Voters Seek Leadership On Climate Change At Forum With 2020 Candidates

Feb 5, 2020

Pete Buttigieg answers student questions about climate change at a town hall in Concord Wednesday.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Voters heard new specifics and a sense of urgency around climate change from several Democratic candidates at a youth-focused forum in Concord Wednesday.

Former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, businessman Andrew Yang were among the candidates present; others were represented by surrogates. 

With national media and top climate activists watching, they laid out their plans to tackle global warming and related equity issues, and took questions from students involved in sustainability fields and climate science.  

Klobuchar, appearing early in the morning before returning to Washington for the impeachment vote, says she would issue several executive orders on climate change during her first week in office, including undoing President Trump’s rollbacks of certain environmental regulations.

“I am convinced we can do it,” Klobuchar says. “But we have to have a president that can bring people with her and talk about it in a way that makes sense to people.”

Polls have long shown that climate change ranks in the top two or three issues for New Hampshire voters. Wednesday's event, hosted by the Hubbard Brook Research Foundation and others, less than a week from the primary, was one of voters’ first opportunities to hear the candidates focus on that issue in person.

(Click on a candidate below to read their climate change plan, or read our updated comparison.)

Some student panelists said a president who successfully tackles climate change will need to show moral leadership and communicate the immediacy and relevance of the issue to unconvinced voters, especially in swing states.

“I know that not every voter feels that climate is their central issue,” says Clarice Perryman, a UNH doctoral student studying wetlands and methane. “But candidates who want to be seen as a climate champion can make the connection between … ‘my climate plan and this other really important thing you care about’ – whether it's health care or the economy or jobs or trade.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick takes a selfie with voters at the youth climate town hall in Concord.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Pete Buttigieg has focused his climate efforts on “recruitment,” especially from communities that now rely on the fossil fuel industry.

"If everybody is vulnerable to climate harms, everybody can participate in the solution. And that's the corner I think we have to turn in order to actually get anything done,” he says. “This is too big, too important, too existential to be another partisan, political tug-of-war.”

Student panelists asked detailed questions about everything from climate curriculum in public schools, to the role of indigenous people in climate justice -- leading candidates to clarified some nuances of their plans.

(Watch the full video of the forum here.)

Buttigieg was asked what the federal government should do about the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long disinformation campaign about the harms of climate change.

“Part of what law enforcement is about is examining what laws were broken during that process,” Buttigieg said. “Any kind of wrongdoing that can be demonstrated, any kind of liability that was created through knowingly deceptive practices that caused concrete, measurable harm – that’s part of why we have a justice system to begin with.”

He stopped short of explicitly suggesting criminal prosecution for that deception, which candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden have supported.

(Click for our 2020 N.H. Primary Candidate Tracker: Where and When to See the Candidates)

Sanders was in Derry during the forum and was represented in Concord by Sunrise Movement co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash. She laid out the workers’ rights and racial justice elements of Sanders’ $16-trillion-dollar take on the Green New Deal.

“People have called his plan too ambitious or unrealistic or impractical,” Prakash says. “But the truth is, the reason why his plan is so ambitious and far-reaching is because it is actually grounded in the science and grounded in what justice has mandated is necessary to save millions of people’s lives."

Sanders opposes the continued use of nuclear power, a zero-carbon source of baseload power that also carries safety and waste concerns.

Pressed by a student panelist on the effects of phasing out the existing nuclear plants, Prakash said the goal would not be to close nuclear plants that could be replaced by fossil fuels.

Instead, she says leaders should prioritize pushing for rapid wind and solar power development.

Counter-protesters supporting President Trump wave at passing cars in downtown Concord, outside the climate forum.
Credit Annie Ropeik / NHPR

Along with Democrats Deval Patrick and Tom Steyer, and a surrogate for Sen. Warren, one Republican joined the mix at the forum – former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld.

He said he aims to make fossil fuel use untenable with a carbon tax - and he would take advantage of the bully pulpit. Weld said he accepts the idea of some intrusion into business and consumer freedom on the climate issue, which he calls an exception to his overall Libertarianism.

“The economies of scale, the amounts of money that have to be spent or diverted in the environmental area are so massive that you can’t really rely on a single business or single individual to solve that problem,” Weld says. “So it has to be the government.”

Undecided voter Neal Shartar of Sanbornton says Weld’s perspective was “refreshing,” representing “maybe an ounce of redemption for the Republican party” in the 2020 campaign.

Weld got just over 1 percent of the vote in the Iowa Republican caucuses, which Trump won.

With the New Hampshire primary now days away and the national campaign set to heat up soon, Shartar says he hopes candidates will keep climate change front and center.

He and other voters say more months of attention to the issue could cement what’s already been a breakthrough political moment for the global crisis.