There's plenty to discuss at tonight's CNN/Des Moines Register Democratic presidential primary debate, but given the scale of worldwide climate events, moderators should give the candidates significant time to explain how their plans will mitigate the most harmful effects of the climate crisis and address the consequences of environmental injustice.
CNN’s debate performances on climate have not been stellar. Although the network hosted a historic, generally well-received climate forum last September, the moderators of the CNN/New York Times primary debate on October 15 did not ask even a single climate question, and less than 10% of the questions posed during its two-night debate on July 30 and 31 were about the climate crisis. Tonight's moderators -- CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip, and Des Moines Register chief politics reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel -- should seize this opportunity to engage the candidates in substantive conversation on important climate and environmental issues.
Plenty of room to improve on 2019’s debate performance on climate
Climate was nearly absent from the 2019 primary debates; in 2020, debate moderators need to do a better job.
The climate crisis was the topic of 9% of the questions during the PBS/Politico Democratic presidential primary debate on December 19--the highest so far. In the debate hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post on November 20, only 6% of the questions were about the climate crisis, while it was the topic of just 7% of the questions asked during the ABC/Univision debate in Houston on September 12. During the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate.
On top of these abysmal numbers, the moderators’ 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. Additionally, the moderators of past debates repeatedly missed critical opportunities to give the climate crisis a human face -- but that may be unavoidable now.
The Australian fires demand a substantive discussion of climate and the dangers of misinformation
Climate change is intensifying the fires in Australia. According to Climate Nexus:
A study looking at Australia's 2015/16 bushfire season found that climate change doubled the risk of extreme surface dryness. Climate change is increasing bushfire risk in Australia by lengthening fire season, decreasing precipitation and increasing temperature, according to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology.
The scale of carnage is unimaginable: From September -- when the first bushfire broke out -- to early January, the fires have burned more than 15 million acres, destroyed approximately 2,000 buildings and homes, and killed at least 28 people.
Despite the fires’ sheer devastation, news about them has been rife with climate denial and disinformation. According to an opinion piece from The Guardian’s Van Badham:
Today, both Donald Trump Jr and Rupert Murdoch’s local News Corp brands have been pushing the “arson emergency” theme to our fires, blaming them on nefarious firebugs. News Corp are citing figures for “arson” arrests that are, politely, inconsistent with those released by the police. Again, the Victorian premier has confirmed police information that not a single fire currently raging in this state has been deliberately lit. Yet the arson myth has already been dogging social media commentary for weeks – and a QUT study reported on Tuesday its appearance is no hapless whisper but conforms to the patterns of a coordinated disinformation campaign.
To understand the ruthless waves of disinformation spreading online – and those so willing to spruik their claims – is to understand how the Australian fires have also given the political right much to fear. Commentators elsewhere have made the point that years of weaponising the issue of climate change as a battlefront for a culture war has been a valuable asset for rightwing political movements, electorally and beyond.
The science is concluded: it’s climate change that has drawn out the Australian fire season, by heating the temperature and drying the air. The intense disinformation campaign online is a mad scramble from those interests that are vested in ongoing climate denial to confuse and obfuscate the facts of the fires and thereby head off any political pressure for meaningful climate action that may coalesce in their wake.
In America, broadcast media have not only failed to reflect the magnitude of this ongoing crisis, but also largely failed to connect the bushfires to our warming climate. This includes a refusal to report on Australians who have challenged Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and his party’s continued climate denial even as bushfires continue to devastate large swaths of the country.
CNN has linked the fires to climate change during some of its news programs; its moderators should also make this connection during the debate.
Moderators should ask questions that connect the Australian fires to the increasingly destructive wildfires ravaging America’s western states. Candidates should be asked about how their plans will mitigate the worst climate impacts in America and how they will work to rebuild global consensus around climate action, particularly with governments like Australia’s that downplay or deny climate change.
The moderators should also be careful to not repeat disinformation about Australia’s megafires and ensure any questions about the fires recognize that climate change is a “threat multiplier,” as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe noted on Twitter.
Moderators should avoid right-wing framing of climate and energy questions
JORGE RAMOS (MODERATOR): Senator Booker, let me ask you about Brazil. After the recent fires in the Amazon, some experts suggested that eating less meat is one way to help the environment. You are a vegan since 2014. That's obviously a personal choice, but President Trump and Brazil's President Bolsonaro are concerned that climate change regulations could affect economic growth. So should more Americans, including those here in Texas, and in Iowa, follow your diet?
Another example comes from the second night of CNN’s two-night presidential primary debate on July 30 and 31. Moderator Dana Bash’s climate-related questions, particularly around whether the Green New Deal was “realistic,” drew plenty of criticism because of their focus on the costs of climate action rather than the costs of inaction:
DANA BASH: I want to talk about that with Senator Gillibrand. 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.
Considering the Trump administration’s blundering foreign policy in the Middle East, the moderators are almost guaranteed to ask about national security and war with Iran. They should certainly not repeat and amplify right-wing talking points claiming America’s supposed energy independence allows us to act with near impunity in the Middle East, but they should also ask questions about how the candidates’ climate plans will inform their foreign policy. According to a September 2019 article in The Week:
The only true way to minimize all those risks to America's economy and security is to cease using these energy sources at all. Electrify everything — not just transportation, but heating for homes and buildings, heavy industry processes, and all the rest of it — and then shift all electricity generation onto solar, wind, and other renewables.
Moderators should ask candidates not only how they will wean America off both foreign and domestic fossil fuels, but also about their specific plans to transition America to a green economy that runs on renewable energy.
Iowa is the right place to talk about the climate crisis and environmental injustice
Iowa, among other Midwest states, faces dire health and economic impacts because of climate change. According to a story by Iowa Public Radio:
Iowa is seeing certain impacts of climate change impacts more clearly than much of the rest of the country, according to a new analysis for the Iowa Policy Project. The findings predict the trend of increasingly hot, wet weather in the Upper Midwest will likely continue and worsen if greenhouse gas emissions go unchecked.
Historic flooding battered both ends of the state this year, as floodwaters swamped western Iowa communities along the Missouri River and eastern Iowa communities along the Mississippi. A new report for the Iowa Policy Project finds the increased risk of these kinds of damaging natural disasters is in line with the anticipated impacts of climate change.
“The effects of climate change, in both rural and urban Iowa, are becoming increasingly clear,” the report reads. “However, these impacts are still small compared with what is projected over the next few decades under moderate and higher emission scenarios, and almost insignificant compared to those projected to the latter part of the century.”
The Des Moines Register wrote about the Fourth National Climate Assessment’s finding that a warming climate will cause significant harm to Iowa’s agricultural industry. A few of these impacts include:
Intense heat waves could prevent corn and soybeans from pollinating, leading to greater risk of crop failure.
Heavy spring rains — likely followed by summer droughts — will tighten an already shortened planting window, exacerbating soil erosion and nutrient runoff that threatens Iowa's drinking water.
Productivity could drop to 1980s levels without a significant increase in the amount of seed, fertilizers and pesticides needed to raise a crop.
These harmful climate effects have worsened, and will continue to worsen, economic inequities in the Midwest and the South. A 2017 study titled “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States” found that Southern and Midwestern states will suffer the biggest resulting economic losses:
Some of these areas, already among the poorest in the country, stand to lose as much as 20 percent of the value of the goods and services they produce. In other words, climate change will make poverty worse in many areas.
In 2019, moderators largely missed opportunities to discuss climate impacts and environmental justice during debates hosted in Miami, Detroit, Houston, Ohio, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. Tonight’s moderators should ask the candidates to detail their equity, just transition, and resiliency plans, and how they will address both urban and rural poverty, especially given the debate location.
It’s past time for the moderators to get serious on climate
With four primary debates remaining, will viewers finally see a substantive exchange about how the candidates will tackle the climate crisis? 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 mitigate the worst climate impacts, it’s far past time for debate moderators to get serious on the climate crisis.