Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., framed his climate change approach at the CNN climate town hall Wednesday night as a moral imperative. “The real conversation we’ve got to have is about what’s at stake here beyond the traditional battle lines that have been drawn,” he said, mentioning national security and faith — an area where he has presented himself as particularly able to speak to conservative Americans.
“If you believe that God is watching” as humanity spews pollutants, “what do you think God thinks of that?” he asked. “This is less and less about the planet as an abstract thing and more about specific people suffering specific harm because of what we’re doing right now. At least one way of talking about this is that it’s a kind of sin.”
Asked whether he modeled environmentally responsible behavior, he challenged the premise of the question, much as a couple candidates earlier in the night did when asked what sacrifice they would ask of Americans.
“I try to do the right thing,” he said, but “the reality is no individual can be expected single-handedly to solve this problem. It’s going to require national action. This is why the human species invented government. It’s for dealing with issues that are too big for each of us to deal with on our own.”
Mr. Buttigieg also called for a “national mobilization” that includes people, like farmers and fossil fuel workers, “who have often been made to feel like they’re part of the problem.”
Imagine, he said, if a net-zero-emission cattle farm “were as big a symbol of American achievement in fighting the climate crisis as an electric vehicle.”
Mr. Buttigieg suggested that as president, he would set aggressive goals but let Americans — both individuals and industries — figure out exactly how to reach them. “We’re not going to have politicians figuring out every aspect,” he said, any more than President John F. Kennedy calculated rocket trajectories for the moon landing. “We set the goal and then we challenge Americans to live up to it.”
It was a distinctly different approach from Democratic candidates earlier in the night, many of whom sought to one-up each other with more specific and ambitious proposals.
While Mr. Buttigieg did endorse several specific steps — including a carbon tax and executive action to restore Obama-era regulations — his biggest theme was an almost quaint idea: uniting Americans not around individual policies, but around a common purpose and a moral imperative.
There are a number of candidates in the presidential race who are unlikely to be alive come 2050, which many candidates, including Mr. Buttigieg, have set as a deadline for fully decarbonizing. But Mr. Buttigieg, who is 37, probably will be — a point he emphasized.
“Lord willing, I plan to be here by the time we know whether we have succeeded,” he said, “and can look back at 2020 and be proud of what we did — or realize that we’re the ones who blew it.”