PBS NewsHour, which is co-hosting Thursday night’s presidential primary debate with Politico in Los Angeles, has a long history of producing substantive climate journalism that makes it well-suited to facilitate a wide-ranging, substantive discussion about the candidates’ plans to address the climate crisis. Climate should be a salient topic given that the debate is occurring in a state that is especially vulnerable to its worst impacts.
PBS NewsHour has a strong legacy of quality climate journalism
Year after year, PBS has easily outpaced the rest of broadcast TV news in the quantity and quality of its climate coverage. For the last three years -- 2016, 2017, and 2018 -- PBS aired more climate segments than each of the corporate broadcast networks, and the network is on pace to do the same this year. PBS has also consistently mentioned in its coverage the links between climate change and extreme weather events, highlighted climate solutions, informed viewers about the Trump administration’s environmental rule rollbacks, and discussed climate with many of the candidates that will be on stage Thursday night.
The location of the debate, California, demands a substantive climate discussion
Climate change has created a new wildfire reality for California. The state’s fire season is now almost year round. More than 25 million acres of California wildlands are classified as under very high or extreme fire threat. Approximately 25 percent of the state’s population –11 million people – lives in that high-risk area.
Although California has been ravaged by increasingly destructive wildfires -- 10 of the most destructive wildfires have happened within the last five years -- the state is also at risk from severe drought, sea-level rise and coastal erosion, and extreme heat. On top of these challenges, Trump has declared war on California’s environmental policies.
PBS NewsHour was one of two nightly news shows to connect climate change to the California wildfires in October and the only nightly news show to mention climate in relation to the wildfires in 2018. Now that it’s co-hosting a primary debate in California, moderators can use this compelling backdrop to challenge the candidates on their specific plans for addressing climate change, as well as how well those plans align with California’s ambitious climate legislation.
PBS has the potential to set an example for future debates
The five previous debates have been largely weak on the issue of climate and the environment. In the last debate, which MSNBC and The Washington Post hosted on November 20, only 6% of the questions were about the climate crisis, while the moderators who hosted the CNN/New York Times debate on October 15 did not ask even 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. And during the two-night debate hosted by NBC in late June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate.
When the moderators did broach the topic, they missed opportunities to give the climate crisis a human face. Rather than ask the candidates about solutions to climate change and their approaches to environmental justice -- the type of details that make these issues urgent for viewers -- the moderators framed their questions through a narrow political lens or repeated conservative talking points about the financial costs of climate action.
We’re heading into a competitive primary in which voters have made climate change a top-tier issue. Thus, primary debates are an appropriate venue for the moderators to push candidates to articulate clear plans for climate action and to defend their differing approaches. Based on the urgency of the crisis, and PBS NewsHour’s history of good climate journalism, the moderators have the opportunity to raise the bar for the remaining four debates by finally giving the viewers a meaningful climate discussion.