As the devastating consequences of extreme weather play out across the country -- hurricanes in the South, heat waves across the Southwest, and wildfires up and down the West Coast -- moderators in the general election debates will need to vastly improve upon how previous debates addressed the climate crisis. To do this, they must engage the candidates in substantive discussions about climate change and environmental policy, while challenging disinformation and not framing the conversation around conservative talking points that promote dangerous climate inaction.
How the moderators performed during the recent Democratic presidential primary
The moderators of this year’s three general election debates between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are all political journalists rather than climate or science reporters, which has not boded well for substantive climate discussions in the past. Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace will moderate the first debate on September 29; C-SPAN political editor Steve Scully will moderate the second debate on October 15; and NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker will moderate the third debate on October 22.
Together, they will have three opportunities to improve on moderators’ performances during recent Democratic primary debates, in which less than 7% of the questions were about climate change or the environment -- just 83 out of 1,208. In two of the 11 Democratic primary debates, moderators failed to ask a single climate question.
Not only were climate questions rare, but even when the moderators deigned to ask about climate change or the environment, their queries largely adopted a conservative framing that was skeptical of the efficacy of climate action. This is partly the result of the fossil fuel industry’s decades long, billion-dollar campaigns to erode the public consensus on climate change, thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line, and fool the public about the industry’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
While corporate TV news has been less likely to amplify outright climate denial of late, the skepticism toward ambitious climate solutions and the tendency to elevate industry-approved “solutions” remain problems in mainstream coverage. Rather than posing substantive questions about the candidates’ approaches to solving the climate crisis and improving the environment, moderators tended to ask questions with conservative framing that focused on the costs of proposed climate plans or presumed climate action would harm the economy.
According to a new Media Matters analysis, 49% of the moderators’ climate questions during the Democratic primary debates were framed conservatively, while 51% were mostly neutral and focused on policy issues such as climate impacts, climate solutions, or environmental justice; the role of the fossil-fuel industry in thwarting climate action; or the political horse race.
Questions framed around conservative complaints about the assumed costs of climate action are especially harmful to public awareness because they ignore the enormous costs of not fighting climate change. In 2018, climate disasters and extreme weather events cost the United States an estimated $91 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a 1.5 degree C rise in the global average temperature “would cost the world’s economies $54 trillion.” And as an Axios story about research published by the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research explains, it gets precipitously worse from there:
- You think $54 trillion is a lot? That number comes from research that also says that a 2.0°C increase will cause $69 trillion of damage, and a 3.7°C increase will cause a stunning $551 trillion in damage.
- $551 trillion is more than all the wealth currently existing in the world, which gives an indication of just how much richer humanity could become if we don't first destroy our planet.
An example of a question focused on the potential problems with climate action instead of inaction came during the June 26, 2019, debate hosted by NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo. On the first night of the debate, NBC's Chuck Todd posed the following question to then-candidate and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro:
Another variation of this conservative framing around the costs of climate action that moderators propagated implied that climate action would harm the economy. For example, Politico’s Tim Alberta asked Biden the following questions during the December 19, 2019, Democratic primary debate hosted by PBS and Politico:
When they weren’t questioning the cost of climate action or suggesting it will harm the economy, the moderators did some hand-wringing over whether climate proposals such as the Green New Deal are “realistic.” For example, CNN’s Dana Bash asked the following question of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) during the July 30, 2019, primary debate hosted by CNN:
Questions about whether climate policies are “realistic” -- or worse, describing them as “a government takeover” or “overreach” -- rely on extremely conservative framing and give fodder to some of the most reactionary elements on the right. Combatting the climate crisis will take government mobilization at the local, state, and federal level. But questions like the following, which NBC’s Chuck Todd posed to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX), play right into right-wing caricatures depicting reasonable climate policy as “radical” or “socialist.”
As the right-wing climate disinformation campaign ramps up into overdrive ahead of the November election, voters can scarcely afford for moderators to be ill-informed on the science of climate change, the efficacy of the candidates’ plans to meet the challenge, or the existence of realistic climate policies that may stave off the worst consequences.
Right-wing media have been rife with climate misinformation during the 2020 election
The right-wing media echo chamber has been working overtime to amplify disinformation about everything from Biden’s climate plan to whether forest management is the key driver of the West Coast’s increasingly devastating wildfires.
Fox News in particular has ramped up its climate misinformation and propaganda campaign. Ahead of the Democratic and Republican nominating conventions, Fox News spent an entire month lying about Biden's climate plan after he unveiled it on July 14. These unhinged and misleading attacks included the fake narrative that Biden will ban fracking if he is elected, resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in critical battleground states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas.
During the Democratic National Convention, Fox News and its right-wing allies, continued to lie about Biden’s climate plan and even advanced the absurd idea that it will spread the blackouts that California saw in August across the country.
Since the convention, the lies from Fox have continued apace. Most recently, Fox’s coverage has downplayed and denied the role of climate change in the apocalyptic West Coast wildfires. Using every tool in the denier playbook, Fox hosts and guests engaged in outright climate denial, blamed poor forest management to deflect responsibility from the climate crisis, and advanced dangerous conspiracy theories about supposed antifa arsonists setting the fires.
To counteract any disinformation that may crop up during the debates, moderators must: make sure they understand the basics of climate science; read the candidates’ plans to address climate change; and know the current climate and environmental policies well enough to spot and challenge any disinformation narratives that may arise. Moderators must also be prepared to confront common right-wing tropes, such as the insidious narratives of personal sacrifice and America’s supposed energy independence, that are all too often used to frame media discussions of climate policy.
2020 is no anomaly; moderators of the 2016 debates also rarely asked about climate change
Our recent slate of climate-fueled catastrophes isn’t new; 2016 was also a historic year for climate disasters. According to analysis by the Center for American Progress:
Extreme weather and climate disasters caused a staggering 297 deaths and $53.5 billion in economic damage in the United States in 2016. Of these disasters, 15 cost at least $1 billion and together triggered $49.1 billion in damage across 38 states. Center for American Progress analysis found that the economic toll of the 15 most destructive extreme weather events in 2016 was more than double the cost of similarly catastrophic events in 2015, which totaled $21.5 billion.
Despite this clear and dire threat, only 1.5% of the questions in the 2016 presidential primary debates were about climate change -- a mere 22 questions out of 1,477 in total. More alarmingly, moderators didn't pose a single climate question during the three general election debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The scale of this crisis demands that debate moderators do a much better job raising the issue of climate change than moderators have done during previous election cycles, but this is a low bar to clear.
Moderators must also engage the candidates in serious and substantive discussions of the climate crisis
Communities across the United States and abroad were leveled by record-shattering extreme weather events in 2019. In 2020, devastating wildfires, heat waves, and hurricanes have upended the lives of millions of Americans, while people from socially marginalized communities who bear the brunt of economic, health, and environmental inequities have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The recovery process from these disasters is also particularly difficult for the most vulnerable populations.
To ensure a truly informative discussion on climate and the environment, moderators should ask the candidates about issues such as environmental racism, enforcement of environmental regulations, environmental justice claims for indigenous peoples, and the disproportionate harm that air and water pollution have on low-income communities and communities of color.
Moderators must also ask follow-up questions to prevent candidates from skating by with vague platitudes about the importance of a clean environment and push them to provide more details and specifics.
Unfortunately, there are already troubling signs that this may not happen in the first debate.
Ahead of the first debate between Trump and Biden, 45 climate and environment organizations released a letter urging moderators to engage the candidates in substantive discussions about their specific plans to address the climate crisis. The letter, dated September 3, is signed by organizations representing millions of members across the country, and it reads in part:
The 45 undersigned organizations stand with the vast majority of voters who favor bold government action to address the climate crisis. Together, we are asking you — the debate moderators charged with shaping these moments — to ensure the climate crisis is a central focus of all presidential and vice-presidential debates this year. It is imperative the candidates seeking our nation’s highest office explain how they will address and prepare us for the current and increasing effects of the climate crisis and how they will combat the environmental injustice that has plagued Black and brown communities for decades.
They are right; the climate crisis is top of mind for many Americans.
A Pew Research survey released in April found that 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 Data for Progress survey found that 77% of likely voters say it is important for news media to connect climate science to extreme weather events, and 71% want to know if climate change is exacerbating an extreme weather event when it’s discussed in the news.
The 2016 general election debates between Clinton, Trump, and their respective running mates shattered viewing records. According to Adweek, “a total of 91.7 million viewers watched the four debates across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in 2016.” Because of the attention and scrutiny the debates attract -- as well as the accelerating pace of climate change playing out in real time -- moderators must demand answers from the candidates about how they will lead on the existential crisis of our time.
To determine the category or type of questions moderators posed to candidates, Media Matters coded the questions in three stages. First, we determined the question’s focus, which fell into categories such as “Trump administration statement or action,” “climate impacts/threats,” and “climate policy/solutions,” among others, to identify the climate and environment questions and differentiate them from each other.
Second, after we determined the focus of the question, we assigned it a frame based on the following categories:
- Conservative framing: The question was characterized by skepticism of climate science or climate solutions, emphasized laissez faire or market-driven policies to address climate challenges, and/or expressed opposition to environmental regulation.
- Fossil fuel/industry groups stalling action: The question was characterized by an emphasis on if, how, and why the fossil fuel industry is thwarting climate action.
- Campaign/horse race politics: The question was characterized by an emphasis on electoral politics.
- Policy: The question was characterized by an emphasis on whether a particular climate or environmental policy will meet specific challenges of the climate crisis or environmental pollution.
- Trump climate denial: The question was characterized by an emphasis on President Donald Trump’s acceptance or nonacceptance of the science of climate change.
Third, once we determined the question frame, we identified questions matching the criteria for “conservative framing” and further classified the type of conservative framing it matched based on the following categories:
- Is it realistic?
- These questions emphasized whether a climate policy is politically feasible rather than how well it addresses the challenges of climate change. For example, “You're a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, which includes the guarantee of a job with medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security for everyone in America. Explain how that's realistic.”
- Is it too expensive?
- These questions emphasized the costs of climate action versus the costs of inaction. For example, “If pricing carbon is just politically impossible, how do we pay for climate mitigation?”
- Is it bipartisan?
- These questions emphasized skepticism about a climate policy based on whether it had bipartisan political support rather than how well it addresses the challenges of climate change. For example, “Leading the world in resolving the climate crisis will be a multi-decade project, spanning far beyond even a two-term presidency. If you are elected president, how would you ensure that there is secure leadership and bipartisan support to continue this project?”
- Is it government overreach?
- These questions emphasized the presumption that climate policy is tantamount to government intrusion or overreach, which could limit or inhibit an individual’s personal freedoms. For example, “What is your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you are trying to do but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live? What is that balance like?”
- Does it hurt the economy?
- These questions emphasized the presumption that a climate policy would somehow harm the economy without mentioning specific provisions in the policy that would grow or improve the economy. For example, “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?”
For this analysis, Media Matters counted only discrete climate questions related to climate change or the environment. We did not include follow-up questions to the same question, invitations to make opening or closing statements, or interjections or clarifications from the moderators.