Faced with an escalating climate crisis impacting millions of people across the country, a recent Supreme Court decision restricting environmental protections, and the passage of the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history, this year’s U.S. Senate debates could have provided viewers and voters with an opportunity to learn how candidates plan to address climate change and related issues.
Out of the five Senate debates monitored by Media Matters in 2022 — in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania — only one included discussion about climate change.
There are many salient issues this midterm election, but climate change is still top-of-mind for many voters. Unfortunately, their climate concerns were mostly ignored during key debates we monitored. Even urgent climate issues such as the historic Mississippi River drought were ignored, while ostensible climate issues like fracking were instead framed through a narrow political lens.
How moderators performed during the Senate debates
In four out of five high-profile debates – Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, and Pennsylvania – moderators did not ask the candidates any questions about climate change.
Climate change took center stage during debates for the first time in 2020’s presidential race, and a number of important climate-related events have happened since, including the Supreme Court decision in July severely curtailing the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. Also in 2022, the fossil fuel industry has been credibly accused by environmental activists of profiteering from the economic instability caused by the Russian 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. Meanwhile, both 2021 and 2022 have seen devastating, record-breaking extreme climate events that disrupted the lives of millions of people.
In a rare example of positive climate news, Congress passed the historic Inflation Reduction Act this summer. While very imperfect, the legislation allocates $369 billion in climate and energy provisions, a portion of which will be distributed at the state level for clean energy and climate resilience projects.
These momentous climate events provided moderators at Senate debates in 2022 with an obvious opportunity to lead the candidates into meaningful exchanges on climate, energy, and related issues. Far too many moderators ignored this opportunity — even in the face of an ongoing climate-fueled crisis that is affecting dozens of states.
The only debate that Media Matters monitored that included a discussion of climate change was the New Hampshire Senate debate on October 27, when New Hampshire Bulletin's energy and environment reporter Amanda Gokee led the candidates into discussions about climate and environmental regulation.
Though these discussions were relatively brief, they helped to illuminate both candidates' approaches to climate and demonstrated the importance of including a journalist well-versed in climate and environmental issues as a debate moderator.
The Mississippi River’s historic drought: a current climate threat ignored
The Mississippi River is facing a historic drought. After months of drought caused by lack of rain in the Ohio River Valley and Upper Mississippi, the river and its tributaries are at record low levels. The drought has disrupted the supply chain of U.S. agricultural products as barges ran aground, ports threatened closures, and companies considered delays due to needed dredging in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee. There are additional fears of salt water intrusion threatening drinking supplies. According to AccuWeather, the total economic cost of the low water levels is predicted to be $20 billion.
Although it is unknown whether climate change directly contributed to the Mississippi River’s drought conditions, global warming is expected to cause more severe floods and droughts. Conditions going into 2023 are expected to worsen because of the upcoming La Nina winter.
Media Matters also reviewed several gubernatorial and U.S. Senate debates in states that touch the Mississippi River and found that the drought was not mentioned in gubernatorial debates in Arkansas, Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin or Senate debates in Arkansas, Illinois, Iowa, or Wisconsin. Drought conditions are one of many climate impacts affecting states across the country, and just one example of how climate could have been discussed in midterm Senate debates.
Fracking as a political football: the Pennsylvania Senate debate
Fracking is a lightning rod for political reporters, but their attention to the political ramifications of this issue may overstate the role fracking plays in deciding elections in Pennsylvania. As Media Matters’ Ted MacDonald wrote last month:
Furthermore, focusing on the significance of a candidate's support for fracking may overstate the role that issue plays in deciding elections in Pennsylvania. A poll from September 2021 found that a majority of Pennsylvania residents would prefer to end fracking. While a more recent poll from Muhlenberg College found these numbers split, a clear majority says that fracking “poses a major risk to the state’s water resources.” (Cable TV networks also overly focused on fracking in 2020, even though it wasn't a big issue for Pennsylvania voters).
During the October 25 Pennsylvania Senate debate, moderator Lisa Sylvester, an anchor for Pittsburgh-based NBC affiliate WPXI, first asked Republican nominee Mehmet Oz about his shifting position on fracking before asking Democratic nominee Lt. Gov. John Fetterman if he had flip-flopped on his support of fracking. However, this line of questioning — which was possibly influenced by a campaign from right-wing media — ignored that fracking is a harmful practice. According to a 2019 study published in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health, “studies have reported associations between proximity to UNGD [unconventional natural gas development] and pregnancy and birth outcomes; migraine headache, chronic rhinosinusitis, severe fatigue, and other symptoms; asthma exacerbations; and psychological and stress-related concerns. Beyond its direct health impacts, UNGD may be substantially contributing to climate change (due to fugitive emissions of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas), which has further health impacts.”
Instead of focusing on whether fracking was good for the people of Pennsylvania, debate moderators framed the issue through a narrow political lens that was amplified by cable news and widely disseminated by right-wing media. Unfortunately, this framing silos climate change away from political action by implicitly suggesting that a candidate’s climate policy only matters if it gives them an advantage over their political opponents or is evidence of personal hypocrisy. There was little to no subsequent discussion about whether the candidates’ policy is adequate for mitigating climate change or environmental pollution.
Moderators will need to perform much better in future debates
Going forward, debate moderators must ensure that viewers hear about the candidates’ approaches to addressing the climate crisis and energy policy, as these are demonstrably important issues to voters — especially as the outlook for staving off the worst climate consequences becomes grimmer every year. Most recently, an Oregon State University study found that “key indicators of planetary ecological health are flashing red,” while a new United Nations report about nations’ climate pledges since the 2015 Paris Climate Accords concluded, “National pledges to reduce harmful emissions offer little hope of avoiding climate disaster.” Meanwhile, a separate United Nations report found that Europe is already “warming at twice the global average.”
The window for meaningful climate action is rapidly closing, and voters deserve to have candidates on the record discussing how they will address the climate crisis and environmental degradation. Moderators must also connect local climate impacts, such as fracking or the Mississippi River drought, to global climate challenges, and they must challenge the candidates to provide specific examples of how they will approach climate change, energy policy, and environmental pollution. Lastly, they must demand accountability on behalf of viewers for industries driving climate change.