McConnell, as a “bitter partisan process.”

“That is something I have said and I will say it again, I would never want anybody in this room, or my own kids, or anybody that I know to be as malevolent and cynical as Mitch McConnell,” Bennet said, earning laughter from the crowd.

Key climate quote: “This generation of Americans has a lot to be really angry at us about,” Bennet said about youth activists who criticize his generation’s insufficient action on the issue of climate change.

Still, Bennet cautioned against a too-aggressive approach to climate change policy. “We have to build a durable coalition” to address climate change, Bennet said,  including workers and others who may be hesitant about sweeping policy shifts. Nearing the end of the discussion, Bennet reiterated, “We have to look for systems that build coalitions.”

John Delaney

By Jeff Cirillo

Memorable moments: The core of former Maryland Democratic Rep. John Delaney’s climate policy is a “very big bet on American innovation.” Delaney proposed a range of approaches that seek to harness market forces, including subsidizing research into key technologies and a tax system that would disincentivize fossil fuel use.

Delaney hung his climate change credibility in part on his early opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline in the House of Representatives, calling the pipeline a “terrible symbol we were sending to the world” on the issue of climate change. “To me it was a real question of U.S. leadership, which obviously we don’t have right now.”

When Chris Hayes, the moderator, noted Delaney had been “running for president for a while now,” Delaney got his biggest laugh of the afternoon by making light of his low poll numbers. “I thought I’d clear the field,” he said.

Key climate quotes: Delaney advocated a second Paris climate conference — “Paris 2.0” — that would establish a global innovation compact to build new technologies, particularly mechanisms to efficiently transit energy and to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

Delaney called on the United States to take a leadership role in global climate efforts, promising a massive increase in Energy Department funding towards “moonshot” research.

He also said he would be the candidate best suited to getting major reforms passed through a divided Congress. He referenced a carbon tax bill he once introduced in Congress with two Democrats and two Republicans as cosponsors.

Tom Steyer

By John Woolley

Memorable moments: “I’m calling a state of emergency for the United States because it is an emergency,” said billionaire candidate Tom Steyer about climate change, promising to take the drastic step of “immediately”  using the president’s emergency powers to address the climate.

As for Trump’s actions on climate change, Steyer said the president is “abdicating his basic responsibility to the American people as commander-in-chief.”

Key climate quotes: The United States is “the essential country,” according to Steyer. “We are the country that has to lead on a moral and visionary basis.” He emphasized the failure thus far of countries under the Paris climate accords to reach key carbon emissions targets.

Steyer said the United States must take the lead in the international community to make more significant progress. But “for us to take leadership on this, we have to have our own house in order first,” Steyer said.

Tim Ryan

By Jacob Denninger

Memorable moments: Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio ), a long-shot presidential contender, represents the former industrial powerhouse of Youngstown, Ohio, which has been struggling economically with the decline in manufacturing jobs. Ryan repeatedly returned to the topic of regenerative agriculture, a farming strategy that stores carbon underground, reduces the use of fertilizer, stores water, and prevents flooding. Ryan said that he would incentivize regenerative agriculture by teaching the method to and providing government financial incentives to transition. 

Throughout his portion of the forum, Ryan advocated for lining up financial and profit incentives with environmental incentives. He argued for using the tax code, subsidies, and other government financial incentives to create a new framework and steer things in a different direction. 

Key climate quotes: “This is the greatest opportunity we have.” Ryan said fighting climate change can also mean bringing back manufacturing jobs. Ryan wants to build the clean energy machinery, including electric vehicles, changing stations, windmills, and solar panels in America.

One of his signature campaign proposals is the appointment of a “chief manufacturing officer “to guide the development of these industries and the improvement of our infrastructure. “There’s this new economy that’s just ready to bust out,” Ryan said, and all we need is a president that will help it to emerge.”

Steve Bullock

By John Woolley

Memorable moments: Democratic Montana Governor Steve Bullock noted that climate change is not solely an American issue — and that the United States is not the world’s only major polluter. “We cannot solve this issue alone,” Bullock said. “China emits twice as much CO2 as the US does.”

Bullock said the United States, as a major power, must provide assistance to smaller countries struggling with the effects of climate change. “Just as we’ve dealt with humanitarian aid … we have to deal with climate aid.”

Key climate quote: Bullock, like other candidates, said the public cannot be expected to focus on climate efforts if they lack economic stability. “It’s hard to make it to the end of the world when you can’t make it to the end of the month,” Bullock said. “It’s a lot harder to care about if you don’t know how you’re going to pay off your car bill or your medical bill.”

Contrasting his approach with Sanders and others, Bullock cautioned against aggressive executive action on climate change. “We can’t just address this by executive order alone,” he said. He noted that major Obama-era initiatives, without the backing of Congress, were quickly rolled back under President Trump.

Jeff Cirillo