The Story Behind the Most Heated Moment of CNN's Climate Crisis Town Hall

Illustration for article titled The Story Behind the Most Heated Moment of CNN's Climate Crisis Town Hall
Screenshot: CNN

Wednesday night’s CNN Climate Crisis Town Hall was an eye-opener. No, this is not an oblique reference to Joe Biden’s eye problems.


The seven-hour climate confab was, well, long. And it featured some questionable questions about cheeseburgers, light bulbs, and if Cory Booker would make us all go vegan. But many of the audience questions were thoughtful and focused on holding candidates accountable for their statements and actions.

None was more striking than the question Joe Biden got from Isaac Larkin, a 27-year-old molecular biology PhD student from Northwestern University, about a fundraiser the former vice president was scheduled to attend on Thursday at the home of Andrew Goldman, the co-founder of Western LNG. The company’s main business is exporting North American LNG, or liquefied natural gas, a fossil fuel responsible for worsening the climate crisis.

CNBC first reported the news of Biden’s fundraiser, and the Intercept filled in some of the gaps ahead of the town hall. Our pals at Splinter dove in even further, finding a 2018 filing in Canada for Western LNG describing Goldman as “a long-term investor in the liquefied natural gas sector.”

All this paints Biden in a bad light because he’s signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, which means he has pledged to “not to take contributions over $200 from oil, gas, and coal industry executives, lobbyists, and PACs and instead prioritize the health of our families, climate, and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.” Fossil fuel money has, you know, corrupted politics for decades.


Larkin’s question bringing all this to the forefront was easily the gripping moment of the night. It was hard-hitting, it highlighted how Big Oil has lied for decades about climate change, and it showed that the politics of old will not fly in 2019. It also turns out the question wasn’t totally the one he originally pitched to CNN. Earther was the first outlet to catch up with Larkin, who is also a member of the Sunrise Movement, about how the question came about and why fossil fuel politics need to die. Oh, and synthetic biology? Totally cool, and also totally could play a role in solving climate change!

“Synthetic biology is basically biology as an engineering discipline, it’s reengineering and designing biological materials to serve human ends,” Larkin explained during our interview. “All of the coolest things that synthetic biology adapts come from natural biodiversity. The technology the future relies on a healthy and thriving wild, natural ecosystem.”


During this point, our conversation devolved into extremely nerdy crosstalk about how we can use synthetic biology to sequester nitrogen, create new fibers, and cure diseases, which I’ll spare you from suffering through. As such, this interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Brian Kahn, Earther: Why did you decide to ask Joe Biden that question?

Isaac Larkin: At the end of last week, like Thursday or Friday, I got a text from one of the Sunrise press team members, Zina basically saying, ‘hey, there’s this form you can fill out to submit questions for the town hall.’ And so I wrote up three different questions and put them into like slots for every single candidate. And then on Sunday night, I got a phone call from CNN saying that they liked one of my questions that I could potentially get to ask Joe Biden. I spent the day sort of practicing that question, the question that they’d accepted originally.


Earther: I was wondering because Biden fundraiser news came out the day of the town hall.


Larkin: Yeah, that was a modified version of the question that they accepted. Basically, the question that I submitted to them included all of this stuff about how half of all greenhouse gas emissions have been emitted in my lifetime, scientists from Exxon and Shell knew about climate change for 40 years, the campaign of lying, et cetera. The punchline of that original question was ‘will you basically vow to hold these people accountable for what they’ve done?’

But then about an hour before that town hall actually started, I got a message from Zina with a link to that Intercept article, and she basically asked, ‘hey, if you’re willing, do you think there might be a way to incorporate this in your question?’ I felt like I needed to ask Joe Biden about getting funding from this fundraiser that’s hosted by this guy who started and, you know, majorly invests in [fossil fuels], and by any reasonable decent definition is like a leader in the fossil fuel company. In basically 10 minutes, I rewrote the last sentence of the question.


Earther: How much did CNN have insight into your question change because they seem pretty ready to talk about it?

Larkin: I had no idea that CNN was also on this story. I guess maybe Anderson Cooper was thinking about bringing that up himself at some point, but just sort of piggybacked on my question. But yeah, that was not coordinated. CNN did not know I was going to ask that.


Earther: How did it feel asking a former vice president such a pointed question?

Larkin: [laughs] Well, I lost feeling in the hand holding the mic. I got a text from my wife. She said that that was the angriest she’s ever seen me. Looking back, probably the angriest part was the stuff about Exxon and Shell knowing and their campaign of lying. The last question that I directly asked Biden wasn’t super angry.


Earther: How did you feel about his answer?

Larkin: It was a little concerning how his answer changed. I think just overall, his response seemed to be trying to really split hairs about what the exact definition of a fossil fuel executive is, which I would say really runs counter to the whole point of the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. It’s about making sure that you are accountable to the people and not to this incredibly rich and powerful industry and set of people who have gotten rich from this industry. And if you’re going to a fundraiser hosted by a guy who makes a bunch of money from that industry, that is counter to the whole point of the thing.


Earther: What do you hope voters took away from the town hall?

Larkin: The old frameworks for what is reasonable, they don’t apply anymore. That’s due to the scientific reality of climate change. Moderate, incremental policy is incompatible with a livable planet in the future. But also because the neoliberal project has been so delegitimized, people are looking for an alternative to that. And their eyes are going to find it in a sea of white nationalism and retrenching fascism or they’re going to find it in a vision of a better world, a more just world where everyone takes care of each other. So we should all organize and fight for that better world.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


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This is good Earther. Well done and great interview.

As far as synthetic biology goes, there’s always a need for smart folks to help get the joint effort between Exxon and Synthetic Genomics algae fuels scaled up. It’s always scale up, this process engineering thing is

About Synthetic Genomics: 

Algae biofuels:

where the exxon algae fuels work sits at this point:

ExxonMobil and Synthetic Genomics Algae Biofuels Program Targets 10,000 Barrels Per Day by 2025

For perspective, ethanol production is around 1 million barrels per day presently. Biodiesel and jet less so. US consumes around 16 million barrels per day of gasoline, diesel and jet right now.