Election 2020 Democrats San Francisco

Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro gestures while speaking at the Democratic National Committee's summer meeting Friday, Aug. 23, 2019, in San Francisco. More than a dozen Democratic presidential hopefuls are making their way to California to curry favor with national party activists from around country. Democratic National Committee members will hear Friday from top contenders, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders. 

WASHINGTON (AP) — Top Democratic presidential contenders talked tough Wednesday on cutting climate-damaging emissions from oil, gas and coal, turning their focus to global heating in a marathon evening of town halls that gave candidates a chance to try to distinguish themselves on a topic of growing importance to their party's liberal base.

The unique and lengthy climate conversations promised to hand Republicans ammunition for next year's general election fight by emphasizing one common element in the Democrats' climate change plans: their overwhelming — and overwhelmingly costly — scope. But the 10 Democrats who participated in the seven-hour series of climate change forums on CNN didn't shrink from making sweeping promises to reshape the American economy in service of what their party's grassroots supporters see as the paramount goal of averting global warming's most devastating effects.

California Sen. Kamala Harris pledged as president to ban the oilfield production method known as hydraulic fracturing and take other steps to cut fossil fuel emissions, regardless of whether Republicans cooperated. Harris said she would eliminate the Senate filibuster, if necessary, to get liberal Democrats' sweeping Green New Deal proposal passed with a simple majority vote — a significant move from a candidate who had previously stopped short of such a vow to change congressional procedure.

In targeting oil and gas and coal production, "this is a fight against powerful interests," Harris said. "It's lead, follow or get out of the way ... starting with Donald Trump."

All 10 candidates have proposed plans starting at $1 trillion for investment and research designed to wean the U.S. economy off oil, gas and coal by mid-century, with varying focuses on sharp emissions cuts and technological solutions, among other measures. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro led off the town halls, fielding questions from nurses, teachers and a high school student, who asked why Castro had failed to call for banning hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.

Castro responded that natural gas — some of it from fracking — had served as a bridge while the economy moves to renewable energy sources like solar and wind.

He cited the extreme weather over the summer to illustrate the urgency of the moment.

"We see that now with Hurricane Dorian," he said. "The Arctic ice caps melting. The Amazon on fire. We don't need climate scientists to tell us what we see with our eyes."

President Donald Trump began tweeting almost as soon as the forums kicked off, calling Democrats' proposals to address climate change unnecessary and costly.

"The Democrats' destructive "environmental" proposals will raise your energy bill and prices at the pump," Trump warned.

Democrats spent the run-up to the event burnishing their environmental credentials, with five candidates releasing in-depth proposals to slash carbon emissions. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders went further, challenging his rivals for the party's presidential nomination to join him in supporting a full ban on fracking, which is strongly opposed by most environmentalists who view it as an unmanageable risk to local water and air quality as well as the broader climate.

But while Sanders worked to differentiate himself from former Vice President Joe Biden — who has held an early lead in the Democratic primary and has pledged to regulate, though not abolish, fracking — the Republican National Committee was criticizing both Sanders and Biden for "radical climate policies."

Another top Republican went after Democrats for proposing climate platforms that he said were too aggressive to earn any bipartisan support in Congress.

"The gap between rhetoric and reality among Democrats has gotten out of hand," said Oregon Rep. Greg Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Walden contended that nuclear power must remain part of any workable climate plan. Nuclear currently generates an estimated one-fifth of U.S. electricity.

While Biden's plan leaves room for nuclear to remain a power-generation option, Sanders would seek to eliminate it outright.

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