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Town hall could test traction of climate policy in Democratic primary

stack of file folders on a lectern with a microphone
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

At Wednesday night's climate change town hall, top Democratic presidential candidates will be challenged to lay out a climate strategy that is both effective and politically viable.

The big picture: Despite efforts by state governments and the private sector, the U.S. has a long way to go to formulate a coherent and globally credible climate strategy. A dedicated town hall offers Democratic primary voters a chance to scrutinize proposals like the sweeping Green New Deal and it reflects their growing sense of urgency around climate change.

What to watch: In the world of climate policy, there are technically credible plans that lack meaningful political support and bold political calls to action that neglect business, market and technical concerns. Candidates hoping to bridge that divide must attend to several overarching issues:

  • Reconciling climate action with populism and nationalism. Australia, Brazil and Canada have seen voters repudiate climate-centric strategies, and the question of “who pays” for climate action has sparked protests like France's “gilets jaunes” movement. Even in “deep blue” Washington state, a carbon tax ballot initiative was defeated in 2016 and again in 2018.
  • Wrestling with the future of oil and gas. Substitutes for petroleum fuel are still not at scale, particularly for trucking, shipping, rail and aviation. Two key questions, especially for voters in battleground states like Colorado and Pennsylvania, will be the speed of the transition candidates envision and how they see U.S. oil and gas exports fitting into it, if at all.
  • Weighing the role of carbon taxes. Debate has swirled around the right tax rates to decrease demand and whether to offset such taxes with consumer rebates or reductions in other types of taxes.

The bottom line: The town hall provides an initial opportunity for Democrats to convince voters that climate deserves to be more than what Trump calls a “niche” issue, but there is a long campaign ahead and no shortage of competing issues.

Robert Johnston is managing director for global energy and natural resources at Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center.