For seven whole hours on Wednesday night, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls talked about our overheating planet at length (not that they had much of a choice). Rather than arguing or talking over each other, the candidates actually had the time and space to speak substantively on this complex issue at CNN’s Climate Crisis Town Hall, discussing carbon taxes, geoengineering, lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry, and much more.

There’s no question that the future president will have the weight of the world on their shoulders when it comes to tackling climate change. So which Democratic candidates did the heavy lifting on climate policy and wowed us with their know-how?

Livescience.Tech gathered experts who powered through the lengthy town hall (or at least some of it) and asked them to evaluate the candidates’ performances through the lens of science, politics, and environmental justice. Here’s what the 2020 hopefuls did well — and what they messed up — during the evening’s climate ultra-marathon. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Livescience.Tech / Leah Stokes

Leah Stokes

Assistant professor of political science, University of California, Santa Barbara

How much did she watch? All of it. (“I’m so f$#@ing tired.”)

CNN pushed candidates on sore spots, which I thought was impressive. We had Andrew Yang pushed on geoengineering — probably the first time that geoengineering has been talked about in any detail on national television.

We had Bernie Sanders pushed on nuclear, and he got fairly doomsday-ish. I mean, we have a lot of nuclear plants in this country. If it was as unsafe as he made it sound, things would be really bad!

Biden got pushed on the things that people have been trying to get him to clarify, and he really didn’t have great answers. Some of his answers sounded like Republican talking points: Yes, the U.S. only represents 15 percent of global emissions, and we must act with other nations, but it sounded like a reason to delay. And he ignored the fact that the U.S. is the driver of technology and innovation globally — so if the U.S. decarbonizes, it will affect every other country.

I think Warren was the best by far. She was so sharp. One point of weakness: her answer on nuclear was a little unclear. She sidestepped the issue of whether she’d extend the licenses of existing plants, which is what Sanders said he wouldn’t do. Nuclear is unpopular, so I think she was trying to thread a needle, but it left people saying she’s anti-nuclear. Otherwise, she knocked it out of the park.


Livescience.Tech / Sylvain Gaboury / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Jamie Margolin

17-year-old climate activist, cofounder of Zero Hour

How much did she watch? Snippets. “I was busy being a student and fighting the climate crisis so I couldn’t sit down more than 30 minutes at a time.”

The 2020 election is going to be my first voting election, and I am actually still undecided in terms of which Democratic candidate I’m voting for. It’s very historic that this climate town hall happened — you’re able to really dig deep and see who actually knows what they’re doing and who’s actually just talking and saying what sounds good.

There were answers where I could see that a politician still didn’t fully grasp the full gravity of the climate crisis and how radically fast we need to act on it. Pete Buttigieg does not fully understand the full extent of how urgent this crisis is. Joe Biden claimed that he’d never put fossil fuel money over children’s lives; that is so false on so many levels. And many candidates kept mentioning stupid late targets for net-zero carbon, like 2050, that are way, way past what we actually need in order to solve the climate crisis.

I’ll add that it was really refreshing to see young people in the audience asking questions. They did a really good job as people who are going to be seeing the worst effects of the climate crisis. That was a very powerful moment.


Livescience.Tech / Chuck Kennedy / MCT / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Bob Inglis

Former Republican U.S. representative for South Carolina

How much did he watch? Not everything, but he followed the highlight reel.

I was struck by the angry tone of so many of the questioners and the divisive rhetoric worked into the questioning. It’s not a way to win people over to action. What I’m really concerned about is, the Democratic base is driving Democratic candidates to a place where they will not win the general election.

For example, take the question that morphed climate change into a discussion of abortion with Bernie Sanders. Just give me a break. That just caused us to lose so much ground on climate action all across the Southeast. It just brought up the cultural difference. We’re trying to solve climate change — why bring up abortion? That may be your favorite hobby horse, but it’s a rickety hobby horse. Most people would not get on and ride it.

I would ask, how can we bring America together to solve this? How can people on the left speak to their neighbors on the right and generate consensus on a solution? You know, hats off to Pete Buttigieg for speaking in a bipartisan way, realizing the need to bring America together. I think it’s born of his experience serving in the military and being a mayor.

Some of these answers went veering off the road on the left down into the ditch. Trump, meanwhile, has his car over in the right-hand ditch. Somebody needs to figure out a way to drive up on the pavement.


Gabriel Reichler

Sunrise Movement activist

How much did he watch? The whole event. He was actually there!

As I tweeted last night, it was incredibly cold. I was joking that that need to have had something to do with their effort to utilize an extremely worthless method of adjusting to climate modification: a/c.

A great deal of incredible individuals remained in the space. There was most likely among the biggest collections of individuals I actually appreciate in one space at the very same time. In the start, I was extremely thrilled however a bit skeptical about what would come out of it.

A Few Of the prospects had actually incredible actions, and I appreciated how they were keeping the energy up. However then there were some prospects who simply couldn’t rather do that. Like needing to endure Joe Biden addressing things was simply anger and aggravation.

Even with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, there were a couple of points where they weren’t offering totally satisfying responses. Like Bernie had a rather unacceptable response about the filibuster, and Warren had some not so satisfying responses about things like nationalizing energies and military things.

There were some minutes when the moderate prospects provided shoutouts to Dawn and the motion and the activists who are really putting in the legwork. They were stating that the credit doesn’t actually come from them as prospects — it comes from us.


Livescience.Tech / Paul Archuleta / Getty Image

Mustafa Santiago Ali

Vice president for ecological justice, climate, and neighborhood revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation

How much did he see? “I made it through all of it, except for about 10 minutes. There was a storm that came through, and I have a satellite dish, so it went out for a second on Buttigieg.”

I believe the format was respectable. Fortunately, they had a variety of young activists and leaders who belonged to that procedure. I would have actually liked to have seen more variety in the space. I would have liked to have actually seen a mediator who has a background in climate or ecological justice. However compared to the previous governmental arguments, this was light years ahead.

When Secretary Castro discussed the require for civil liberties legislation, that was a transformational minute. A lot of folks don’t understand there’s been some genuine trouble at EPA around the usage of civil liberties laws to handle a few of these effects in susceptible neighborhoods.

Then you shift to Senator Klobuchar and her very first 7 days and what she would really do. I believe it benefited those who remain in the middle part of the nation to see themselves shown. I actually valued Senators Sanders and Warren speaking about the economy, and a simply shift, and how employees in Appalachia and on the Gulf Coast need to belong of this procedure.

I believed that Mayor Pete, when he started to discuss DOD and the military which they have actually currently acknowledged that climate modification is genuine and are considering it in their long-lasting preparation, was likewise actually crucial. I valued Senator Harris speaking about the require for more powerful enforcement, since for frontline neighborhoods, there has actually never ever sufficed enforcement.

And After That on Senator Booker, I actually valued him assisting to stroll individuals through these various kinds of effects that are occurring throughout the nation. When the prospects discuss their policies, I desire them to slow in the reality that’s going on in various parts of the nation. Theoretical discussions, they’re great, however they’re 20th century. We requirement 21st-century services.

Reporting by Nathanael Johnson, Paola Rosa-Aquino, Claire Thompson, Zoya Teirstein, and Nikhil Swaminathan

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