The panel of debate moderators of tonight’s MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic presidential primary debate have an opportunity to facilitate a substantive discussion about issues that are too often ignored by broadcast and cable TV news, such as the harmful effects of the climate crisis and environmental injustice on communities across the country.
Two recent candidate forums (which are different from debates) highlighted specific impacts of the climate crisis and environmental injustice on communities across the country. Moderators of tonight’s debate should use their national platform to further viewers’ understanding of how candidates would use the presidency to push for equitable climate solutions and fight for environmental justice.
The four previous debates have not been strong on climate. In the last debate, which was hosted by CNN and The New York Times 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.
Even when the moderators have asked the candidates about climate change, they largely failed to draw out solutions to the climate crisis and answers on environmental justice -- the type of details that make these issues urgent for viewers. And by adopting conservative talking points and narrow political framing focused on the financial costs of climate action, the moderators of past debates missed opportunities to give the climate crisis a human face.
Climate-focused candidate forums are great, but they’re no substitute for national debates
In 2019, activists, voters, and journalists have mounted a campaign to increase corporate media attention to the climate crisis, with much of the early campaign coverage coalescing around calls for the Democratic National Committee to sponsor a dedicated climate debate. After the DNC rejected a potential climate debate in August, CNN and MSNBC hosted well-received climate forums in September.
On the heels of the two cable news forums, The Weather Channel aired a forum on November 7 titled “2020: Race to Save the Planet.” Mother Jones, a sponsor of the forum, explained the forum’s innovative format:
We wanted to avoid the predictable approach, and instead meet the candidates in communities they chose that had been impacted by climate change, talking to them there with Weather Channel meteorologists and Climate Desk reporters about how they’d address the climate crisis, and have more thoughtful, even personal, conversations.
And on November 8, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators joined with approximately two dozen national and local organizations to sponsor a forum dedicated to environmental justice titled, “Moving Vulnerable Communities from Surviving to Thriving.” According to Gizmodo, one of the event’s lead media partners:
The forum, a three-hour discussion of climate change and its disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, was historic, necessary, eye-opening, and—I hate to say it—disappointing.
That’s not because of the event itself. Moderators Mustafa Ali, former environmental justice chair for the Environmental Protection Agency, and Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman asked hard-hitting questions and shed light on all the ways climate change affects every aspect of people’s lives—from housing to farming. The event was disappointing because of the candidates that weren’t there, candidates who might’ve elevated the conversation.
Gizmodo’s praise and criticism of the forum highlight one of the format's key limitations: Forums generally do a good job of engaging individual candidates in substantive conversations about climate and the environment. But because they lack the official imprimatur of the DNC, forums cannot have candidates on stage together -- and there’s often little downside for candidates who choose not to attend. Only six Democrats and three Republicans participated in The Weather Channel’s climate forum, while only six candidates turned out for the first-ever presidential candidates forum on environmental justice. That’s just a small portion of the 17 candidates currently competing in the Democratic primary and the 10 who qualified for MSNBC’s upcoming debate.
Forums also do not attract as much media attention and public scrutiny as sanctioned debates. Since airing its forum on November 7, The Weather Channel has not, as of publication, made it available online in its entirety. The environmental justice forum was livestreamed on the DemocracyNow! website and is currently available to watch. But absent the attention that official DNC debates attract or the marketing and promotional push from corporate network hosts, forums have been hard-pressed to match the viewership of traditional debates -- let alone the record-setting 18.1 million viewers who tuned in to the June 27 debate.
A few ways that MSNBC’s moderators can elevate the discussion of climate action and environmental justice
November’s debate moderators -- MSNBC host Rachel Maddow, MSNBC host and NBC News chief foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell, NBC News White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and Washington Post White House reporter Ashley Parker -- can take a cue from the recent forums and frame the discussion of climate and the environment around issues of equity, just transition, and resilience.
This includes asking multiple questions about climate change and giving all candidates a chance to weigh in, avoiding conservative framing of climate solutions, and pushing for details on how to transition workers to a clean economy, mitigate the worst impacts, and support community resilience.
Moderators should also use their national stage to ask specific questions about candidates’ environmental justice plans. The breadth of questions asked during the recent environmental justice forum underscores how rarely, if ever, voters get to hear candidates talk about issues such as environmental racism, enforcement of environmental regulations, environmental justice claims for indigenous peoples, and the disproportionate harm that air pollution has on low-income communities and communities of color.
These questions are especially relevant considering that the debate is being held in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that has a rich civil rights legacy. Atlanta is currently ranked No. 25 among U.S. cities with the worst ozone pollution and No. 19 for worst year-round particle pollution. Considering that the Trump administration’s ongoing rollbacks of environmental protections may already be contributing to higher death rates from air pollution and that extreme weather events are wreaking havoc on cities like Atlanta, an Atlanta-based debate is a logical time to ask candidates how their climate proposals will affect voters.
Moderators should provide ample time for the candidates to explain and defend their plans for meeting the challenges presented by the climate crisis and the myriad environmental injustices wreaking havoc on American lives. Absent a dedicated climate debate, such an effort would be one of the best ways to help millions learn about the presidential hopefuls’ solutions to this existential crisis.