The three debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 featured many contentious moments but did not include a single question on climate change. Since then, climate politics have shifted dramatically -- in no small part due to the climate reality far too many Americans are now experiencing and to the efforts of activists who have propelled the issue onto the national stage. Polling suggests that awareness of the climate crisis has pushed support for climate action to an all time high, making it impossible for politicians and the media to ignore.
The fact that climate change was centered during this election cycle at the first presidential debate and in the only vice presidential debate, and that it has been announced as one of the six topics for discussion in the final match-up between the candidates on October 22, is another clear signal of this shift.
Unfortunately, the inclusion of climate change as a top tier issue has not produced a substantive discussion addressing the climate emergency. Instead, too many of the questions thus far have reflected right-wing media’s coverage of the issue, including its decadeslong dismissal of climate science and downplaying the urgency of the climate crisis -- and its wholesale attack on climate action. The final debate must take a different approach to give voters the climate coverage they demand and deserve.
Right-wing media doesn’t want a substantive debate on climate change
On October 16, the Commission on Presidential Debates released the six topics that will be discussed during the final debate moderated by NBC News' Kristen Welker. Among the stated topics for debate is climate change, which some right-wing media figures have taken exception to.
Kurt Schlichter, a senior columnist with ultra conservative blog Townhall, polled his Twitter followers on October 17 and October 18 about whether President Donald Trump should participate in the debate, specifically citing “climate hoax” questions. And at the top of Monday’s edition of Fox & Friends, co-host Brian Kilmeade complained about the whole list of debate topics, including climate change. The program also included a segment with The Hill media reporter and frequent Fox News guest Joe Concha, who called the topics a “fixed fight” and suggested that the inclusion of climate change was proof the debate would be biased in favor of Democratic nominee Joe Biden.
The effect of all this could be for Welker to lean into conservative frames to counter the onslaught of bad-faith criticisms from right-wing media. But she should resist that pull and focus questions to the candidates on confronting the existential crisis of our time: What we do or do not do to slow the warming of our planet in the next four years is of great consequence to the future of life on this planet. With that in mind, the final debate should focus on what candidates will do to combat climate change and avoid falling into these same traps from past debate questions framed around right-wing media narratives.
The science on climate change is not debatable
Fox anchor and moderator Chris Wallace’s first question to Trump during the climate portion of the September 29 debate was framed around what the president believes “about the science of climate change”:
CHRIS WALLACE (MODERATOR): 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 U.S. 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?
While Wallace did a decent job of pressing Trump on how his views of climate science squared with his administration's aggressive environmental deregulation, the fact that a presidential candidate’s belief in the science of climate change is still in question is a testament to the effectiveness of climate denial that right-wing media has laundered for decades.
Vice presidential debate moderator Susan Page also centered her first question to Vice President Mike Pence on his belief in whether climate change was making wildfires and hurricanes worse:
SUSAN PAGE (MODERATOR): And Vice President Pence, I’d like to pose the first question to you. This year, we’ve seen record-setting hurricanes in the South. Another one, Hurricane Delta, is now threatening the Gulf, and we have seen record-setting wildfires in the West. Do you believe, as the scientific community has concluded, that man-made climate change has made wildfires bigger, hotter, and more deadly and have made hurricanes wetter, slower, and more damaging?
She later posed a follow-up question to Pence on whether he believed that climate change is an existential threat, as Sen. Harris does.
While these questions of “belief” in climate science seem intended to distinguish the candidates from each other, moderators are not always prepared to adequately respond to their deflections or denials. Wallace did a decent job on pressing Trump, but Pence was allowed to push further climate denial unchecked in response to Page’s questions.
Right-wing media narratives on fracking and the Green New Deal have played an outsized role in shaping the debate on climate change
Discussing climate during both the first presidential debate and the only vice presidential debate of 2020, moderators asked whether the Biden campaign supports the Green New Deal -- an ambitious proposal that is both popular among the public and in line with what scientists say is necessary to stop the worst effects of climate change.
Although Biden’s campaign website acknowledges that “the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face,” and his climate plan borrows some elements from it, Biden has never outright supported or endorsed the Green New Deal. But this reality hasn’t stopped right-wing media, and Fox News in particular, from insisting otherwise.
For nearly two years now, while other TV news networks have barely articulated what the Green New Deal is and what it would accomplish, Fox News has been hammering the same message, falsely tethering the proposal to radical socialism and economic devastation over and over again as part of the same Republica messaging strategy of labeling “virtually every climate change effort as part of the Green New Deal.” These attacks have also included smearing Biden’s climate plan, which the network wasted no time branding as the Green New Deal in its initial coverage.
During the first presidential debate, Chris Wallace asked Biden whether he supports the Green New Deal following repeated false claims by President Trump, who echoed right-wing media’s false narratives that Biden’s plan was really the Green New Deal and that it would cost $100 trillion. Biden declared that he didn’t support the Green New Deal and instead favors his own climate plan.
But in the week between the first presidential debate and the vice presidential debate, right-wing media -- led by Fox and Trump surrogates like campaign adviser Mercedes Schlapp -- continued the drumbeat falsely attacking Biden on the Green New Deal. In fact, Fox pushed false narratives about Biden’s support for the Green New Deal at least 48 times over the seven-day period.
Predictably, moderator Susan Page’s first question to Sen. Kamala Harris during the climate segment of the vice presidential debate on October 7 asked to relitigate the Biden-Harris campaign’s stance on the Green New Deal, echoing right-wing media’s framing and ignoring the fact that Biden has a separate climate plan.
Akin to the false narrative that Biden’s climate plan is the Green New Deal is the lie that he will ban fracking.
Since Biden unveiled his climate plan on July 14, right-wing media outlets have repeatedly pushed the false narrative that he will ban fracking if elected president. Over the course of one month following the announcement of Biden’s plan, from July 14 to August 14, Fox pushed out this lie at least 37 times.
In an August 31 speech in Pittsburgh, Biden attempted to set the record straight that he would not ban fracking -- a position that has not changed since the primary. In response, at least nine Fox shows airing on August 31 and September 1 suggested that his position on fracking was still unclear or claimed that he would still ban fracking if elected, despite his statement.
This false claim continues to make its way from right-wing media into mainstream campaign coverage.
Despite this, during the October 15 town hall hosted by ABC, chief anchor and moderator George Stephanopoulos both challenged Biden on his fracking position and pressed him on his Green New Deal stance. The exchange was prompted by a question from a Pennsylvania woman who asked about how her state and the rest of the country could transition from fracking -- which she correctly noted poses serious health risks and other dangers.
This false framing of Biden’s stance persists even though it has been tirelessly fact-checked by the media and repeatedly refuted by the former vice president himself. It must not be allowed to continue into the final presidential debate before Election Day.
Conservative framing on climate change questions is not a new problem
The focus on right-wing media narratives over substantive discussion of how to address the climate crisis is not limited to the general election. According to a Media Matters analysis, 49% of the moderators’ climate questions during the Democratic primary debates were framed around conservative talking points, including questions that focused on the costs of proposed climate plans or presumed climate action would harm the economy.
These types of queries, like those trying to establish whether a candidate accepts the science on climate change, are the result of the fossil fuel industry’s decadeslong, billion-dollar campaigns to erode the public consensus on climate change and thwart any climate action that could impact its bottom line -- an effort which the broader media coverage and right-wing media in particular has aided. While mainstream TV news has been less likely to amplify outright climate denial of late, the skepticism toward ambitious climate solutions and the tendency to elevate industry-approved “solutions” in their coverage remains problematic and has carried over to their moderation of climate discussions during debates.
During the first debate, moderator Chris Wallace framed the majority of the climate questions he posed to Joe Biden around the cost of his plan and whether his opponent was right that it “would tank the economy.”
Questions framed around conservative complaints about the assumed costs of climate action are especially harmful because they ignore the enormous costs of not fighting climate change. Then questions on climate action should be couched in terms of the mounting financial burden of unchecked warming. For example, climate disasters and extreme weather events cost the United States an estimated $91 billion in 2018, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that a 1.5 degree C rise in the global average temperature “would cost the world’s economies $54 trillion.” And it gets precipitously worse the longer we wait to take bold global action.
Much like the rehash of Biden’s position on fracking and the Green New Deal, these questions are ultimately distractions from substantive discussions that press candidates on how they are going to address this existential crisis.
As Malcolm Kenyatta, a state representative from the critical swing state of Pennsylvania, wrote in an op-ed last week:
Yes, it’s been encouraging that climate questions have been asked in record-breaking amounts of time in the first presidential and vice presidential debates ...Yet, the questions we’ve seen so far have only focused on basic information, with little follow-up, and have ignored regular harms facing Pennsylvanians, like heat stroke, pollution-related illnesses and money spent repairing flood damages. (Really, we’re going to spend time confirming whether or not you believe in science?)
Rather than yet another baseless attack on fracking or a question confirming who believes that climate change is real or manmade, we could be talking about how temperatures in predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods of Philadelphia can be as much as 22 degrees hotter than wealthier neighborhoods and how we’re going to rectify this injustice.
And instead of one more tired question framing the Green New Deal like a boogeymonster, let’s hear more about how Philadelphia already is ranked in the top 20 for clean energy jobs and what candidates would do to spur job growth in this promising sector — and how Trump’s war against clean energy has cost our country more than 1.1 million jobs.