The three Democratic presidential primary debates in February present viewers with three more opportunities before Super Tuesday to learn how the candidates plan to mitigate the climate crisis and promote environmental justice. ABC News, local ABC affiliate WMUR-TV, and Apple News will host a debate on February 7 in Manchester, New Hampshire; NBC News, MSNBC, and the Nevada Independent newspaper will host a debate on February 19 in Las Vegas; and CBS News and the Congressional Black Caucus Institute will host a debate in partnership with Twitter on February 25 in Charleston, South Carolina.
To ensure viewers see the meaningful climate discussions they deserve, ABC, MSNBC, and NBC will have to do a much better job than they did during their debate performances in 2019, while CBS will have the opportunity to build on its recent history of improved climate journalism to facilitate a substantive discussion of climate during its debate.
How the previous debates handled the climate crisis
Climate was nearly absent from the 2019 primary debates, even though the climate crisis is a top concern for many voters. In debate after debate, moderators have largely failed to lead substantive discussions about climate change, routinely framed climate and environmental issues through a conservative lens, and virtually disregarded issues of environmental justice.
ABC, which is co-hosting the first February debate this Friday, has a poor history of climate reporting that didn’t bode well for its September 12 debate, co-hosted with Univision, and indeed the moderators failed to engage the candidates in a substantive discussion about the climate crisis. Out of 85 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, just six were climate-related (a mere 7%), and those were mostly framed through a conservative lens that focused on personal sacrifice.
Much like ABC’s, NBC’s debate performance mirrors its poor record of climate coverage. In 2019, the network’s morning, nightly, and Sunday news shows routinely failed to connect climate change to extreme weather events, ignored historic policy proposals drafted to address the climate crisis, and overlooked the Trump administration’s record of environmental rollbacks. Meanwhile, less than 6% of the questions asked during NBC’s two-night debate in late June were about the climate crisis. The questions were mostly poor, in some cases ignoring the crushing costs of climate-fueled disasters and instead fixating on the potential costs of taking climate action.
Even though MSNBC hosted an informative town hall about the Green New Deal in March and a well-regarded presidential candidates climate forum in September, the network has also hosted known climate deniers Hugh Hewitt and Bret Stephens. MSNBC ended the year with a widely panned debate performance that included a paltry number of questions about the climate crisis, despite many of the candidates raising the issue themselves.
Although CBS hasn’t hosted a debate this primary cycle, it is the only broadcast TV outlet to join Covering Climate Now, an initiative that includes hundreds of media outlets that are committed to improving their climate journalism. As such, the moderators should be expected to engage the candidates in a substantive discussion of climate change and the myriad environmental justice issues facing states like South Carolina.
A few reminders for the moderators
Avoid right-wing framing and disinformation
Moderators should avoid right-wing framing of climate and energy questions, including the insidious personal-sacrifice framing, which pits individual consumer choices against government and corporate actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and which is one of the right’s favorite talking points. They should also take care to not repeat and amplify right-wing talking points about issues such as America’s supposed energy independence and instead focus on asking how the candidates’ specific plans will transition America to a green economy that runs on renewable energy.
If climate comes up, moderators should not change the subject
During previous debates, candidates have recognized that the climate crisis is in the background of nearly every other issue, including trade, the economy, health care, and national security. Unfortunately, previous moderators have largely chosen to ignore, pivot away from, or outright rebuke candidates who mentioned climate change in response to questions about these issues. The candidates clearly recognize that climate change will affect their foreign and domestic policy; it’s time the moderators do, too.
Ask the candidates how they will address climate and environmental justice issues
Every city, state, and region where a debate will be held is facing dire consequences because of climate change and a legacy of environmental racism and injustice. New Hampshire is dealing with sea level rise and flooding, while Las Vegas, the fastest-warming city in the United States, will experience nearly 100 dangerous heat days a year by the end of the century. South Carolina is at risk for sea level rise, extreme heat, flooding, and drought.
In addition, more than half of New Hampshire residents live in an area with unhealthy air quality, while the state has passed some of the most stringent water contamination laws in the country to stop dangerous per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) from polluting the drinking water supply. Communities of color in Nevada suffer disproportionate harm from environmental pollution because many of them are situated near freeways and industrial plants. And, as journalist Brentin Mock wrote about the Carolinas for CityLab in 2018:
When it comes to the environmental justice movement in the U.S., few states can lay claim to as many origin sites, case studies, and defining landmarks as North and South Carolina. The historical narratives of African Americans across both urban and rural landscapes in these two states constitute much of the canon of the environmental justice movement.
These communities and cities not only have endured racism of both the policy-driven and violence-driven variety, but many of them are also located deep in the most defenseless zones of the Carolina floodplains, or in regions that are inundated with toxic pollution sources: large industrial animal feeding operations, open-air lagoons where volumes of animal waste are kept, storage facilities for coal-ash waste, landfills and other massive garbage disposal stations.
With all of this in mind, debate moderators should provide candidates with ample time and opportunity to discuss the disproportionate harm that air and water pollution have on low-income communities and communities of color, enforcement of environmental regulations, and environmental justice claims for indigenous peoples, among other issues.
Last August, the Democratic National Committee ruled against having a dedicated climate debate, thwarting the wishes of environmental and climate activists and most of the Democratic presidential field. Each subsequent debate has demonstrated the fundamental failure of that decision by largely ignoring this vital issue. Moderators of the remaining debates must finally engage the candidates in the substantive climate discussion that viewers both want and deserve.