Opinion: CNN’s climate town hall was incredibly important and deeply unwatchable

Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg
Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg released his plan for responding to climate change Wednesday, in advance of the CNN climate session.
(Los Angeles Times)

I did not see the entirety of the climate change town halls last night because I was at work for part of it. I’d venture a guess you didn’t either. CNN deserves credit for hosting an important conversation, yes, but gets marked down for making it so deeply unwatchable.

For one, the “climate town hall” was fully seven hours long. We need way more than seven hours’ worth of news coverage on the fact that humans are driving toward full-scale ecological collapse, so I can hardly quibble with the length. (Cue Zoolander voice: “It needs to be at least three times bigger than this!!!”) But why not split the town hall across multiple nights, as CNN has with the Democratic presidential debates?

As ever, to be fair, it’s mostly the Democratic National Committee’s fault for refusing to hold an official climate debate.

Unlike the DNC’s debates, the climate town hall was paywalled on CNN’s website, which means that those adults least likely to have a television in their homes — millennials — were unable to watch. And millennials were unlikely to pay to watch on the site because we’re largely broke. Not unlike global warming, my generation’s financial precarity is a condition of life that elder generations have gifted.


My point is that if you missed all or part of the conversation, that’s not on you. Despite featuring 10 Democratic candidates — including current field leaders Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden — the town hall missed most of the headlines today. (When you go scrolling through the homepage of any major American newspaper website, make sure you have your microscope ready.) But if you’re scrambling to put what happened together, the live blog that the Guardian ran throughout the evening is a great place to start.

My kvetching ends there. The conversation was interesting and the forum format was fitting. Nobody wants to see the Dems dragging each other for soundbites when the fate of human life on this planet is at stake.

To be sure, there were still some soundbites. Biden getting lost in his own mind about whether the guy hosting his fundraiser was or was not, in fact, a fossil fuel industry insider. (He is.) Warren telling moderator Chris Cuomo, whose soapy, cheap demeanor is perfect for the end-of-days, “Oh, come on, give me a break!” when he pressed her on whether the government should really be in the business of regulating Big Lightbulb.

Putting aside the entertainment factor, here are three short takeaways from a long evening:

We need to talk about the hard stuff

Some people undoubtedly went to bed mad that Sanders said we need to control human population growth. Obviously, there needs to be a discussion of how such a premise would be executed. But, as a fact, we can hardly squabble with it. The planet needs fewer humans.

Every conscientious person who is having children right now is thinking about two things: 1) whether having children makes meta sense on an overpopulated planet, and 2) whether their kids are going to fry alive in the climate change apocalypse.

That doesn’t mean they’re not having kids. (Though many, for a variety of reasons including climate change, are not.) But they are thinking about these things first. Raising the consciousness of this issue seems like the bare minimum. The responsible thing to do would be to talk more openly, not less, about it. We can’t be afraid to call population growth an issue. No, that doesn’t mean I love your 10 kids any less.

That includes disparate impact

Examples abound of efforts to combat population growth that were executed terribly, unjustly or in ways that were baldly racist. Many analysts of climate change have finger-pointed at population growth, particularly in poor communities, communities of color and developing countries, without raising the tiny point that billionaires and wealthy nations are far more responsible for emissions. These communities and countries are too often scapegoated when they’ve been the target of terrific environmental injustice and inequality, and they have the least access to adaptation schemes.

We need to engage these communities in the fight against climate change, listen and give them the resources they need to lead on solutions that will work for them. Cory Booker did a particularly nice job of bringing this point to the fore.

Climate change is a moral issue.

I hated seeing Jay Inslee drop out of the race, not because I thought he could win, but because he talked about climate change as the issue around which all others are defined. If humans don’t exist, who cares about what kind of healthcare we have?

Global warming is a scary thing to talk about. I can hardly think about it without panicking, and I think about it every day. The parts of Canada and the United States that my family is spread across have already changed drastically, and for the worse, but I have memories of how naturally verdant these places were. I enjoyed them without fear that they would disappear.

Imagine being 12 years old right now and not having even that. Pete Buttigieg drove this point home well, though he occasionally did so in the folksy “our-shared-faith” way that is deeply disturbing on a church and state level and often effective on a political level. He talked about the moral dimensions of the crisis and what it means for future generations.

When Buttigieg dropped the word “sin,” I sat up straight. If we let it get hot enough, hell can truly be a place on Earth!

The Amazon is on fire. It’s never coming back, not in the same way. When the debate ended, CNN flipped to coverage of Hurricane Dorian. We will see the increase in average global temperature reach 2-degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, a crucial environmental tipping point, as soon as 2030.

Earth will survive either way — degraded, decimated and perhaps, in millions of years, regenerated. If we continue to do less than nothing, it’s we who are toast.