Faced with an accelerating climate crisis, significant regulatory setbacks, and the passage of the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, moderators of the U.S. Senate debates in 2022 have to be engaging candidates in substantive discussions about climate change and energy policy. As in 2016, 2018, and 2020, Media Matters is tracking how often debate moderators ask U.S. Senate candidates in the 2022 midterms about climate change, which is a top issue for many voters.
So far, in two high-profile debates in Arizona and Georgia, moderators did not ask the candidates any questions about climate change. Going forward, moderators must ensure that viewers and voters hear about the candidates’ approaches to addressing the climate crisis and energy policy, as these are demonstrably important issues to voters.
The scorecard, which was updated after the Arizona and Georgia debates, will again be updated after this week’s debates in Colorado, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
Moderators must lead candidates in serious and substantive discussions about climate issues
Although the questions were far from perfect, climate change took center stage during the general election for the first time in 2020. Since then, the Supreme Court has severely curtailed the EPA’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions in West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency, while both 2021 and 2022 have seen devastating, record-breaking extreme climate events that disrupted the lives of millions of people.
Additionally, the fossil fuel industry has been credibly accused by environmental activists of profiteering from the economic instability caused by the war in Ukraine, obfuscating its refusal to produce more oil and gas, padding its record 2021 profits through anti-consumerist practices, and moving to deepen the world’s reliance on its products. In rare good news, Congress passed the very imperfect, albeit historic Inflation Reduction Act this summer, which allocates $369 billion in climate and energy provisions, which is relevant because a portion of the funds will be distributed to the state level for clean energy and climate resilience projects.
These momentous climate events require moderators to lead candidates into meaningful exchanges on climate, energy, and related issues. To do this, moderators must, at minimum, do the following:
Avoid conservative talking points and challenge false right-wing narratives
Right-wing media pushed a number of false climate narratives during the 2020 election, lying about everything from Biden’s climate plan to whether forest management is the key driver of the West Coast’s increasingly devastating wildfires. Particularly relevant for the upcoming Pennsylvania debate, right-wing media outlets repeatedly claimed in 2020 that then-candidate Joe Biden would ban fracking if elected president. Now, they are misleading their audiences about Senate candidate John Fetterman's stance on fracking.
In 2022, right-wing media have pursued a strategy of explicit climate denial, fossil fuel cheerleading, blaming the Biden administration for global energy woes. Moderators must avoid right-wing framing of climate and energy questions, and challenge candidates’ false claims about each others’ positions, while avoiding common pitfalls such as the insidious personal-sacrifice framing. They should also take care to not repeat and amplify right-wing talking points about issues such as America’s supposed energy independence and instead focus on eliciting if and how the candidates’ plan to help transition America away from a fossil fuel economy to a green economy that is powered by renewable energy.
If the candidates mention climate change during a response, moderators should take the time to explore the issue
The climate crisis forms the backdrop of nearly every other issue, including trade, the economy, health care, and national security. Unfortunately, in previous debates, moderators have at times ignored or pivoted away from candidates who mentioned climate change in response to questions about seemingly unrelated topics. Moderators should be able to contextualize how climate connects to myriad issues and, if a candidate raises climate in response to an unrelated question, be able to elicit a better understanding of how and why the candidate mentioned climate change in that context.
Challenge the candidates to give specific examples of how they will approach climate change, energy policy, and environmental pollution
Every city, state, and region where a debate is being held faces dire climate consequences. Colorado faces threats from extreme heat, drought, and wildfires, while New Hampshire faces a future of increased sea level rise and coastal flooding, and Pennsylvania could see more extreme heat days and drought.
With all of this in mind, debate moderators should provide candidates with ample time and opportunity to discuss their approaches towards mitigating climate change and protecting vulnerable communities who face disproportionate risk from climate change and environmental pollution.
Because of the attention and scrutiny the debates attract, viewers and voters have a unique opportunity to learn how candidates plan to address climate change and the issue of pollution. Based on previous years, and the two debates we’ve monitored this year, the news media still has much room for improvement. Time will tell if the three debates this week will provide viewers with the substantive climate discussion this moment demands.