Moderators should make climate change a big focus at the first primary debate. Here's how.

Moderators should make climate change a big focus at the first primary debate. Here's how.

Do’s and don’ts for the moderators of the upcoming Democratic presidential debate in Florida

Blog ››› ››› LISA HYMAS


Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is so far refusing to hold a presidential primary debate focused on climate change, despite calls from 15 candidates and more than 200,000 voters. So at least for the first debate, set to take place over two nights on June 26 and 27, it will be up to the moderators to decide how much of a focus to put on the climate crisis. That could be a problem.

In defending the decision, DNC chair Tom Perez wrote, "I have the utmost confidence that, based on our conversations with networks, climate change will be discussed early and often during our party’s primary debates." He explained, "I made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently in our debates. That didn’t happen in 2016 — and it was wrong."

Perez is correct that the climate crisis should have gotten more attention the last time around. During the 2016 season presidential primary debates, only 1.5% of questions from moderators were about climate change, and nine out of 20 debates didn't feature any climate questions.

But is he right that we can count on the networks’ moderators to do better -- much better -- this time?

Here we offer do’s and don’ts to help moderators give the climate crisis the serious attention it deserves. The first debate, which is being hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and Telemundo, will have five moderators: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd.

DO ask multiple questions about climate change and give all candidates a chance to weigh in

The No. 1 task for moderators is to give the climate crisis much more attention than it’s received in past debates, which means not just asking about the topic one time but addressing it from multiple angles in multiple questions. 

And as they ask those questions, the moderators need to give all candidates an opportunity to discuss the issue. This may be a challenge, as the two-night debate will include 20 candidates, 10 on stage at a time, but voters need to hear from all of them in order to make informed choices about who deserves their support.  

DON'T frame climate change as a narrow political issue

Too often, when generalist journalists ask questions related to climate change, they frame the issue through the narrow lens of horse-race politics. We've seen this happen repeatedly in recent months on the Sunday morning political shows -- including on NBC's Meet the Press, hosted by Chuck Todd, one of the moderators of the upcoming debate. 

On the May 19 episode of the show, Todd brought up climate change during an interview with Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, but his question was more about how to beat Trump than how to tackle the climate crisis:

Well, let me start with something the vice president, former vice president, said yesterday. And it was a fascinating way -- he was talking about his climate change proposal. And he said, “If you want to know what the first and most important plank in my climate proposal is,” it was, quote, “beat Trump.” You have said, if all the Democrats do is focus on Trump, you lose. Essentially, Biden is saying, no, no, no, no, no, it is all about Trump. Your reaction.

Rachel Maddow, another moderator at the June 26-27 debate, shifted a climate conversation to electoral politics during a March 4 interview she conducted on her MSNBC show with Democratic presidential candidate and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. After Inslee spoke about his commitment to climate action, Maddow noted that climate change is important to Democratic primary voters, but then asked whether a climate-centric candidate can win over voters in coal-producing states like Pennsylvania and Ohio and thus beat Trump.

Instead of focusing so heavily on the race against Trump, the moderators should prompt candidates to explain the specifics of how they would tackle the climate crisis.

DON’T downplay the seriousness of climate change as a topic

Many mainstream political journalists do not consider the climate crisis to be a top-tier issue, and that dismissive attitude can come through in the questions they ask -- even when those questions involve climate change. 

The Democratic presidential primary debate in November 2015, for example, featured one climate-related question, but it actually appeared to downplay the problem. After a lengthy discussion about ISIS and terrorism, moderator John Dickerson of CBS asked Sanders, “In the previous debate you said the greatest threat to national security was climate change. Do you still believe that?” Sanders affirmed that he did, but voters didn’t learn much new from that exchange -- except that the moderator seemed to think it surprising that a presidential candidate could consider the climate crisis to be a massive national security threat. 

DON’T reflexively change the subject away from climate change if a candidate brings it up

In 2016 debates, candidates regularly raised the issue of climate change even when they weren't asked about it, but moderators then steered the discussions away from climate and back to other topics. This happened during the three presidential debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. The moderators asked the candidates no climate questions, but Clinton raised the issue herself in all three debates, and Trump raised it once, saying it wasn't as serious as the problem of nuclear weapons. On all of those occasions, moderators failed to engage and ask follow-up questions related to climate change.

Todd also has a tendency to do this on Meet the Press. For example, during an April 14 interview with Inslee, Todd's first four questions for the governor were about immigration. Although Inslee twice pointed out that climate change is a factor pushing people to migrate, Todd pivoted the immigration conversation away from climate change. 

At the debate later this month, moderators should take note when candidates bring up climate change and find good opportunities to ask them subsequent questions about it.

DO ask specific questions about candidates’ plans and proposed solutions

Voters need to hear about the solutions and policy approaches that candidates are endorsing to address the climate crisis, so it is important for moderators to ask specific and substantive questions. If moderators are short on ideas, they can look to the many suggestions coming from journalists and activists.

The Tampa Bay Times offered some good questions in an editorial titled “Democratic presidential debates should highlight climate change”:

How would the candidates change the nation’s energy mix? What federal support would they make available to states and cities to harden their transportation systems, utilities and other infrastructure? How would Washington expand mass transit nationwide to curtail automobile emissions? Is it finally time to create a national catastrophe fund as insurance against hurricanes and the other forms of extreme weather that have been hammering the Midwest?

Six environmental and energy journalists posed potential debate questions in a recent piece published in the Columbia Journalism Review.

While making the case for a dedicated climate debate, David Turnbull of the activist group Oil Change International published a list of 60 climate-related questions that moderators could ask.

DO ask follow-up questions

When moderators have asked climate questions in past debates, some candidates have tried to skate by with vague answers and platitudes about the importance of a clean environment. We saw this in a number of 2018 senator and governor debates.

The solution is for moderators to ask follow-up questions and press candidates for more details and specifics. This has proved successful in some CNN town halls with Democratic presidential candidates this year. For example, during a February 18 town hall with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, an audience member asked her about the Green New Deal, and then moderator Don Lemon followed up with questions that elicited more specific answers.

DO help voters understand the differences between candidates' climate plans and approaches

Though the Democratic presidential contenders all say climate change is a serious crisis that needs to be addressed, they have diverse views on the best ways to do that. For example, the candidates have widely differing opinions on nuclear power, fracking, and fossil fuel exports, as The Washington Post has documented.

R.L. Miller of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote has started a list of questions that moderators could ask to help illuminate those policy differences.

DO study up on climate science and policy

Moderators should read up to make sure that they understand the basics of climate science and climate policy well enough to ask informed questions and spot any misinformation that may arise.

This would be less of a concern if the DNC agreed to have a dedicated climate debate with moderators who are knowledgeable about the subject area. Journalists with a strong background in climate and energy reporting would be best positioned to ask intelligent questions and spotlight important areas of disagreement.

DON’T let candidates get away with lies or distortions

Chuck Todd should take this recommendation in particular to heart. During a discussion about climate change on Meet the Press in November of last year, one of Todd’s guests made an absurd claim about global temperatures dropping and Todd let it slide by with no pushback. He caught a lot of flak for that, and he tried to redeem himself a month later by hosting a Meet the Press episode dedicated entirely to informed discussion of climate change, so we can hope he’ll be quicker on the draw if any climate misinformation crops up in the coming debate.

DO ask climate questions related to Florida

The first Democratic debate this year will take place in Miami, which is visibly and obviously under extreme threat from climate change. The whole state of Florida is already being dramatically affected.

Moderators should seize the opportunity to ask questions about climate-related challenges in Miami and in Florida more broadly, many of which would be relevant to other coastal communities in the U.S.

They could start by considering questions that a bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors suggested ahead of presidential primary debates in 2016, including one on protecting coastal infrastructure.

The editorial board of the Miami Herald recently suggested another topic:

How climate change and the rising sea will impact South Florida more immediately and severely than many other parts of the country. Candidates should be prepared to detail short- and long-term solutions for their Florida audience, they should offer creative ideas that reveal they understand what’s at stake for us.

The Tampa Bay Times, in its recent editorial calling for debates to focus on climate change, raised more Florida-centric topics worthy of discussion:

Tidal flooding already pours into Miami even on sunny days. Miami Beach has spent hundreds of millions of dollars for new stormwater management systems to pump seawater from the neighborhoods. Red Tide and algae blooms are costing the fishing, restaurant and tourism industries tens of millions of dollars a year. A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists estimates that residential properties in the state valued now at about $26 billion are at risk of chronic flooding by 2045. And the longer we wait for a fix, the more expensive it gets.

And a final DO, this one for the public: Tell NBC and the moderators what climate questions you want to hear

NBC is soliciting debate questions from the public via its website. Send in your suggestions.

Tweet at the moderators with your climate questions: José Diaz-Balart, Savannah Guthrie, Lester Holt, Rachel Maddow, and Chuck Todd. And get more traction for those tweets by using the hashtag #climatedebate.

We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.