The climate crisis was the topic of 7% of questions during the ABC/Univision Democratic presidential primary debate in Houston on September 12. The moderators posed a total of 85 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, and just six were climate-related. ABC’s poor past record of climate reporting didn’t bode well for the debate, and indeed the moderators largely failed to engage the candidates in a substantive climate discussion.
Discussion of the climate crisis and solutions to address it have thus far been lacking in Democratic presidential primary debates. Climate change was the topic of 9.5% of 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.
The moderators of last night's debate did not turn to climate change until nearly the third hour, and they kicked off the related questions with a right-wing trope. Jorge Ramos, an anchor for Univision who moderated the climate portion of the debate, asked three questions on the topic. His first, which went to Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), adopted a personal sacrifice framing that is one of the right’s favorite talking points:
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?
He then directed a viewer question to former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX):
JORGE RAMOS: Congressman O'Rourke, Hurricane Harvey hit this town two years ago. And not only is the Amazon burning, Greenland is melting at a record pace. The last five years have been the hottest ever recorded. And we have a viewer's question about this. What meaningful action will you take to reverse the effect of climate change? And can we count on you to follow through if your donors are against it?
By contrast, the viewer-submitted question was far more substantive than Ramos’ climate question. After O’Rourke answered, Ramos asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) to follow up. He then asked Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), “Should American foreign policy be based around the principle of climate change,” and asked two of the candidates to follow up. None of the candidates were able to go into any depth about their climate plans or debate fellow candidates on specific climate proposals.
Voters have made climate change a top-tier issue, and the climate crisis was clearly top of mind for many of the candidates: The candidates made seven unprompted mentions about climate change and two unprompted references to clean energy jobs and environmental standards. But none of the moderators followed up on these candidate mentions.
Without a dedicated climate debate, moderators bear the responsibility for engaging the candidates in a meaningful discussion of the climate crisis. ABC’s debate moderators failed in that task.