The climate crisis was the topic of 6% of questions during the MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic presidential primary debate in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 20. The moderators posed a total of 77 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, and five were climate-related - - one reader-submitted question and four brief follow-up questions. There were no questions about environmental justice.
The moderators’ mediocre performance on climate continues an ongoing trend of corporate news outlets giving the issue short shrift during debates in 2019. In the CNN and New York Times debate on October 15, the moderators did not ask 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 9.5% of the questions during the two-night debate hosted by CNN on July 30 and 31. During the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate.
An April CNN poll found that climate change is a top-tier issue for Democratic voters this election cycle, and a recent Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that nearly 50% of respondents “believe action is urgently needed within the next decade if humanity is to avert its worst effects.” Still, approximately one hour passed last night before the moderators asked a question about the climate crisis.
Moderator Rachel Maddow acknowledged the saliency of climate change to viewers when she began the brief climate part of the debate. She noted:
The U.N. recently reported that what was once called climate change is now a climate crisis, with drastic results already being felt. Climate is also an issue important to our audience. We received thousands of questions from our viewers, and many of them were about climate.
After priming the audience for a substantive climate discussion, Maddow posed the following reader question to Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI):
Calista from Minneapolis writes this. 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?
She then asked a follow-up to Tom Steyer:
You've made climate change a central point of your political career. To this issue of making change -- changes that last, making changes that are permanent, could you address that, sir?
After Steyer answered, Maddow allowed former Vice President Joe Biden to respond, granted Steyer one more follow-up, and then asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders to “jump in.” With that, Maddow ended the debate’s climate discussion.
Candidates sought openings to talk about the climate crisis
Just because the question came from a reader, that doesn’t absolve the moderators of responsibility. The query was narrowly framed, not even beginning to address the scale of the climate crisis, and they excluded more than half of the candidates on stage from the ensuing discussion.
But addressing the climate crisis was clearly top of mind for many candidates, who made more than 10 unprompted mentions of climate change and the environment, three unprompted responses to holding fossil fuel companies liable for the climate crisis, and one unprompted reference to environmental justice. Still, none of the moderators followed up on these points.
Widely panned, moderators’ performance bolsters the case for a climate debate
Viewers who watched CNN’s and MSNBC’s climate forums in September know that corporate TV news can do a good job on climate when so inclined. And recent candidate forums hosted on The Weather Channel and DemocracyNow! showed that moderators can ask questions that further viewers’ understanding of how candidates would use the presidency to push for equitable climate solutions and fight for environmental justice. So it’s disappointing that last night’s moderators did not engage the candidates in a substantive climate discussion, especially considering the broad media attention and public scrutiny that sanctioned debates attract and the fact that their own viewers demanded it.
Last night’s performance bolsters the case that absent a dedicated climate debate sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee, mainstream media outlets will not commit to sustained, substantive coverage of the climate crisis during this presidential primary cycle.
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.