Even though the topic wasn’t on a list of designated subjects Fox News anchor and debate moderator Chris Wallace released ahead of last night’s debate, Wallace engaged the candidates in an 11-minute conversation about the climate crisis. Out of the 73 questions or follow-ups Wallace posed to President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, 10 of them, or 14%, were about climate change or the environment.
Although the questions were a mixed bag, the fact that climate was raised at all during a general election debate speaks to the reality of an accelerating climate crisis playing out in real time and growing public concern about the consequences of climate change. It’s also a testament to the work of climate and environmental groups that have been organizing intensely to raise awareness of these issues and calling for climate change to be a centerpiece of the presidential debates.
During the most recent Democratic primary debates, less than 7% of the questions were about climate change or the environment -- just 83 out of 1,208. In two of the 11 Democratic primary debates, moderators failed to ask a single climate question. In the 2016 presidential primary debates, only 1.5% of the questions were about climate change -- a mere 22 questions out of 1,477 in total. Moderators that year, including Chris Wallace, also didn't pose a single climate question during the three general election debates between then candidates Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
In addition to his previous debate performance, Wallace has a history of downplaying or ignoring the climate crisis. His show, Fox News Sunday, was the only Sunday morning political show to not report on the West Coast wildfires on September 13. In addition, Fox News Sunday featured only 14 minutes of climate coverage in 2019, which included a particularly egregious segment where Wallace repeatedly asked right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh if the Green New Deal is “socialist,” and allowed him to spew rank climate denial.
With this in mind, there were low expectations for Chris Wallace’s debate performance. He managed to clear this incredibly low bar by raising the issue of climate change and environmental policy, even though many of his questions were focused on the costs of climate action versus inaction.
Wallace asked a fair amount of climate questions, but many of them weren’t that good
Wallace began the climate portion of the debate by noting that the current wildfires have devastated the West Coast before pressing Trump about his rejection of climate science and the role that belief plays in his ongoing environmental rollbacks.
CHRIS WALLACE (MODERATOR): Okay. The forest fires in the West are raging now. They have burned millions of acres. They have displaced hundreds of thousands of people. When state officials there blamed the fires on climate change. Mr. President, you said, I don’t think the science knows. Over your four years, you have pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord. You have rolled back a number of Obama Environmental records, what do you believe about the science of climate change and what will you do in the next four years to confront it?
After asking Trump again about what he believes “about the science of climate change,” he then tied Trump’s answer to his rollback of Obama-era EPA regulations including the Clean Power Plan and clean car standards.
WALLACE: But sir if you believe in the science of climate change, why have you rolled back the Obama Clean Power Plan which limited carbon emissions and power plants?
While Wallace did a decent job of pressing Trump on how his views of climate science squared with his administration's aggressive environmental deregulation, he spent the rest of the climate portion pressing Biden on the cost of his climate plan and whether his opponent was right that it “would tank the economy.”
WALLACE: All right, Vice president Biden. I’d like you to respond to the president’s climate change record but I also want to ask you about a concern. You propose $2 trillion in green jobs. You talk about new limits, not abolishing, but new limits on fracking. Ending the use of fossil fuels to generate electricity by 2035 and zero none admission of greenhouse gases by 2050. The president says a lot of these things would tank the economy and cost millions of jobs.
Wallace followed up with another question couched in Trump’s critique that you have to, as Wallace summarized, “balance environmental interests and economic interests” before delving specifically into Biden’s climate plan. There, he echoed and amplified Fox News’ dishonest critiques that Biden’s proposals would “hurt the economy.”
WALLACE: Wait a minute, sir. I actually have studied your plan, and it includes upgrading 4 million buildings, weatherizing 2 million homes over four years, building one and a half million energy efficient homes. So the question becomes, the president is saying, I think some people who support the president would say, that sounds like it’s going to cost a lot of money and hurt the economy.
He ended the segment with a question about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal without bothering to specify any of the aims or provisions of the ambitious climate resolution or how Biden’s plan is similar to, or differs from, the Green New Deal.
WALLACE: So, do you support the Green New Deal?
This series of questions evinced a deep skepticism of the efficacy of climate action. But this is no surprise, as Fox News has long been a key cog in the fossil fuel industry’s decades-long, billion-plus-dollar campaigns to erode the public consensus on climate change, thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line, and fool the public about the industry’s commitment to addressing the climate crisis.
Despite the mixed quality of Wallace’s questions, he did get some credit for making climate change a topic
Wallace received some credit for making climate a surprise topic during last night’s contentious debate.
Wallace made climate change a topic because public pressure made it impossible for him to ignore it
Polling shows that not only is the climate crisis top of mind for many Americans, but they also want to hear climate change discussed during the debates. According to a Pew Research survey released in April, 62% of respondents indicated that climate change was affecting their community, while 64% of respondents said that “protecting the environment should be a top priority for the president and Congress.”
When it comes to the debates, a recent survey conducted by George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that 74% of registered voters want the debate moderators to ask the candidates climate questions. And a petition circulated by 45 climate and environment organizations to demand that the debate moderators ask about climate change has garnered nearly 200,000 thousand signatures, as well as the backing of significant numbers of senators and representatives.
In addition to public demand, there were also growing calls from news outlets for more substantive climate discussions in debates. As Mark Hertsgaard, executive director of Covering Climate Now, wrote in The Nation:
Just as Americans deserve to know before they vote whether their president pays his fair share of taxes, so they should know whether all candidates seeking public office—for the presidency, Congress, state, and local offices—respect climate science, understand what’s at stake, and have real plans to address this onrushing emergency. But voters can’t easily do that without journalists’ help. It’s our job to separate truth from fiction and the important from the trivial. The press should be asking the climate question at the presidential debates and every opportunity from now through Election Day. Anything less is a betrayal of our civic duty as journalists.
Our planet is in serious, irrevocable trouble. There’s no bigger issue.
Which is why it’s flat out wrong that Fox News’s Chris Wallace — and those who advised him — didn’t see fit to put climate change on his topic list for Tuesday’s first presidential debate.
An article published by Wired, noting that Wallace had excluded climate change from his list of debate topics, quipped, “To which I say, on behalf of humanity: You have got to be kidding me.”
And on September 28, MSNBC host Craig Melvin lamented the fact that climate change wasn’t one of Wallace’s featured topics despite record-breaking hurricane and wildfire seasons.
By raising this urgent issue, Wallace heeded the calls of millions of viewers and voters who wanted to hear a substantive discussion of how candidates plan to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change and environmental pollution. Although that’s not exactly what they saw, Wallace set a new precedent by breaking general debates’ long-running silence on climate change. And climate organizers, congressional climate champs, and activists can claim a well-deserved victory in the ongoing struggle to center climate change in vital public policy discussions.
Because of the attention and scrutiny the debates attract, for the first time in 12 years, an audience of millions was able to see the presidential nominees answer questions about their approaches to addressing climate and environmental pollution. Although last night’s debate did not provide viewers with the truly substantive discussion the climate crisis deserves, it set the stage for upcoming debate moderators to improve on Wallace’s performance.
In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters includes invitations to candidates to make responses, as well as follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic. We do not include invitations to make opening or closing statements. We also do not include interjections or clarifications from the moderators unless they are interjections to allow a different candidate to speak.