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CNN Live Event/Special

Climate Crisis Town Hall With Julian Castro (D), Presidential Candidate. Aired 5-5:40p ET

Aired September 04, 2019 - 17:00   ET




JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Presidential candidates starts right now. Thanks for watching.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST (voice-over): Good evening and welcome to the CNN Democratic presidential town hall on the climate crisis. I want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer.

Tonight, the top 10 Democratic presidential candidates will be here on this stage in New York City, appearing one by one for the next seven hours. This unprecedented town hall is dedicated to the climate crisis, an issue many voters say needs aggressive action and scientists say that action needs to happen now.

We're seeing firsthand the effects of climate change as a powerful Atlantic hurricane is sitting right now off the coast of Florida. It could make landfall tomorrow in South Carolina.

Tonight, Democratic and independent voters will be asking the questions live here in our audience and also by video. And CNN's chief climate correspondent, Bill Weir, will join in the questioning as well. My colleagues and I will help guide the conversation.

Later tonight, former vice president Joe Biden, Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, they will all be here. So let's begin with former HUD secretary Julian Castro.



BLITZER: Welcome.

CASTRO: Thank you.

BLITZER: Secretary Castro, welcome. Thanks very much for coming in.

CASTRO: Great to be here with you. BLITZER: This is an important evening for all of us. As you know, scientists already are telling us that we're seeing the consequences of the climate crisis right now. But we'll cross what's seen as a massive tipping point, a massive tipping point if the world warms more than 1.5 degrees Celsius or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

We've already warmed up the planet 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. So we're now more than halfway there.

What would be your first step to address a crisis of this magnitude?

CASTRO: Well, and first of all, Wolf, I want to say thank you to you, to CNN for hosting such a historic event for the Democratic presidential nominees on such an important topic.


CASTRO: And to all of the folks here in the audience and everybody that's watching. I also want to give a shoutout to Governor Jay Inslee, who did a fantastic job of bringing this issue to the forum of this campaign as well as to folks like the League of Conservation Voters and the Sunrise Movement that have been pushing for those of us who are running for president to address this as we should.

What you've described is the most existential threat to our country's future. And the U.N. has told us that we have about 12 years to get this right or the consequences could be catastrophic. We see that now.

You mentioned Hurricane Dorian that's about to hit landfall. These hurricanes are happening more frequently and they're happening with greater intensity. It seems like these floods, that they call 500- year floods, are happening every other year now.

We see the arctic ice caps that are melting, the Amazon on fire. So we don't need client -- climate scientists to tell us what we see with our own eyes, although their report is striking.

When I see these things, when I hear about them, what I think of are my own two children, my daughter, Carina, and my son Cristian, who are 10 and 4. And there's a resolve to make sure that our children inherit a planet that is healthy, where they're going to breathe clean air and drink clean water.


BLITZER: So what would your first step be in dealing with this crisis?

CASTRO: So first of all, I believe that, on the afternoon of January 20th, 2021 at 12:01 pm, we're going to have a Democratic president, a Democratic House and a Democratic Senate.


CASTRO: My first executive order that afternoon will be to rejoin the Paris climate accord so that we lead again on sustainability. But it's actually what comes next after that that is the most important, a series of other executive actions and legislation. Just yesterday I put out a plan called, People First, Planet First.


CASTRO: And we would make investments to get the United States to net zero by 2045. We would incentivize wind energy production, solar energy production, invest in renewables.

We would challenge the rest of the world at latest to get to net zero by 2050. We would institute a carbon pollution fee to help make the investments that we need to make. We would also take executive orders, for instance, prohibiting fossil fuel exploration, permitting of it and extraction on federal lands.

So we would take a number of steps to make sure that we hit those targets that we need to hit in the United States by 2045 to get to net zero and then work with countries around the world to get to net zero by 2050.

BLITZER: All right. Let's get to the questions. As we've said, Hurricane Dorian is continuing to threaten the East Coast as we speak right now. It's sitting off the coast of Florida. Our first guest tonight is Lisa Rinaman from Jacksonville, Florida. She is the St. John's Riverkeeper, advocating for that river's health in the community. She's on video.

LISA RENNEMAN, ST. JOHN'S RIVERKEEPER: Sea level around Florida is up to 8 inches higher than it was in 1950. Unfortunately, every inch of sea level rise makes hurricanes even more damaging due to increased storm surge along our coast and further inland along our rivers.

This threat is made worse due to aging infrastructure that was not designed to deal with rising waters.

What will you do to address this growing threat?

CASTRO: I appreciate that question. I'm running for president and I'm one of the few folks that are running that actually has executive experience. So when I was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development for President Obama, one of the things that we worked on was something called the National Disaster Resilience Competition.

This was a billion-dollar competition among communities that had been hit by a natural disaster within a few years before applying for funds. The goal was to invest in those communities so that they could recover in a more sustainable way and be prepared in case there's another natural disaster.

My plan calls for investing in national disaster resilience investment and also, very importantly, in pre-disaster mitigation. We don't want to wait until there's a natural disaster to actually make our communities more sustainable. I would invest in that.

And then most importantly, we actually have to tackle the issue of the climate crisis so that these storms are less likely to happen in the first place. And that means the entire menu of investments that we need to make to cut down on carbon emissions and slow the process of the climate crisis.

BLITZER: We have a question, Mr. Secretary, from Emily Wilkins from Durham, North Carolina, a state that could see significant flooding as you know, as Hurricane Dorian makes its way toward there. She's a retired middle school teacher -- Emily.

EMILY WILKINS, RETIRED TEACHER: Thank you. This is a very common and very personal question. The credit union, the state employee's credit union in North Carolina, my husband and I own our one and only 2,000 square-foot house, which is in the 500-year flood plane.

We are required to carry FEMA flood insurance. But it rises in cost 18 percent every year. We may lose our house at some point when we can no longer afford the insurance.

What proposals of yours would help us stay in our home?

CASTRO: Yes. Thank you very much for that question. And your situation is like the situation that a lot of Americans find themselves in.

I remember when I was a councilman in San Antonio and we had this flash flood that happened in 2002. There were about 150 homes that were affected by it. And a lot of the folks that were affected by it found out that they had no recourse, they had no flood insurance.

So I've seen it from that perspective and we need to make sure that more people are protected by our national flood insurance program. The challenge, as you point out, is that too oftentimes it's getting so expensive that folks can't afford it.

So here's what I would do. In my plan, we actually help subsidize the cost for folks because I want to make sure that people are protected, that their property is protected. And in those instances where, because of a natural disaster, they have to rebuild, that they're able to do that.

When I was HUD secretary I traveled to places like Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


CASTRO: And I traveled to the Rockaways and watched as people, who had built their entire livelihood -- and this was their only asset really, their home -- felt helpless, like there was nothing that they could do because they had lost it all.

I want to make sure that people are protected and that's why we would make an investment in the national flood insurance program not only to make sure that it's around but to strengthen it and improve it for everyday Americans who need it.

And we also recognize that there's a component of environmental justice at work here, too, because you all know that oftentimes the first folks to get flooded out are the poorest communities. They're often communities of color. They're the ones that can least afford to deal with the climate crisis.


CASTRO: I grew up, my brother, Joaquin, and I grew up on the west side of San Antonio and there were still a lot of streets there -- and I'm sure many folks here in the audience can relate to this -- there are a lot of places in those neighborhoods that, all it had to do was rain a little bit and people's property would get flooded out.

Or they would, you know, it would start -- the water would start creeping into their garage or their living room, their part of the house. As we experience more storms with more intensity, we need to both take the right steps to prevent climate change so that that won't happen.

But then when it does, if it does, to address it, no matter who you are, and make it affordable, in part, through that national flood insurance program.

BLITZER: All right.

CASTRO: I'm committed to doing that.

BLITZER: We have a question from Mecoly Dong, who recently graduated from New York University, now works at a jewelry company here in New York City.

Go ahead, Mecoly.

MECOLY DONG, JEWELRY COMPANY EMPLOYEE: Hi. My question for you is, what is your plan for holding corporations accountable for their contributions towards pollution, deforestation and other climate change-inducing activity?

CASTRO: Yes, thank you very much for the question. First of all, we need to end the influence of big special interests in Washington, D.C. That starts by ending Citizens United so that the people and not corporations speak in Washington D.C.


CASTRO: I think this is an important first place to start because, throughout my time in public service, I've been committed to that. When I was a city councilman, for instance, I introduced successfully the first campaign finance legislation in San Antonio City Council history.

It used to be like the wild west basically. There were no limits. We imposed limits; we strengthened the ethics code. And then when I was mayor, we did the same thing. I would do that as president.

So what we're going to do is we're going to impose a carbon pollution fee on the biggest polluters, industrial scale polluters -- (APPLAUSE)

CASTRO: -- we're also going to set a clean energy standard and ensure that we're able to get to net zero because we have a strong clean energy standard across the United States.

And we're going to crack down on corporations that violate our laws. I'm going to appoint an EPA administrator that actually believes in environmental protection and then goes and enforces those laws in the next administration.


BLITZER: You just mentioned cracking down on corporations. When you were secretary, as part of your climate plan, your new climate plan, you said you would empower the EPA to pursue environmental justice against corporate polluters. That's what you said.

Who are the corporate polluters and how are you going to go after them?

CASTRO: Well, right now I think there are too many to count, Wolf. I mean, there are many companies across the United States that are basically shoving off the negative externality of the cost of their business onto the public by polluting.

And so, number one, we would have an EPA that actually is going to enforce the Clean Air Act. We would also strengthen the clean power rule. We would ensure that we're able to implement a carbon pollution fee and then use that revenue to make investments that we need to make to get to net zero.

And we wouldn't be afraid of taking these folks to court and enforcing these laws. I believe that by doing those things we can hold these corporations accountable and ensure that we set a standard of compliance unlike never before in our country.

And we need to do that because, the fact is that this administration, the Trump administration, has let them off the hook.

I mean, they're appointing lobbyists all over the EPA and other departments that are in charge of enforcing these important environmental laws. I would go in the opposite direction and not only appoint people who believe in enforcing our laws but strengthen our laws.

BLITZER: We've got a question from John Ingram from New York City, he's a retired teacher and an administrator, he's also active with the climate group -- John.

JOHN INGRAM, RETIRED TEACHER: Good evening, Mr. Castro. And thank you for your campaign.


INGRAM: Is it fair for us to expect our children to continue the cycle of family and generation in a world whose chaotic climate future we knowingly create and so far have done little to address?

CASTRO: Well, I think you're right, that we're basically passing off onto our children -- for those who can't hear it is a phone that just went off.

Right now if we don't act, we're passing off to our children, to our grandchildren and future generations a problem that we can solve. And I know, as a parent, that I want to make sure that my children don't have to grapple with the challenge on climate that we're having to grapple with.

And so that's why I believe that we don't have any time to waste. This generation needs to act. This is the call of our generation. And if I'm elected president, I will make sure, for my first day in office, that we take this existential threat seriously, that we do that for the benefit of our children and future generations.

And also, this is an important point, that we see this as an extraordinary opportunity to unleash tremendous economic potential, good jobs for people that need them in our country.


CASTRO: So I see the part that we're giving to our children. By taking these actions and making these investments, is the chance to have a good job, to have a good livelihood, to provide for their families. That's part of, I think, the silver lining that will come out of acting now and acting with urgency against the climate crisis.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, Sila Inanoglu lives in Massachusetts. She sent us this question via video. She's a high school student, a climate activist with the Sunrise Movement, she will vote for the first time in the presidential election next fall. Her question is about fracking, a process of oil and gas drilling that's led to a significant increase in American energy production and jobs but also raises serious environmental concerns -- Sila.

SILA INANOGLU, HIGH SCHOOL STUDENT AND FIRST-TIME VOTER: Reports warn that we only have 11 years to get off fossil fuels to have a safe, livable future.

But as mayor of San Antonio, you welcomed the fracking boom.

Why should we trust you as president to transition our economy to renewables, given your past middle ground approach?

CASTRO: I appreciate the question from Cila and I want to commend the Sunrise Movement. As you know, they've been pushing for a Democratic climate debate, which I hope happens.

I'm glad that we're having this --


CASTRO: -- I'm glad that we're having this conversation today. So first of all, she's right. When I was mayor of San Antonio, I did believe that there were opportunities to be had in fracking that was going on in South Texas.

The thing is that, back then, which was almost a decade ago, we had been saying that natural gas was a bridge fuel. We're coming to the end of the bridge. And my plan calls for moving toward clean, renewable, zero emission energy in the years to come. That's what I would focus on.

A good example of that is that, a few days ago, I was in Iowa, in Newton, Iowa. And I visited this company called TPI. Newton used to have a Maytag facility that made washing machines, manufactured them there. And then it closed.

And TPI came in and they manufacture wind turbines. They put 750 jobs, decent paying jobs, put people back to work that had been out of work. In other words, this transition is already happening.

Two of the fastest growing jobs in our country are wind turbine service technician and solar panel installer. They're already growing tremendously. In Texas, in my home state of Texas, last month, there was more energy generated from wind than from coal.

And today --


CASTRO: -- today, in Iowa, y'all can imagine, I mean we've been spending -- everybody's been spending quite a bit of time in Iowa. In Iowa, in 95 out of the 99 counties in that state, wind is already the cheapest source of energy. And in the other four, it's solar. So we've been working for years on this and we're ready to make that transition.

BLITZER: So just to clarify on fracking, if you were president, would you ban fracking?

Would you ban fossil fuel exports?

CASTRO: Look, I support local communities and states that want to ban fracking. I have not called for an immediate ban on fracking.


CASTRO: What I am doing is moving us away from fracking and natural gas and investing in wind energy, solar energy, other renewables to get us to net zero by 2045.

BLITZER: So are you in favor of a carbon-free America?

And if so, by when?

CASTRO: I am in favor of a carbon-free America. I believe that we can get to net zero by 2045 and that we can achieve, in our electricity sector, for instance, relying on clean, renewable and zero emissions energy by 2035.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, we have a lot more questions just ahead. Plus, remember nine more candidates, including Senator Kamala Harris, former Vice President Joe Biden, others. We'll take a quick break and we'll be right back.





BLITZER: Welcome back to our CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall. Next we'll be hearing from business man Andrew Yang and Senator Kamala Harris. Let's continue right now with Secretary Julian Castro.

I want to bring in, Mr. Secretary, Ari Moma. He's a registered nurse from Brooklyn.

ARI MOMA, REGISTERED NURSE: Good evening. I work as a registered nurse at Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn. We are considered a safety net hospital located in a low income community.


MOMA: Oftentimes communities like these are the ones who suffer the most from climate change and environmental inequities.

What will your administration do to give voice to this issue, also known as environmental racism?

CASTRO: Yes. All right, thank you very much for the question. Thank you for your work as a registered nurse. We know that this climate crisis is going to affect all Americans and all folks around the world.

But as I mentioned a little bit earlier, we also know that it's going to hit some people particularly hard, people -- the first people to get affected. And I -- after I announced my campaign, the first visit that I made was not to Iowa or to New Hampshire. It was to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to tell the people of the island there that we were with them and we would make sure that they could recover from Hurricane Maria.

When I was there, I went into this neighborhood called La Playita (ph). And I met on the street a gentleman who was 90 years old, who had a can of paint on the ground. He was rail thin and he was painting back his property that had been damaged in the hurricane.

And I think about that gentleman in La Playita, I think about poor communities along the East Coast, I think about, frankly, I connect the dots to places like Flint, Michigan, and I know that too oftentimes it's people who are poor, communities of color who take the brunt of storms that are getting more frequent and more powerful.

And so my plan actually calls for new civil rights legislation to be able to address environmental injustice, including -- (APPLAUSE)

CASTRO: -- including making sure that there's a private right of action to go -- to file lawsuits against polluters.

This is the way that it used to be until a Supreme Court case a few years ago. The problem is that, when you get administrations like the Trump administration, you can't rely on the government to make a claim.

I want to vest that power back in the people so that when we can show a disparate impact of certain practices of companies, of polluters that everyday Americans are able to file suit to try and get some sort of recourse.

I also believe that we need to invest in these communities and their ability to withstand storms and other natural disasters and their ability to have something as simple as clean water or breathe clean air.

When I was Secretary of Housing, one of the things that I found out was that 70 percent of HUD-funded public housing or subsidized housing was within a mile of a superfund site. Think about that.

That's the environmental racism and injustice that we're dealing with and my plan would equip Americans with the tools to fight back and also make investments so that we can bring justice to right now what is a tremendous injustice.


BLITZER: Secretary Castro, I want to bring in CNN's chief climate correspondent, Bill Weir.

BILL WEIR, CNN HOST: Secretary Castro, good to see you. I brought back some beauty shots to frame my question.

This is Tongass National Forest up in Alaska, the last great temperate rain forest left on Earth, old growth trees, 500 years old, an amazing array of biodiversity. And I went there because President Trump and the governor of Alaska want to open about 9 million acres of this for new roads and mining and logging operations.

You propose setting aside half of American land and oceans for wildlife, for biodiversity.

Where does that come from?

Where do you get the thousands of square miles when places like Tongass aren't really that protected obviously?

CASTRO: Thank you very much, Bill, for the question and thank you for bringing us some delightful images amidst all of this talk. But that's because we need to go and we actually need to undo the damage that this administration has done and then expand the lands that we're protecting in our country. We can do that. A few weeks ago, before I put out my climate plan, I

actually put out something that we called PAW, protecting animals and wildlife. And I have to be honest with y'all, some people when they heard that, were like, what?

You're putting out a plan to protect animals and wildlife?

[17:30:00] It's not usually something that a lot of presidential candidates do. But again, we need to connect the dots. I've connected the dots of actually preserving more of our lands both for the benefit of wildlife and for our benefit to combat climate change. And so we would go back and reclassify places like Bear's Ear and other land that this administration has gone backward on, and then look for other land that we can also protect and preserve. And we need to do it. We need to do it and we can do it.


BLITZER: Secretary Castro, would you end oil and gas drilling on public lands?

CASTRO: Yes, I would - I would prohibit the permitting of oil and gas leasing on public lands. I don't believe that that should happen on our public lands. I think that that goes contrary to the purpose of preserving public lands, and this is consistent with moving to sources of clean renewable energy instead of dirty fossil fuel energy.

BLITZER: Let's go to Kathleen Nolan who's from Mount Tremper, New York. She's a pediatrician, bioethicist and the senior research director for Catskill Mountain Keeper where she works on issues related to the health impacts of fracking. She's also an elected county legislator. Kathleen, go ahead.

KATHLEEN NOLAN, MOUNT TREMPER, NEW YORK RESIDENT: Good evening. Do you see any point in your career in public service where you wish that you had taken more forceful action to protect the quality of our air, water and soil, and what would you do differently if you faced a similar point today?

CASTRO: You know I think that looking back at the challenge that we have with this U.N. report that says now I guess it's 11 years that we have left, it was 12 years in 2018 when they released it. I think many of us look back and say, "Wow, the earlier we could start the better." So of course if I were Mayor of San Antonio again, would I approach things a little bit differently? Yes, perhaps. But I also know that there are some ways that I've stood up, for instance, for clean water.

When I was 26 years old I got elected to the city council and I was employed at the biggest law firm in town. A few months after I got elected, the law firm got a client and the client of our law firm wanted us to incentivize a land deal, and the land deal was to build a golf course over our water supply because we relied on an underground aquifer in San Antonio for water. And I wanted to vote against it because I figured that all of the chemicals that you would use on that golf course could endanger -- compromise the integrity of the water. But under the ethics rules for lawyers you can't just go against the interests of a client of the law firm that you work for.

So I was stuck. I had a decision to make. My livelihood, the new house I had bought, the loan payments, school loan payment that I had, the car payment, my livelihood basically depended on me shutting up and taking a conflict of interest and telling my constituents that wanted to vote against this because they were afraid of what might happen to our water, telling them, "Hey, I can't help you out because I have this conflict."

So one day, I walked into the law firm that I worked at and I quit my job and then I went and I voted against that land deal on the city council. So, you know, I will do the same thing to stand up for protecting our air, our water, our natural resources, our wildlife if I'm elected president. There's nobody that gets tested more in public service than the President of the United States. This president has failed that test. I won't.


[17:35:00] BLITZER: Secretary Castro, what's the biggest personal sacrifice you're asking the American people to make in order to deal with this crisis?

CASTRO: Well, all of us have a role to play in making sure that we do right by our environment, right? It's amazing, for instance, I think of my kids today. We're raising a generation that is much more environmental conscious. It's second nature for them, for instance, to recycle. Remember, you know, even my generation growing up, certainly other folks know it wasn't the same. I think the number one thing that we can do is to raise the youngest generation in a more environmentally conscious way, but it also means that we're thoughtful about the choices that we make. You know, making use of public transportation or when we make a decision about what car we're going to drive. In so many different ways each and every one of us can help ensure that we meet those climate goals in the years to come, and that's what I'm asking the American people to do.

BLITZER: You talk about the next generation. I want to go to Gianna Lum who is from Hillsborough, California. She is the Associate Director of the Student Climate nonprofit called Climatepedia and a graduate student at Columbia University studying climate change. Gianna.

GIANNA LUM, GRADUATE STUDENT, COLUMBIA UNIVERISTY: Our beliefs and habits start at an early age. Should climate change be taught in schools and if so, how should it be climate education be implemented in the school curriculum?

CASTRO: Yes, I believe that it should. In fact, I believe that it's essential if we want to raise a generation of Americans that will do right by our planet, make the little decisions in life that are going to help ensure that we can get where we need to get to get to net zero.

I think if we're going to get there though, and this doesn't just apply to curriculum about the environment, it applies to a whole bunch of other stuff, we need to do things like end the system of people that get elected whether it's in Texas or other states, they get elected and then they sit on a state-wide board that determines what is in curriculum. Too oftentimes right wing conservatives have taken over these boards in places like Texas and they affect who gets into the history books, its slanted view on social studies, it's probably against including any kind of meaningful curriculum on the environment.

So there's some structural changes that I believe that we need to make, but I do believe that that kind of curriculum should be taught in our schools because that's how urgent this crisis is. And, we also have a role to play as mothers and fathers, family members too. Right? I know that I've encouraged my children to be more environmentally conscious, to recycle for instance and understand the impact that their actions have on the environment, to teach them about that. I hope that all parents, all families are able to do that, and we should encourage that because all of us have a role to play; our schools do too.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for being here...

CASTRO: Thank you. I appreciate it.

BLITZER: ... kicking off this discussion. We really appreciate it very much.


One town hall down, nine to go. Up next, businessman Andrew Yang.