Only 9% of the questions asked during the CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic presidential primary debate on January 14 in Iowa were about the climate crisis, and most were shallow or based on conservative framing.
The debate moderators asked only eight questions about climate change out of 91 total; four were full questions on the topic and four were follow-ups. The moderators were widely panned for ignoring or cutting off potential climate discussions initiated by the candidates and for raising the issue so late in the debate.
Moderators continue to give climate short shrift during an election cycle in which the issue is top of mind for many voters. It was the subject of 9% of questions at the last debate, hosted by PBS/Politico; 6% at the MSNBC/Washington Post debate on November 20; zero at the CNN/New York Times debate on October 15; 7% at the ABC/Univision debate on September 12; just under 10% during the two-night debate hosted by CNN on July 30 and 31; and less than 6% during the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June.
Beyond the paucity of questions, the quality of climate questions has been poor. Previous debate moderators often failed to lead substantive discussions about the climate crisis, routinely framed climate and environmental issues through a conservative lens, and almost completely disregarded environmental justice matters. Last night’s moderators continued many of these unfortunate trends.
The climate segment of the night was moderated by Des Moines Register chief politics reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel. While she included every candidate in the discussion, her climate questions were mostly shallow and focused on the costs of climate action rather than the costs of inaction. Pfannenstiel began the discussion by asking former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg a question that recognized the cataclysmic damage last spring’s flooding caused to vast swaths of Iowa -- as well as the toll this has taken on state residents -- before pivoting to what Buttigieg would do about “farms and factories that simply can't be moved?”
BRIANNE PFANNENSTIEL: Let's turn now to the climate crisis. Here in Iowa parts of the state remain under water after record-breaking flooding began last spring, racking up an estimated $2 billion in damages. Today many Iowans are still displaced from their homes. Mayor Buttigieg, you have talked about helping people move from areas at high risk of flooding. But what do you do about farms and factories that simply can't be moved?
After asking Buttigieg to clarify his answer, Pfannenstiel asked entrepreneur Tom Steyer to respond to the same question and followed up by asking him whether his investments in fossil fuels made him “the right messenger on this topic.”
PFANNENSTIEL: Mr. Steyer, to clarify, you say you're the climate change candidate, but you made your $1.6 billion in part by investing in coal, oil, and gas. So are you the right messenger on this topic?
Pfannenstiel then asked Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren a rare question about the Trump administration's unprecedented assault on environmental regulations, specifically his latest attack on the National Environmental Policy Act.
PFANNENSTIEL: Sen. Warren, President Trump is rolling back major environmental rules to allow pipeline and other major infrastructure projects to be built without strict environmental review. Will you restore those protections and in a way that the next president can't overturn?
After Warren completed her answer, Pfannenstiel asked Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar why she didn’t support a fracking ban.
PFANNENSTIEL: Sen. Klobuchar, some of your competitors on this stage have called for an all-out ban on fracking. You haven't. Why not?
Pfannenstiel then asked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden to respond, and the moderators concluded the climate part of the debate.
Throughout the night, the candidates also tried to connect climate change to foreign policy and the economy. Two candidates specifically raised the issue of environmental justice. But the moderators did not appear interested in exploring how climate change will affect candidates' foreign and domestic policy, instead choosing to ignore, pivot, or outright rebuke candidates who mentioned the climate in response to issues the moderators wrongly deemed unrelated.
It would have been particularly useful to see a more in-depth conversation connecting the effects of climate change, extreme weather, and environmental justice in Iowa. Not only does the state face dire health and economic impacts because of climate change, but these impacts have already worsened, and will continue to worsen, economic inequities in the region.
Environmental activists widely criticized the moderators’ performance on climate.
With only three primary debates scheduled in early voting states, last night’s moderators squandered one of the few opportunities for the public to watch the candidates articulate how their plans would mitigate the worst impacts of the climate crisis and compare and contrast them on stage. Given the Trump administration’s unrelenting assault on vital environmental regulations, the year after year of record-shattering extreme weather, and a rapidly closing window to avoid the worst climate consequences, viewers deserved better on these issues; it’s too bad they didn’t get it.