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Rewrite That List of Debate Topics, Chris Wallace. And Put the Climate Crisis at No. 1.

Our planet is in serious, irrevocable trouble. There’s no bigger issue.

Which is why it’s flat-out wrong that Fox News’s Chris Wallace—and those who advised him—didn’t see fit to put climate change on his topic list for Tuesday’s first presidential debate. (Photo: Screenshot of Wallace)

Which is why it’s flat-out wrong that Fox News’s Chris Wallace—and those who advised him—didn’t see fit to put climate change on his topic list for Tuesday’s first presidential debate. (Photo: Screenshot of Wallace)

The past few months should have forced even the staunchest climate-crisis deniers to yank their heads out of the warming sand.

The temperature in Death Valley hit 130 degrees, the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth. Drought-fueled wildfires in the West are still raging, sending smoke all the way to the East Coast after destroying millions of acres and thousands of buildings, and causing more than 25 deaths. And tropical storms, one after another, endlessly roiled the Atlantic.

Our planet is in serious, irrevocable trouble. There’s no bigger issue.

Which is why it’s flat-out wrong that Fox News’s Chris Wallace—and those who advised him—didn’t see fit to put climate change on his topic list for Tuesday’s first presidential debate.

Instead, as the veteran newsman picked the subjects that will occupy each 15-minute segment of the 90-minute debate from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, we got these: the candidates’ records, the Supreme Court, covid-19, the economy, “race and violence in our cities,” and election integrity.

“The fires are burning. The climate should not be some kind of side issue that only comes up in the context of some other subject, if at all,” said Jeff Cohen, a former cable-TV pundit and co-founder of RootsAction Education Fund, which has gathered thousands of signatures on a petition to the moderators of the three presidential and one vice presidential debates. (Cohen also founded the media-watch group FAIR, for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.)

He’s not alone in his concern: Dozens of senators, all Democrats, are calling for every one of the presidential and vice presidential debates to include a focus on the climate crisis.

Of course, this abject failure is nothing new in the never-never land of presidential debates. Not one question about climate change was asked by the media moderators in the four general election debates in 2016. How about 2012, when an intensive focus on climate might actually have fended off some of the disasters we’re seeing now? Again, zero.

It’s not that the hot subject hasn’t surfaced in presidential campaigning over the past weeks. Joe Biden has called President Trump a “climate arsonist,” and Trump has suggested — as usual — that the experts don’t know anything.

“It’ll start getting cooler,” Trump said on a recent California trip. “You just watch.”

“I wish science agreed with you,” retorted Wade Crowfoot, California’s secretary for natural resources.

“Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” the president responded.

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Forget the politicized pandering of "violence in our cities." And find some time for the subject that should matter much more to young and old alike: the survival of the planet.

Given the growing disaster of climate change, it’s especially frustrating to Cohen and others that Wallace intends to highlight “violence in our cities,” a constant Fox News talking point. This is 2020’s successor to the network’s “caravan” obsession before the 2018 midterm elections: the meant-to-scare story line that a rush of evil immigrants was flowing illegally into the United States. Oddly enough, the topic faded quickly after the election.

“When I turn on Fox News, I time how long it is until ‘violence in the cities’ comes up. It’s seldom more than six minutes,” Cohen told me.

This reflects Trump’s misleading “law and order” narrative in recent weeks, which includes the Justice Department’s labeling New York, Seattle and Portland — all led by Democratic politicians — as “anarchist jurisdictions.”

In fact, the vast majority of protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement between this summer were peaceful, according to a report by the nonprofit Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.

Examining 7,750 protests, the group identified about 220 locations where the protests became violent — defined as demonstrators clashing with police or counterprotesters or causing property damage, The Washington Post reported. Even in those cases, violence was “largely confined to specific blocks, rather than dispersed throughout the city.”

Moderators could even do themselves and their networks some practical good by focusing on a subject that matters deeply to the younger audience they have such trouble reaching. “So many young people see mainstream TV culture as totally out of touch with their interests and concerns, and climate is a prime example,” Cohen said. “They see TV news asleep at the wheel.”

In the fall of 2016, Cohen was teaching journalism at Ithaca College when not a single debate question addressed global warming. “My students were appalled,” he recalled.

So how about a swap, Chris Wallace?

Yes, do bring up injustice. But forget the politicized pandering of “violence in our cities.” And find some time for the subject that should matter much more to young and old alike: the survival of the planet.

Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is the media columnist for The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she was the New York Times public editor, and previously the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown.

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