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CNN Live Event/Special

Climate Crisis Town Hall with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Presidential Candidate. Aired 8:40-9:20p ET

Aired September 04, 2019 - 20:40   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN HOST: And welcome back to CNN's climate crisis town hall. The U.S. government's own research says that unchecked climate change could kill thousands of Americans in this century. We're talking about superstorms and mass extinction, worsening droughts. We are dedicating tonight to climate plans proposed by 10 Democratic presidential candidates, just as Hurricane Dorian is threatening the East Coast after devastating the Bahamas.

We've just heard from Vice President Joe Biden. Now please welcome Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.


This is you, Senator.

Welcome. Thanks for being here. I want to get right to -- right to our questions from our audience. This is Richard Katz. He's from Needham, Massachusetts. He works in the restaurant industry. Richard, welcome. How are you doing?

QUESTION: Good evening. Thank you.

COOPER: Sorry for the confusion over here. Hey, Frank, you're about to...


COOPER: Yeah. OK. There you go.


QUESTION: I have large feet.

COOPER: There is a joke in there, but I'm not saying anything.


QUESTION: Senator, your climate plan is specific about how you will spend $16 trillion, and I'm delighted that somebody is willing to spend that much. Can you be equally specific about where that money is coming from? For example, you say that you'll tax fossil fuel companies, but the central idea behind addressing climate change is eliminating use of fossil fuels. How much money can you raise from companies whose income will be drastically reduced or eliminated? And where else will the money come from?

SANDERS: Good. If I could, Richard, let me begin and predicating everything I'm going to say to you this evening. Donald Trump thinks that climate change is a hoax. I think that Donald Trump is dangerously, dangerously wrong. I may be old fashioned, but I believe in science.


And, Richard, as I'm sure you know, what the scientists have told us climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, it is already causing devastating problems in this country and around the world, and most frighteningly what they tell us is if we don't get our act together and make massive changes away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy within the next 11 years, the damage done to our country and the rest of the world will be irreparable.

So Richard is quite right. We are proposing the largest, most comprehensive climate change program ever presented by any candidate in the history of the United States.


So where do we get -- let me -- even before I tell you where we get the money -- and I will do that -- people say, well, Bernie, you know, you're spending a lot of money. Is it realistic? And my response to them is, is it realistic to not listen to the scientists and to create a situation where the planet that our children and grandchildren and future generations will be living in will be increasingly uninhabitable and unhealthy? Is that realistic?

So I think we have a moral responsibility to act and act boldly, and to do that, yes, it is going to be expensive. This is how we get the money. For a start, insanely, but honestly, what goes on right now is we are giving the fossil fuel industry approximately $400 billion every single year in subsidies and tax breaks. Obviously, we end that. And we're paying for this over a 15-year period, by the way.

Second of all, we believe that the federal government is the best way to move aggressively to produce sustainable energy, like wind and solar. We will expand concepts, public power concepts like the TVA right now to produce wind and solar and actually make a profit on that as we sell that to electric companies all over the world.

Thirdly, we are not going to have to spend money on the military defending oil interests around the world. We can cut military spending there, as well.


Fourthly, fourthly, our program will create up to 20 million good- paying jobs over the period of the 15 years. And when we do that, you're going to have a lot of taxpayers out there who will be paying more in taxes. You'll have people who are not getting food stamps and so forth. So those are the basic ways that we pay for this program. But most importantly, we are dealing with what the scientists call an existential threat to this planet, and we must respond aggressively, we must listen to the scientists. That is what our plan does.

COOPER: I think there's -- there are folks out who just heard you say -- talk about higher taxes and taxpayers out there paying more. Would you guarantee to the American public tonight that the responsibility for $16.3 trillion, which is a massive amount of money, wouldn't end up on taxpayers' shoulders?

SANDERS: Well, it will end up on some taxpayers' shoulders. If you are in the fossil fuel industry, you're going to be paying more in taxes, that's for sure. Yeah. And I happen to believe, in general, that at a time when we have massive levels of income and wealth inequality, where the richest three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of American society, where major profitable corporations like Amazon, who made over $10 billion in profits last year, didn't pay a nickel in taxes, am I going to guarantee Jeff Bezos he's not going to be paying more in taxes? No, I won't.


COOPER: I want you to meet Justine -- Berfond, is it?

QUESTION: Berfond, yeah.

COOPER: Good, Justine Berfond from Brooklyn. She's a student at New York University, a volunteer with the Sunrise Movement, which is a youth climate group. Justine, welcome.

QUESTION: Hi, Senator Sanders. It's really nice to meet you. My family has lived in southern Brooklyn for four generations. In 2012, I witnessed Hurricane Sandy ravage this area. You have wavered at times in your stance on eliminating the filibuster. How do you intend to implement the climate policy we need to prevent climate disasters...

SANDERS: I have not.

QUESTION: ... like Sandy if bad actors like Senator Mitch McConnell intend to use the filibuster to block climate legislation?


SANDERS: No, I haven't wavered. I haven't wavered. What I believe is the Senate should not be the House and we shouldn't simply have a majority body. But what I have said repeatedly is we need major filibuster reform.

And second of all, just as Bush got through major tax breaks for the rich through the Budget Reconciliation Act, we can do that, as well. So if your question is, and we're going to need 60 votes to save the planet, the answer is, no, we will not. There are ways -- there are ways to get that through the Budget Reconciliation Act, which will require 51 votes, and that's the method we will use. OK? COOPER: I want you to meet Marc Alessi. He's a graduate student...



SANDERS: Hey, Marc.

COOPER: Alessi. He's a graduate student studying climate science at Cornell University, currently supports Senator Elizabeth Warren. Marc?

SANDERS: Hey, Marc?

QUESTION: Thank you. Senator Sanders, in your Green New Deal plan, you argue that nuclear energy is, quote, "a false solution" to the climate crisis. However, going forward, we will need every tiny contribution from all renewable energy sources, especially since nuclear energy production doesn't depend on the time of day and the current weather conditions. How can you dismisses this technology when it will be necessary in any drastic switch in our country's energy infrastructure?

SANDERS: Thank you, Marc.


Well, here's the answer. Marc, we got a heck of a lot of nuclear waste, which as you know is going to stay around this planet for many, many, many thousands of years. And you know what? We don't know how to get rid of it right now. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to add more dangerous waste to this country and to the world when we don't know how to get rid of what we have right now.

Number two, in terms of cost, the truth is that it costs a lot more to build a new nuclear power plant today than it does to go to solar or to go to wind. So I think that it is safer and more cost effective to move to sustainable energies like wind, solar, and geothermal, and not nuclear.


COOPER: We have another follow-up question about nuclear power from our chief climate correspondent, Bill Weir. Bill?

WEIR: Yeah, Senator, I want to follow on Marc's question there. Currently, right now, the U.S. gets about 20 percent of our electricity and power from nuclear, while France is about 70 percent. Granted, they have much fewer reactors than we do. But do you really believe the French are that much more at risk as we stand here tonight? And of what exactly? And since renewables like solar and wind take so much more land, how can you possibly go carbon neutral without nuclear in the short term?

SANDERS: I think you can. And I think the scientists tell us, in fact, that we can. And I think if you talk to the people in Japan in terms of what happened at Fukushima, talk to the people in Russia what happened in Chernobyl, you know what, they may not feel so comfortable with nuclear power.

So I'm not a fear-monger here, and I wish the people in France the very best. But I think that the way forward, the most cost-effective way forward, the way forward that is safest is moving to sustainable energies like wind and geothermal.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, just today the Trump administration announced plans to overturn requirements on energy-saving lightbulbs. It's obviously a move that could increase greenhouse gas emissions. Would you reinstate those requirements?



Look, you know, it is...

COOPER: I just I should have asked, how fast would you reinstate those...

SANDERS: As fast -- look, one of the great things that's happening and which gives us some hope is that there has been an explosion in technology in many, many areas that if we have the political will to utilize that technology, we can maybe save the planet.

And by the way, let me just say this at this point, before we get to lightbulbs, and that is, everybody in this room knows -- I mean, this is a difficult issue. Nobody has a magical solution. I don't. But this is not just an American issue. This is an issue that impacts the entire world.

So what I would do, unlike President Trump, who has turned his back on this issue -- in fact, made it significantly worse, by expanding the use of fossil fuel -- what I will do -- and I'm not here to tell you that I think it will happen like this, but I think it's worth a try -- that in this extraordinary moment of global crisis, I think we need a president, hopefully Bernie Sanders, that reaches out to the world, to Russia and China and India, Pakistan, all the countries of the world, and say, guess what, whether you like it or not, we are all in this together. And if you are concerned about the children in your country and future generations, we're going to have to work together.

And maybe, just maybe, instead of spending a $1.5 trillion every single year on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we pool those resources and we work together against our common enemy, which is climate change.


Now, you know, one of the -- actually, I follow this issue of LED lightbulbs and so forth, and there have been huge breakthroughs. I mean, you all know that, that we use much less electricity, these lightbulbs last a lot longer, and it is a major, major breakthrough. But that also speaks, Anderson, to the issue of energy efficiency. So

it's not just moving to sustainable energies. It is also being much more efficient in terms of the energy that we use. So if you can get electricity from a lightbulb that utilizes one-tenth of the power that an old incandescent lightbulb used, of course you're going to do that. Of course you're going to encourage that technology.

In Vermont, we are making it as easy as possible, helping people buy those lightbulbs. And it is, in my community, in Burlington, Vermont, if I'm not mistaken, over the last many years, despite good economic growth, we are not using any more electricity than we did 10 years ago because we have put investments into energy efficiency. And so that's the direction we've got to go.

COOPER: I've got to take a quick break. Senator Sanders, we'll have more with the senator in a moment. We've got more questions. Plus Senator Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg will take the stage, as well. We'll be right back.


COOPER: And we are back with more of your questions from Democratic presidential candidates. Up next, you're going to hear from Senator Elizabeth Warren. I want to continue right now with Senator Bernie Sanders.

Let's take another question from our audience. Martha Readyoff, it's a teacher from New Milford, Connecticut. Martha, welcome.

QUESTION: Good evening. Human population growth has more than doubled in the past 50 years. The planet cannot sustain this growth. I realize this is a poisonous topic for politicians, but it's crucial to face. Empowering women and educating everyone on the need to curb population growth seems a reasonable campaign to enact. Would you be courageous enough to discuss this issue and make it a key feature of a plan to address climate catastrophe?

SANDERS: Well, Martha, the answer is yes. And the answer has everything to do with the fact that women in the United States of America, by the way, have a right to control their own bodies and make reproductive decisions.


And the Mexico City agreement, which denies American aid to those organizations around the world that are -- that allow women to have abortions or even get involved in birth control to me is totally absurd.

So I think, especially in poor countries around the world where women do not necessarily want to have large numbers of babies, and where they can have the opportunity through birth control to control the number of kids they have, it's something I very, very strongly support.

(APPLAUSE) COOPER: I want to introduce -- sorry, our next guest, Grennan Milliken. He's a graduate student at Columbia University studying climate and society. Grennan?

SANDERS: Grennan?

QUESTION: Evening. In order to successfully mitigate the impacts of climate change in the U.S., we're going to realistically -- or the U.S. is realistically going to have to wean itself off of fossil fuel use completely. Unfortunately, this can also mean the loss of jobs. How would you help workers of the fossil fuel industry transition to other respectable fields of work in a future green economy?

SANDERS: Thank you very much for that important question. I consider myself to be perhaps the most pro-worker member of the United States Congress. I think I have a 100 percent pro-union AFL-CIO voting record, and I've spent my entire life fighting for workers.

So let me be very clear, is that the coal miners in this country, the men and women who work on the oil rigs, they are not my enemy. What is my enemy is climate change. And what we have done is built into our plan, our $16 trillion plan, tens and tens of billion of dollars for what we call a just transition.

And that says that if some worker through no fault of his own or her own loses their job because we're moving away from fossil fuel, we're going to guarantee them an income for five years, we're going to guarantee them the education that they need, because those workers are not our enemies. They should not be punished because we're trying to save the planet.


COOPER: I just want to ask, of all of your ambitious plans, free public college, Medicare for all, eliminating student debt...

SANDERS: Keep going. You're doing great. Yeah.

COOPER: ... full employment, Green New Deal...

SANDERS: Good, good.

COOPER: ... every president has to prioritize in terms of where they're going to put -- what is the priority on climate change compared to all these others, if you have to choose?

SANDERS: Well, I have the radical idea that a sane Congress can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time. And, you know, Anderson, there are so many crises that are out there today. I worry very much that we lose 30,000 people a year because they don't have the money to go to a doctor when they should and that 87 million people are uninsured or underinsured. And I will implement as president a Medicare for all single-payer program.

I am terribly worried that hundreds of thousands of bright kids no longer go to college because they're worried about the debt that they're going to incur. We're going to cancel all student debt.

So to my mind, it's not prioritizing this over that. It is finally having a government which represents working families and the middle class rather than wealthy campaign contributors.


And when you do that -- and when you do that, then things fall in place. So you can raise the minimum wage to a living wage. But in terms of this issue, I don't know how any sane person cannot put it at the very, very top of the list.

So let me state it again. We are, in my view -- not in my view. In the view of the scientists who have studied this issue the most, we are fighting for the survival of the Planet Earth, our only planet. How is this not a major priority? It must be a major priority.


COOPER: Let me ask you -- last month, you tweeted, "Donald Trump believes climate change is a hoax. Donald Trump is an idiot." Do you feel...

SANDERS: Did I say that?

COOPER: Well...

SANDERS: Yeah, I did. My wife thought it wasn't a good idea, but I said it.

COOPER: Well, let me ask you. There's obviously tens of millions of Americans who support Donald Trump and who believe him on climate change. Are they idiots?

SANDERS: No. Look, what you got -- Donald Trump is the only president of the United States that we have. And when you have a president who has access to all of the scientific information, who can make a phone call and bring every bloody scientist in the world into his office in a few days' notice, when you have a president of the United States who rejects and turns his back on that science -- you know, maybe it was a harsh word, but he's called me worse.

So, yeah, I think I think it is just idiotic, if you like, that -- that a president -- a president takes that -- has that type of approach toward climate change.

And, again, it is -- forget the word "idiot," it is so dangerous. It is dangerous. We are the most powerful country on Earth. We should be leading the world to a global energy transition and you have a president who thinks it's not real. That is idiotic.


COOPER: This is Catherine Duckett. This is Catherine Duckett. She is a climate science professor at Monmouth University and member of the Long Branch, New Jersey, Environmental Commission. Catherine? SANDERS: Hey, Catherine.

QUESTION: Hello, Professor, or Senator. I wanted to ask you about FEMA rules. FEMA rules. Are you in favor of changing FEMA rules to encourage retreat from properties that have suffered repeated catastrophic losses?


QUESTION: And if so, how would you implement those changes in a way that's fair and equitable?

SANDERS: Well, as I understand what you're saying, we have the absurd situation where FEMA will only pay to repair a facility or a piece of infrastructure where it was before it was destroyed. That's pretty stupid. I mean, if it was destroyed once and you rebuild it, it's destroyed twice, it doesn't make a lot of sense to put it there again. So the answer is, absolutely.

Which raises even the broader question of how we're going to protect communities -- look, we're not going to turn this thing around tomorrow. I worry very much -- I was just in South Carolina last week. There are scientists who think that parts of Charleston, South Carolina, parts of Miami will be underwater. What do we do to protect those communities? What do we do to protect poor people and people of color, by the way, who are often the hardest hit by environmental degradation and the impact of climate change? And we have substantial sums of money to do that, as well.

COOPER: So would people in coastal communities, have a house right on the beach, would they have to move?

SANDERS: Well, I don't think it makes a lot of sense to rebuild that house so that it is, you know, knocked down again in the next storm. And what you are...

COOPER: So how do you make that happen as president?

SANDERS: Well, all of -- well, you do your best through carrots and sticks at the federal level. But, you know, if people want to rebuild in an area which will be devastated by the next storm, they're certainly not going to get any federal assistance from my administration to do that.

COOPER: Let me just quickly ask you about cars, electric cars. Everybody obviously -- we all love our cars and trucks. How do you manage to get people to relinquish, you know, the car they love for a car, an electric car that may be slower or less powerful initially, and more expensive?

SANDERS: Well, you do it with financial incentives. You make it worth people's while by heavily subsidizing the industry. We can create a whole lot of jobs by moving away from internal combustion engine cars to electric cars. And every day, these cars are developing a longer range and they're more powerful. But, look, at the end of the day, Anderson, this is where I start

from. If -- I start from the moral position that we have no choice but to do everything that we can with countries all over the world to save this planet for our children and future generations, and that will mean change, that will mean change.

And I think that what a president of the United States has got to do is make it clear to the people of our country and the world what the dangers are if we do not act. What is the alternative?

Nobody in this room -- just think about it, 30 years from now, wants to look your kid or your grandchild in the eye and have that child say to you, you know, Grandpa, you knew, you knew back in 2020, 2019 what the scientists were saying, you didn't do anything, and look what you created. Look at the world that you gave me. That is not anything that I want anybody in this room or in this country to have to face.

COOPER: We have a video from a questioner, Rachel Duvack is her name. She's a retired minister and a psychologist from Denver, Colorado. Rachel?

QUESTION: As we move toward trying to save our planet, how will you address the concerns of businesses, especially small ones, who will be expected to conform to changes in the law to protect our environment and might cost them money, i.e., using sustainable products?

SANDERS: Well, what -- you know, the reason we are making such a big investment is to incentivize and protect small businesses and homeowners all over this country. My goal is to see a massive increase in the use of wind and solar, and we will help people be able to afford to pay for it.

I'll give you just an example of one of the crazy things that goes on right now. If you install -- and we have -- Jane and I have put solar on our house. And it turns out, with the tax credits that we got, we pay it off in seven or eight years and then we have free electricity. It's a pretty good investment. We can afford to do that. There a lot of families that cannot afford that $15,000 or $16,000.

So we're going to make it possible to lend those people that money to put the solar up on their roofs. They will not be paying a nickel more than they're currently paying for electricity, and then they're going to have free electric after that. That is a sane approach which also creates jobs. Those are the kinds of things that we want to do for small business and homeowners.

COOPER: Let me just ask you, you know, during a war, during a crisis, presidents in the past have asked Americans to sacrifice in different ways. I guess for someone listening at home tonight, what is the greatest personal sacrifice you are asking an American to make for climate change, to stop climate change?

SANDERS: Well, I think we are -- you know, we're going to have to change -- we're going to have to change the nature of many of the things that we're doing right now, many of the products that we're using. To use an example, there are people who like their car, which is an

internal combustion engine, and we're going to have to say to those people, please, let's work together to save the planet. Maybe people like old-fashioned lightbulbs. We're going to have to say we can save an enormous amount of electricity by using LEDs.

So I think that in its totality what we are saying to people that in agriculture, for example, we are saying that we're going to end factory farming because that is not only -- that is a danger to the environment and to climate change.


And, you know, there will be a transition. There will be a transition, and there will be some pain there. We're going to put money into protecting family-based agriculture, where people can -- instead of having products, food products transported all over -- from all over the world or all over the country, you can get that food, as much as we can, get it locally.

So there's going to be change, and we're going to have to ask people to understand that we have got to make those changes now even though they may be a little bit uncomfortable for the sake of future generations.

COOPER: Senator Sanders, I appreciate your time. Thank you very much.


SANDERS: Thank you.

COOPER: Coming up, Senator Elizabeth Warren is next, then Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Congressman Beto O'Rourke. We'll be right back.