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43 Green Groups Demand Moderators Make Climate Crisis 'Central Focus' of 2020 Presidential Debates

"In 2016, there was not a single question on climate change in any of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates," 70 House Democrats noted in a similar appeal. "This cannot happen again."

A sign warning people about Covid-19 is surrounded by flames during the Hennessey fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California on August 18, 2020. (Photo: by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

A sign warning people about Covid-19 is surrounded by flames during the Hennessey fire near Lake Berryessa in Napa, California on August 18, 2020. (Photo: by Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images)

"We're at the edge of a cliff, and voters must know what direction our next president will take us."

"Voters deserve media coverage that takes the climate crisis as seriously as the science tells us we must."
—43 green groups

That is the message from leaders of 43 climate, environmental, and progressive advocacy groups who on Thursday urged the newly named moderators "to ensure the climate crisis is a central focus of all presidential and vice-presidential debates this year."

The collective call came a day after the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) co-chairs announced the moderators and less than a month before the first face-off between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden, scheduled for September 29. Two other presidential debates—plus one between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)—are set to be held in October.

In a letter addressed directly to Chris Wallace of Fox News, Steve Scully of C-SPAN, Kristen Welker of NBC News, and Susan Page of USA Today, the groups declare that "it is imperative the candidates seeking our nation's highest office explain how they will address and prepare us for the current and increasing effects of the climate crisis and how they will combat the environmental injustice that has plagued Black and Brown communities for decades."

"The climate crisis is here," the letter says. "From the rising asthma and cancer rates in frontline communities, predominantly communities of color and low-income communities, who've been subject to toxic air and water, to the increasingly devastating extreme hurricanes, heatwaves, wildfires, and violent storms that have destroyed homes and small businesses, wrecked communities, and killed friends, neighbors, and family—we are living with the consequences of climate change every day."

Repeating the decisions of past moderators and failing to ask about the climate emergency "would be nothing short of negligent and dangerous in 2020. This election will be a defining moment for our country," the letter states. "We are truly at the point of no return if we do not act boldly and immediately starting in 2021."

"We are a country deep in crises, and how we respond to one crisis magnifies the others," the letter continues, recognizing the need to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic fallout. "Any discussion on the economy, racial justice, public health, democracy, national security, or infrastructure must include the climate crisis. Voters deserve media coverage that takes the climate crisis as seriously as the science tells us we must and as the millions of people across the country who are currently suffering from the impacts deserve."

The letter was spearhead by Climate Power 2020, a project created by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Sierra Club. Signatories included leaders of 350 Action, Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, Climate Hawks Vote, Earthjustice, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, Hip Hop Caucus, Indivisible, MoveOn, Physicians for Social Responsibility, People's Action, Sunrise Movement, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

The green groups' message to moderators came after 70 House Democrats issued a similar call in a letter (pdf) on Wednesday to the co-chairs and board members of the CPD. Led by Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.)—who, as an attorney, focused on environmental and energy issues—the lawmakers encouraged the commission's leadership to learn from criticism of previous election cycle events and make the climate crisis "a centerpiece" of the upcoming presidential and VP debates.

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"In 2016, there was not a single question on climate change in any of the four presidential and vice-presidential debates. This cannot happen again," says the lawmakers' letter, a point echoed Thursday by the advocacy groups. "Given the dire nature of the crisis, we ask that you break precedent and publicly call on the moderators to include climate in the topics that will be addressed during the debates."

In the 2016 cycle, when Trump and Pence faced Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), moderators were heavily criticized for all but ignoring the climate emergency. During the three presidential debates that year, a mere five minutes and 27 seconds—or 2% of the total time—"were spent on climate change and other environmental issues... and that was pretty much all Hillary Clinton talking," according to Grist.

Across all four events, "the closest anyone came was in the second presidential debate, when audience member (and coal-plant operator) Ken Bone asked the candidates: 'What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?'" Vox reported in October 2016. "That's not a direct climate question, but it certainly touches on crucial adjacent topics."

Both the green groups and House Democrats pushed back against framing the planetary crisis as a partisan issue, with the lawmakers writing that "Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and politically unaffiliated Americans have all told us that climate change and its consequences to their health, pocketbooks, and safety are a major concern for them in this election year."

"Climate change is no longer an issue that is looming in the distance," the letter continues, pointing to recent and ongoing extreme weather events that are "threatening lives and livelihoods" as well as "the grave environmental injustices impacting people of color, who often experience the effects of climate change first and most acutely."

"We understand there are four central crises that the presidential and vice-presidential candidates must address: the ongoing pandemic, a struggling economy, racial injustice, and the climate crisis," says the lawmakers' letter. "But of these four, there is one which will exacerbate each of the other three, if not addressed immediately."

"We need a dedicated discussion on the climate crisis," the letter concludes, "that matches the importance of this moment."

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