Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro gestures while speaking at the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in San Francisco. More than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls are making their way to California to curry favor with national party activists from around country. Democratic National Committee members will hear Friday from top contenders, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

2020 Democratic candidates turn focus to climate change

September 04, 2019 - 6:37 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — Climate change moved squarely to the center of the Democratic presidential race Wednesday in a marathon series of televised town halls that gave candidates a chance to carve out some distance from one another on an issue of heightened importance to their party's liberal base.

All 10 of the candidates participating in the CNN forums have proposed plans starting at $1 trillion for investment and research to wean the U.S. economy off oil, gas and coal. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro led off the town halls, fielding questions from nurses, teachers and a high school student, who asked why Castro had failed to call for banning the oilfield production method known as fracking.

Castro cited the extreme weather over the summer to illustrate the urgency of climate change.

"We see that now with Hurricane Dorian," he said. "The Arctic ice caps melting. The Amazon on fire. We don't need climate scientists to tell us what we see with our eyes."

The unique and lengthy climate conversations promised to hand Republicans ammunition for next year's general election fight by emphasizing one common element in the Democrats' climate change plans: their overwhelming — and overwhelmingly costly — scope. Even before the first candidate appeared, the GOP slammed the Democrats for making sweeping promises to reshape the American economy in a bid to bring down carbon emissions to a level that most scientists say could avert the most devastating effects of global warming.

President Donald Trump began tweeting almost as soon as the forums kicked off, calling Democrats' proposals to address climate change unnecessary and costly.

"The Democrats' destructive "environmental" proposals will raise your energy bill and prices at the pump," Trump warned.

Democrats spent the run-up to the event burnishing their environmental credentials, with five candidates releasing in-depth proposals to slash carbon emissions. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders went further, challenging his rivals for the party's presidential nomination to join him in supporting a full ban on the oil and gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which is strongly opposed by most environmentalists.

But while Sanders worked to differentiate himself from former Vice President Joe Biden — who has held an early lead in the Democratic primary and has pledged to regulate, though not abolish, hydraulic fracturing — the Republican National Committee was criticizing both Sanders and Biden for "radical climate policies."

Another top Republican went after Democrats for proposing climate platforms too aggressive to earn any bipartisan support in Congress.

"The gap between rhetoric and reality among Democrats has gotten out of hand," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden contended that nuclear power must remain part of any workable climate plan. Nuclear currently generates an estimated one-fifth of U.S. electricity.

While Biden's plan leaves room for nuclear to remain a power-generation option, Sanders would seek to eliminate it outright. Two other leading presidential candidates, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and California Sen. Kamala Harris, have not yet specified how they would approach nuclear power.

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