Climate change, which was included on a list of general debate topics for the first time, took center stage during last night’s debate moderated by NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker. Out of the 102 questions or follow-ups Welker posed to President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, 13, or 13%, were about climate change or the environment.
That the issue of climate change has been raised in three consecutive general election debates, two presidential and one vice presidential, is a testament to the reality of an accelerating climate crisis voters see playing out in real time. California's wildfire season has recently set a record of 4 million acres burned and Hurricane Delta has recently ravaged western Louisiana -- only six weeks after Hurricane Laura hammered the same area. Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that Earth had its hottest September on record. And as the candidates took the stage on Thursday, the rapidly growing East Troublesome blaze had become the second-largest wildfire in Colorado’s history.
Credit for raising public concern about the consequences of climate change also goes to the many climate and environmental groups that have been organizing intensely to raise awareness of these issues and calling for climate change to be a centerpiece of the presidential debates. Their impact on the debate was noted on Twitter:
Notably, Welker asked a direct question about environmental justice, possibly the first time this has happened in a general election debate. And she mostly avoided amplifying debunked right-wing talking points and asking her climate questions through a conservative lens. However, her opening question about climate change and job creation seemed to suggest there is a tension between climate action and a healthy economy, which demonstrates how pervasive the conservative framing of this issue has become. This line of questioning also failed to contextualize the reality that more than 100,000 jobs were lost in the oil and gas industry this year. In Texas alone, the oil industry shed 26,300 jobs in the month of April. And just this week, Exxon announced that layoffs are now inevitable.
Meanwhile, the potential job growth for the renewable energy industry is exponential. These trends predate the COVID-19 pandemic, and voters deserve to hear how candidates would respond to reality instead of answering to right-wing talking points. As climate journalist Kate Aronoff noted on Twitter, “It's dishonest and irresponsible at this point for reporters to keep using a job versus environment frame when 100,000+ people have lost their jobs in the oil and gas industry this year”
Welker ended the debate on climate change, pressing the candidates for policy solutions on climate and environmental justice
Welker began the climate portion of the debate by asking both candidates how they would address climate change and job creation, beginning with President Trump.
KRISTEN WELKER (MODERATOR): You both have very different visions on climate change. President Trump, you say that environmental regulations have hurt jobs in the energy sector, Vice President Biden, you have said you see addressing climate change as an opportunity to create new jobs. For each of you, how would you both combat climate change and support job growth at the same time?
After a couple rounds of follow-up questions which gave the candidates an opportunity to share how they would, or would not, address the climate crisis, Trump pressed Biden on his fracking stance using repeatedly debunked right-wing talking points. This prompted Welker to ask Biden if he would “rule out banning fracking.”
The debate’s climate portion ended with an exceedingly rare question about environmental justice in which Welker asked Trump to explain why his administration rolled back environmental regulations protecting vulnerable communities from oil refineries and chemical plants in places like Texas.
Welker’s climate questions (mostly) avoided right-wing talking points and conservative framing
Even though right-wing media has shaped the climate debate for many election cycles, growing public concern about climate has made it impossible for politicians and the media to ignore the issue. This didn’t stop conservative media from seeding the 2020 election with climate misinformation and working to prevent a substantive climate discussion during the final debate.
Their efforts in the last regard were largely unsuccessful.
Welker mostly avoided right-wing media narratives on fracking and the Green New Deal that have played an outsized role in driving discussion about climate change during the general election. The only exception came in response to Trump’s harangue of Biden on fracking, which prompted her to ask Biden a question about fracking that he has answered multiple times.
Reviews for Welker’s debate performance, particularly on climate, were largely positive.
The public demands climate change be included in debates, but we’re still a long way away from seeing the substantive discussion the issue demands
Polling shows that not only is the climate crisis top of mind for many Americans, and they wanted to hear climate change discussed during the debates. A recent survey conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that 74% of registered voters want the debate moderators to ask the candidates climate questions. And a petition circulated by 45 climate and environmental organizations to demand that the debate moderators ask about climate change has garnered nearly 200,000 signatures.
Unfortunately, debate viewers during the 2020 election largely heard climate questions framed around bogus right-wing media narratives instead of the substantive discussion they demanded, despite a recent survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that found “majorities in all audiences say global warming or protecting the environment will be important to their vote for president.”
Because of the attention and scrutiny the debates attract, these were critical missed opportunities for viewers and voters to hear how candidates plan to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change and environmental pollution. Although this moderators' performance this election cycle is a decided improvement on 2016, the media still has a lot of work to do around this issue as the window of opportunity to avoid those catastrophic impacts becomes vanishingly smaller with each passing day.
In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters includes invitations to candidates to make responses, as well as follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic. We do not include invitations to make opening or closing statements. We also do not include interjections or clarifications from the moderators unless they are interjections to allow a different candidate to speak.