After Chris Wallace raised the issue of climate change in a general election debate for the first time in 12 years, many were hopeful that USA Today Washington bureau chief Susan Page would also engage the vice presidential candidates in a serious discussion about how their administrations would address the climate crisis. Although climate was the subject of 5 out of 37 questions or follow-ups, or 14%, she failed to engage Vice President Mike Pence and California Sen. Kamala Harris in a substantive conversation about climate change.
The fact that climate was raised at all during two consecutive general election debates speaks to the reality of an accelerating climate crisis playing out in real time and growing public concern about the consequences of climate change. In addition, the many climate and environmental groups that have been organizing intensely to raise public awareness of these issues and calling for climate change to be a centerpiece of the presidential debates deserve a great deal of credit.
Unfortunately, what viewers saw last night fell far short of the meaningful exchange the climate crisis demands.
Page laid out the stark consequences of climate change, but she failed to ask the candidates how their administrations plan to address its myriad challenges
Page’s first question to Pence included a detailed preamble about how climate change is driving devastating wildfires on the West Coast and record-breaking hurricanes along the Gulf Coast. Instead of asking Pence to justify the Trump administration's ongoing and unprecedented assault on environmental regulations, she focused on whether Pence “believe[s]” in climate change. Asking a policymaker like Pence about his “beliefs” about a scientifically established reality allows him to nod toward climate change, while pivoting away from the Trump administration’s troubling record on climate change and the environment.
SUSAN PAGE (MODERATOR): And Vice President Pence, I’d like to pose the first question to you. This year, we’ve seen record-setting hurricanes in the South. Another one, Hurricane Delta, is now threatening the Gulf, and we have seen record-setting wildfires in the West. Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower and more damaging?
Page’s next question, which was directed to Harris, was a relitigation of the Biden-Harris campaign stance on the Green New Deal from the previous debate and likely attributable to Fox’s misleading coverage. In fact, this question echoed Fox’s reporting this week and over nearly the past two years, which the network and GOP have spent trying to make the ambitious proposal toxic and labeling “virtually every climate change effort as part of the Green New Deal.”
Because of how this question was framed, Page never afforded Harris the opportunity to make an affirmative case for Joe Biden’s climate plan and detail if and how it will stave off the worst consequences of climate change.
PAGE: Sen. Harris, as the vice president mentioned, you co-sponsored the Green New Deal in Congress. But Vice President Biden said in last week's debate that he does not support the Green New Deal. But if you look at the Biden-Harris campaign website, it describes the Green New Deal as a "crucial framework." What exactly would be the stance of a Biden-Harris administration toward the Green New Deal?
Building on a part of Harris’ answer, Page asked a follow-up question to Pence that was, again, about whether he believes climate change poses an “existential threat.”
PAGE: Senator Harris just said that climate change is an existential threat. Vice President Pence, do you believe that climate change poses an existential threat?
After allowing Harris and then Pence to follow up, Page concluded the climate portion of the debate.
While she deserves credit for raising the issue of climate change during a general election debate, Page failed to push the candidates for specifics about how their administration’s will or won’t address the challenges of climate change. And she asked an easily avoidable “gotcha” question about whether Biden flip-flopped on the Green New Deal that has been promulgated by Fox News to advance the false idea that his answer will divide the Democratic Party.
Page’s climate questions were widely panned on social media
Page drew substantial criticism for the focus of her climate questions.
Moderators are discussing climate change because it is an inescapable reality that the public is increasingly concerned about
Polling shows that not only is the climate crisis top of mind for many Americans, but they also want to hear climate change discussed during the debates. According to a Pew Research survey released in April, 62% of respondents indicated that climate change was affecting their community, while 64% of respondents said that “protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress.” And a recent survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that “large majorities in most news audiences are interested in news stories about a wide range of global warming topics.” The survey also found that “majorities in all audiences say global warming or protecting the environment will be important to their vote for president.”
When it comes to 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 environment organizations to demand that the debate moderators ask about climate change has garnered nearly 200,000 signatures, as well as the backing of significant numbers of senators and representatives.
Because of the attention and scrutiny the debates attract, it is heartening that an audience of millions was able to see the presidential and vice presidential nominees finally asked questions about climate change. But as the West Coast continues to burn and another major hurricane barrels toward the Gulf Coast, viewers have yet to see the truly substantive discussion that the climate crisis demands.
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.