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'A Year Ago I Wouldn't Have Believed It': Not Enough, But 2020 Climate Town Hall Hailed as Big Progress

"Gotta say that just seeing the words 'Climate Crisis' in red on screen is a victory for our movements."

CNN's marathon town hall Wednesday night, featuring ten of the top 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, "put the climate crisis closer to the center of a presidential election than ever before." (Photo: CNN)

Despite steady concerns that much of the news media—especially the corporate media in the United States—continues to downplay the far-reaching threat of the international emergency of rising air and ocean temperatures, climate campaigners and experts praised a town hall-style forum with 2020 Democrats candidates hosted by CNN Wednesday night as a hopeful sign of progress.

"10, 5, even 2 years ago—these were fringe ideas for mainstream Dems. This is what shifting the Overton window looks like. So much love for the movement tonight."
—Collin Rees, Oil Change International

"Gotta say that just seeing the words 'Climate Crisis' in red on screen is a victory for our movements," tweeted Canadian author and activist Naomi Klein as the evening of television kicked off and she praised the movement who pushed so hard for giving the issue the singular focus it deserves. "Finally the starting premise is correct and none of it would be happening without the work of millions."

Throughout the approximately seven-hour forum—with each of 10 candidates given 40 minutes to answer questions about the Green New Deal, fracking, nuclear power, the costs of transition, holding fossil fuel companies to account, how to offer justice to displaced workers and communities, and other key issues—the event had the desired result for many, regardless of the range of answers given, of putting the climate emergency front and center.

"Lots could be critiqued tonight," said Justin Worland, a journalist for TIME magazine, "[but] it still feels remarkable to see 7 hours of largely substantive talk on CNN where science is taken as a given and candidates face good questions about solutions. A year ago I wouldn't have believed it; makes me wonder where we'll be in a year."

At the conclusion, highlighting multiple mentions of the direct connection between the climate emergency and Hurricane Dorian, Klein agreed:

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Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change International, expressed a similar sentiment:

Despite the progress signaled by CNN's forum—and a pair of similar events to be held by MSNBC later this month—climate crisis experts argue that what took place Wednesday night is the least that should be done when it comes to addressing the issue.

Margaret Klein Salamon, founder and executive director of the Climate Mobilization and author of the forthcoming book "Facing the Climate Emergency," applauded the coverage offered by the town hall but said, "It cannot be a one and done thing."

"Last night was great start," she added, "but we still have a huge ways to go before Americans wake up the scope and extent of the climate emergency and make mobilization for a safe climate their overriding political priority. We can't let the climate emergency discussion get pushed to the backburner. Let's keep it at the forefront of news coverage the same way we would do regarding any truly existential crisis threatening every person on the planet."

"Last night was great start but we still have a huge ways to go before Americans wake up the scope and extent of the climate emergency and make mobilization for a safe climate their overriding political priority."
—Margaret Klein Salamon, Climate Mobilization
The Climate Mobilization has been organizing nationally behind a call for "a WWII-scale response to the climate emergency in the United States," pushing a resolution in the U.S. Congress that currently has 63 co-sponsors in the House and seven in the Senate. Of those in the Senate, six are among the Democratic contenders for the party's presidential nomination.

With the 2020 election in mind, campaigners like Klein Salamon agree that what is really needed is a comprehensive debate between candidates on one stage.

Despite the Democratic National Committee voting down a resolution last month that would have approved exactly that, groups like the Sunrise Movement are calling for the top Democratic candidates to buck the party's decision and hold a climate debate anyway.

"Together, you can make a Climate Debate happen," Sunrise stated in a blog post last week. "Storm the stage. They can't stop you all. What is Perez going to do; hold the remaining debates without you?" And continued:

Millions of Americans—especially young people—will tune in to see you share and contrast your vision for our generation’s transformational issue.

Town halls and forums are useful media tools, but they simple don't draw the same viewership as debates. Since the candidates aren’t on the stage at the same time—like they are in debates—many viewers will only tune in to see their favorite candidates.

That's why we need a climate debate, with all of the candidates on the same state, contrasting plans and addressing each other back and forth.

"The clock is ticking. Our future is on the line," the group stated. "This is an emergency. We need our presidential candidates to act like it, and stand on principle, not hide behind rules and resolutions made in some political backroom."

And as Klein Salamon asked: "What's more important political rules that are not reflected or even embraced by the leading Democratic candidates for president, who want to debate this issue—or protecting the country, humanity and the living world?"

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