Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

The recent media-sponsored town halls with President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden haven’t inspired much hope for the place of climate in the debates. (Photo: Takver/flickr/cc)

The recent media-sponsored town halls with President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden haven’t inspired much hope for the place of climate in the debates. (Photo: Takver/flickr/cc)

With Planet at Stake, Moderators Must Make Climate a Focus of Debates

The climate crisis has been and continues to be a top issue for voters and one that can’t be ignored by journalists for another four years.

Wildfires continue to devastate the West Coast, and both the Arctic and Antarctica are exhibiting dramatic ice loss (CNN, 9/15/20). Given how little time experts say we have to prevent irreversible damage from climate change, this year’s election is truly a crucial one for the future of the planet. And climate disruption remains a top priority for many voters. That means the climate crisis must be a central focus of the presidential debates—the main opportunity for most voters to hear the candidates questioned about their positions on major policy issues.

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate (image: CNN)

If the past is any indication of the future, the journalists who moderate those debates are unlikely to feel the same sense of urgency. In 2016, not a single question was asked about climate change. Zero questions were asked in 2012 as well. As FAIR’s Adam Johnson wrote in 2016 (FAIR.org, 10/19/16):

In over eight hours of presidential debates spanning four years, there were only four utterances of the term “climate change” on the most important political stage. All by Hillary Clinton, all in passing. All entirely unsolicited.

Prior to this election season’s Democratic primary debates, environmental activists pressed the DNC to hold a single-issue debate on the climate crisis, given its urgency and its place as a top concern of Democratic voters. DNC chair Tom Perez rebuffed them, claiming he had “the utmost confidence” that the subject would be discussed in the debates “early and often” (FAIR.org, 6/18/19). But the moderators failed miserably to center climate, devoting more questions (86 vs. 83) to the utterly useless topic of “electability” than to climate (FAIR.org, 2/29/20).

As I reported in November (FAIR.org, 11/28/19) about the climate questions moderators did ask:

Some have been useless, being too broad (“Explain specifically what your [climate proposal] is”—NBC‘s Chuck Todd, 6/27/19) or too convoluted…. Many have focused on the idea that major climate action is not “realistic,” or that it threatens people’s freedoms to do things like drive gas-guzzling cars or eat meat.

Bernie Sanders, who has pivoted hard toward the climate issue in recent weeks, has been given the most speaking prompts on climate—but not a single unique question. Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, the only other candidates appearing in every debate who have received higher than a B+ grade from Greenpeace on their climate plans, have gotten one unique question each. Hand-off prompts, under the rules enforced by the media hosts, are generally limited to either 30 or 45 seconds, which means that the candidates with the most ambitious climate plans have been given criminally little time to explain them.

CNN town hall with Joe Biden

The recent media-sponsored town halls with President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden haven’t inspired much hope for the place of climate in the debates. In CNN‘s town hall with Biden (9/17/20), three participants were selected to ask Biden questions about the environment. Two of them pushed Biden to endorse anti-environmental positions—one in favor of fracking, and one against “over-regulation” of farms via climate policies. Both are very much out of step with public opinion in this country: Americans oppose fracking by a large majority, and majorities also believe the government is doing too little to protect the environment rather than too much (Pew, 11/25/19).

In ABC‘s town hall with Trump (9/15/20), zero questions were asked about climate.

Fox News‘ Chris Wallace, the moderator for the first debate, to be held September 29 in Cleveland, today announced the topics he intends to cover–and climate is not one of them.

The presidential (and vice presidential) debates ought to give voters a chance to see the candidates attempt to explain and defend their positions on the most important issues of the day. The Covid pandemic, healthcare and the economy will surely be front and center. But the climate crisis has been and continues to be a top issue for voters as well, and one that can’t be ignored by journalists for another four years.

ACTION: Contact the debate moderators today and tell them to make the climate crisis a key focus of the debates:

  • Chris Wallace, Fox News (September 29, Cleveland)

fns@foxnews.com

@FoxNewsSunday

  • Susan Page, USA Today (October 7, Salt Lake City–VP debate)

spage@usatoday.com

@SusanPage

  • Steve Scully, C-SPAN (October 15, Miami)

sscully@c-span.org

@SteveScully

  • Kristen Welker, NBC News (October 22, Nashville)

kristen.welker@nbcuni.com

@KWelkerNBC

Please remember that respectful communication is the most effective. Feel free to leave a copy of your message in the comments thread of this post.

PLUS: RootsAction Education Fund, an online education and advocacy group, has a petition calling on the debate moderators to ask the candidates about climate.


© 2021 Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR)
Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar

Julie Hollar is the managing editor of FAIR's magazine, Extra!. Her work received an award from Project Censored in 2005, and she has been interviewed by such media outlets as the L.A. Times, Agence France-Presse and the San Francisco Chronicle. A graduate of Rice University, she has written for the Texas Observer and coordinated communications and activism at the Lesbian/Gay Rights Lobby of Texas. Hollar also co-directed the 2006 documentary Boy I Am and was previously active in the Paper Tiger Television collective.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·


'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·


To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·


Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·


Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo