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Commentary: Why Trump’s hurricane map overshadowed CNN’s climate town hall

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left onstage, with Chris Cuomo, in front of an audience during the climate town hall on CNN.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left onstage, with Chris Cuomo, during the climate town hall on CNN.
(CNN)

It takes a collision of conflicting elements to create the perfect storm, and that’s exactly what happened Wednesday when deniers and decriers of climate change were swept into a super-charged news cycle, pitted against the reality of Hurricane Dorian.

The cyclone had already flattened the Bahamas and was ripping up Florida’s coast when CNN’s auspiciously timed climate crisis town hall, a seven-hour live event featuring 10 Democratic presidential candidates addressing global warming, entered the media fray.

If there was ever a time we needed leaders (or future leaders) to address the disaster with candor, compassion and actionable strategy, this was it.

But as the candidates took the stage separately to answer questions from the network’s anchors and an audience of Democratic and independent voters, interrupted frequently by breaking new reports of Dorian’s carnage, social media was reacting to another reckless tempest.

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Fabricated crisis in the form of an apparently doctored hurricane projection map produced by President Trump, and an absurd partisan fight over lightbulbs, lit up Twitter.

So much for substance when our attention span demands tension. The drama of a category 3 hurricane and the terrifying projections unpacked during the CNN forum still weren’t sensational — maybe the word is “sophomoric” — enough to wean us off our need for man-made spectacle.

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro set the apocalyptic tone by telling Wolf Blitzer that, as president, dealing with the man-made issues contributing to climate change, and the effects of a warming planet (rising sea levels, hotter temperatures) would be a top priority and that he takes “this existential threat seriously.”

The urgency was ratcheted up to disaster film levels by the time Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar spoke midway through the forum and stressed that global warming is not a future threat — it’s happening right now. Like, now. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally broke the dire meter when he rasped: “We are fighting for the survival of the planet Earth!”

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Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Joe Biden and the rest of the gang also delivered plenty of smart and even actionable ideas — as well as meme-producing gaffes — in response to questions from Erin Burnett, Anderson Cooper, Chris Cuomo and Don Lemon. (A number of candidates also announced aggressive plans to fight climate change in advance of the telecast.)

Still, the CNN event didn’t deliver the same marketable tension, or elicit the same social media reaction, as the Democratic presidential debates and other notable sideshows spun out of Washington.

Two nights. Twenty contenders. Dozens of promises. One election that’s still 17 months away.

There was little political theater because there were no reality show-worthy insults or personal attacks. Everyone that walked on stage was at least professional enough to pay attention to the the true enemy: global warming.

Had this been a forum of Republican candidates, it would have been an entirely different production, and likely a media spectacle. Fox’s “Climate Change: Another Obama Hoax?” town hall would start at the beginning. “Is global warming real?” Prove it, they might ask, in between news breaks showing homes underwater and trees splintered into popsicle sticks.

Then, on to Crooked Hilary, and Exxon breathes a sigh of relief.

As Dorian raged Wednesday and the National Hurricane Center warned the Carolinas of “historic and likely life threatening flooding,” right-wing media were busy applauding the Trump administration’s continued rollback of environmental regulations: in this case, curbing the federal rules that would have required Americans to switch to energy-efficient lightbulbs from an older type of bulb that contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. Priorities.

To be fair, the White House was focused on the storm, or at least their version of it. During an Oval Office briefing Wednesday, Trump showed a map of the National Hurricane Center forecast from last week that appeared to be doctored with black Sharpie to show that Alabama — a state that few, if any, meteorologists said was under threat — was in Dorian’s potential path.

The questionable map came after Trump incorrectly tweeted over the weekend that it was headed for Alabama. The National Weather Service in Birmingham, Ala., responded by tweeting “Alabama will NOT see any impacts from #Dorian. We repeat, no impacts from Hurricane #Dorian will be felt across Alabama. The system will remain too far east.”

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But how can a Sharpie-scrawled alteration be wrong?

Democratic candidate Marianne Williamson didn’t need indelible ink when she tweeted, then deleted, Wednesday that the “power of mind” might stop Hurricane Dorian: “The Bahamas, Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas... may all be in our prayers now,” she wrote. “Millions of us seeing Dorian turn away from land is not a wacky idea; it is a creative use of the power of the mind. Two minutes of prayer, visualization, meditation for those in the way of the storm.”

Despite the town hall, apparently doctored map, lightbulb victory and crystal persuasion, the storm surged. The East Coast is flooding, people are losing their homes and possibly their lives and loved ones.

And the melee here on the ground feeds the storm up in the sky, and dozens more on the horizon.


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