Joe Biden on Defensive at Climate Town Hall

CreditTravis Dove for The New York Times

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden was hit with what was probably the toughest question of the night: How can he be trusted to stand up to fossil fuel companies when he has plans to attend a fund-raiser tomorrow hosted by Andrew Goldman, a co-founder of Western LNG, a liquefied natural gas production company.

Mr. Biden appeared caught by surprise at the CNN climate forum on Wednesday night and countered, “He’s not a fossil fuel executive” before pivoting to his history of fighting corporate polluters. Pressed about Mr. Goldman’s role, Mr. Biden said “I didn’t realize he does that” and said he would look into whether the fund-raiser violated his pledge not to accept money from fossil fuel companies. The Intercept, a political news site, first reported the fund-raiser hosted by Mr. Goldman.

“I was told by my staff he doesn’t have any responsibility related to the company,” Mr. Biden said. “If that turns out not to be true, then I will not, in any way, accept his help.” Mr. Biden’s campaign said that Mr. Goldman has no current responsibilities at Western LNG or its board.

From the opening moments of his segment, Mr. Biden was on the defensive.

“Is your plan aggressive enough?” Anderson Cooper, one of the moderators of the CNN forum, asked in his opening question about Mr. Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate change proposal. It’s several trillion dollars smaller than some other candidates’ plans and aims to hit net-zero emissions in the United States by 2050, and other Democrats have set earlier deadlines.

“Yes, I think it is aggressive enough. It’s gotten good reviews from most of the environmental community,” Mr. Biden said, adding he’d like to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030 but “I’ve known no scientists that say its able to be done right now.”

Throughout his segment, Mr. Biden drew on his greatest strength: his role as second-in-command in the Obama administration. He reminded the audience that he was on the team that brought home the Paris agreement, and leaned on his international experience to detail the ways he would help raise ambition in other countries as well as the United States. But, he insisted, America needs to lead before it can convince developing countries — even the wealthier ones like China — to do more.

“You can’t very well preach to the choir if you can’t sing,” he said.

On fracking, Mr. Biden said he opposes new drilling on federal lands but not a nationwide ban. He said he would re-examine existing wells to assess their safety and work to “change the attitude” of governors and state legislators to restrict drilling on state lands.

He also strove for a note of optimism, scolding those who describe dealing with climate change in gloom-and-doom scenarios. He promoted part of his plan that calls for spending $400 billion on clean energy research and development on things like electric cars and clean energy infrastructure, saying those investments will create millions of new jobs.

“We’re walking around with our heads down like ‘What are we going to do? We’re in such great trouble,’” he said. “We’re the United States of America and there’s not a damn thing we can’t do once we set our minds to it.”

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