CNN’s Climate Crisis Town Hall: What Happens When Ratings Aren’t the Point

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Ten presidential candidates took to a New York stage Wednesday for a special CNN climate crisis town hall, and over the span of seven hours, they outlined grand plans for a sustainable future, ambitious targets for zero emissions by mid-century, and plenty of warnings of the existential threat of environmental catastrophe.What they didn’t do was debate — and it showed. CNN didn’t try to jazz up this event with slickly produced intro-packages, nor did they fixate on candidate-to-candidate confrontations. They didn’t even have much of a time limit, save for commercial breaks.

What this was, was a gallery of candidates each explaining how they’d save the planet — whether it be via Joseph Biden’s plans to resuscitate and expand the UN climate agreement, or Bernie Sanders $16 trillion Green New Deal to transform the US economy. No plan was too ambitious, or even all that controversial, before a crowd and questioners who, unlike those on the right, are not still debating whether global warming is real or not.

“That movie, Day After Tomorrow, it’s today. It’s happening today,” said Amy Klobuchar, who is viewed as more moderate, with plans to spend $2 trillion.

This was not an event to win over climate deniers or other skeptics, but to sound the alarm for action. At one point, CNN flashed images of a wildfire in California on one side of the screen and the satellite image of Hurricane Dorian on the other, as Chris Cuomo said, “These are both happening on our watch. The question is, what will be done about it?”

The network interspersed the events with the latest reports on the hurricane, but the time with the candidates largely was devoted to the details of their plans. We learned that Kamala Harris is in favor of banning plastic straws, but thinks there needs to be something better than paper ones as a replacement. In addition to a “green constitutional amendment,” longshot candidate Andrew Yang said he favors revising the way that the GDP is calculated to factor in the eco-friendly portions of the economy. Pete Buttigieg touted projects to achieve a zero-emission cattle farm.

Only occasionally was there a true zinger, but it was directed at President Trump, as when Sanders called his denial of scientific evidence “idiotic.”

So will there be an audience?

According to the network, ratings aren’t the point in devoting so much time to an issue so staggering that it may just be easier to tune it all out. Shortly before the event began, a CNN spokeswoman reminded that the network does not host presidential town halls for ratings. “We host them because substantive conversations with presidential candidates inform and empower voters to make the best possible choices for their families and communities. And it is the right thing to do.”

This was the 28th town hall event that CNN has done this cycle. The first, a Jan. 28 event featuring Harris, drew almost 2 million viewers, the most so far, while an April 14 event with Marianne Williamson captured the least, an audience of about 314,000.

This town hall was different, as it dealt with a specific topic. The coverage of the climate change issue has been the source of much frustration among climate activists and environmental groups, many of whom complain the debates have given short shrift to the issue, and that it wasn’t even raised once at the 2016 match ups between Trump and Hillary Clinton.

This isn’t the first climate town hall. Back in 2007, some environmental groups hosted an event on the west side of Los Angeles, but only Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich showed up, and there was no network sponsor. As ambitious as CNN was in devoting airtime for its event, it didn’t have the option of making it a debate, as the Democratic National Committee hasn’t endorsed such a climate-focused event.

“I think it’s a big ask of viewers to tune in to a seven-hour town hall event, but I’m not sure that’s really the expectation,” said Alan Schroeder, professor emeritus at Northeastern University and author of “Presidential Debates: Risky Business on the Campaign Trail.” “More likely the idea is to get the candidates on the record in a venue that allows their thoughts to be developed beyond what is possible in the confines of a debate. It seems to me that this event is likely to be remembered for whoever YouTube moments it produces than as a live program.”

There were a few moments, as when Harris said she was willing to end the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal. Or when Elizabeth Warren pushed back on questions of whether she thinks government should dictate what kind of lightbulbs consumers use.

“Oh come on, give me a break,” she said. “This is what the fossil fuel industry hopes we all talk about. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your lightbulbs, around your straws, about your cheeseburgers.”

Like it or not, though, that is where the debate may be. The Trump campaign is selling red plastic straws on its website (and even pitched them during the CNN event), and his administration recently rolled back rules meant to move away from less efficient incandescent bulbs. The president’s team is talking about climate, but in an alternative reality: As Democrats outlined their grand plans to solve the crisis, Trump was defending an altered map of Hurricane Dorian’s path. To reporters on Thursday, the president displayed a map that featured a Sharpie-drawn extension to the storm’s path, making it look like he was correct to claim that Alabama was once threatened.

After Buttigieg took to the stage in the fifth hour of the event, he acknowledged the repetitive nature of the evening, as “all of us are basically using the same language.” The challenge was how to mobilize the entire country around the problem, and he suggested ways to frame it for conservatives or right-leaning evangelical voters in the heartland.

“If you believe that God is watching as poison is being belched into the air of creation and people are being harmed by it,” he said. “Countries are at risk of vanishing in low-lying areas, what do you think God thinks of that? I bet he thinks it’s messed up.”

If candidates fell short of honing their climate messages after seven hours, they will get the chance to do so again. NBC News Now and Telemundo are streaming a climate change forum hosted by Georgetown University on September 19 and 20.

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