The climate crisis was the topic of 9% of questions during the PBS/Politico Democratic presidential primary debate in Los Angeles, California, on December 19. The moderators posed a total of 96 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, and nine were climate-related (three unique questions and six opportunities to follow up). One of the climate questions touched on the possibility of relocating residents from Paradise, California, because of the threat from climate change-fueled wildfires.
Though the percentage of climate-related questions in the sixth Democratic primary debate wasn’t significantly higher than in the previous debates, the number of unique questions and an early climate discussion which lasted 13 minutes made this debate a standout.
In the last debate, hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post on November 20, only 6% of the questions were about the climate crisis, while the moderators at the CNN/New York Times debate on October 15 did not ask even a single climate question. The climate crisis was the topic of just 7% of the questions during the ABC/Univision debate in Houston on September 12 and just under 10% of the questions during the two-night debate hosted by CNN on July 30 and 31. And during the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate.
Unlike in previous debates, climate was raised early in the December 19 debate and every candidate on stage was given at least one opportunity to speak about it. However, the quality of the questions was a mixed bag, ranging from essential queries about community adaptation and the looming crisis of climate displacement to conservative framing around questions about fossil fuel jobs and nuclear power.
While PBS has an exceptional history of climate coverage, debate organizers chose to have Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta moderate the climate portion of the debate. His first question, posed to Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), importantly acknowledged that the climate crisis will make parts of the United States unlivable:
We're going to talk about climate now. Senator Klobuchar, many scientists say that even if the U.S. reduced its carbon footprint to zero by the year 2050, the damage will have been done, that climate change will have made certain places in the U.S. unlivable.
So knowing this, would you support a new federal program to subsidize the relocation of American families and businesses away from places like Miami or Paradise, California, perhaps, Davenport, Iowa, because we know these places are going to be hit time and time again?
After asking both Tom Steyer and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to follow up, Alberta used right-wing framing in a question to former Vice President Joe Biden that pitted workers against a green economy:
Vice President Biden, I'd like to ask you. Three consecutive American presidents have enjoyed stints of explosive economic growth due to a boom in oil and natural gas production. As president, would you be willing to sacrifice some of that growth, even knowing potentially that it could displace thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in the interest of transitioning to that greener economy?
Alberta also asked Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) to respond before closing the climate segment with a question to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) about whether nuclear energy -- which he misleadingly characterized as efficient and affordable -- should be part of a net-zero emissions plan, with follow-up questions to Klobuchar and Andrew Yang:
Senator Warren, a new question to you, Senator Warren. Many of our Western allies rely heavily on nuclear energy because it's efficient, affordable, and virtually carbon-free. And many climate experts believe that it's impossible to realize your goal of net zero emissions by the year 2050 without utilizing nuclear energy. So can you have it both ways on this issue?
Year after year after year, PBS has easily outpaced commercial broadcast TV news in both the quantity and quality of its climate coverage. And unlike the other broadcast networks, PBS has consistently mentioned the links between climate change and extreme weather events, discussed climate solutions, and informed viewers about the Trump administration’s environmental rollbacks.
So it was disappointing that despite PBS’ strong legacy of climate coverage, Politico’s moderator led the climate conversation. With four primary debates remaining, when will viewers get to see the substantive debate about climate that the issue demands without questions framed around right-wing talking points?
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.