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Ceci Freed / Media Matters

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Scorecard: How the climate crisis is being discussed in the Democratic primary debates

With an accelerating climate crisis and the steady erosion of environmental safeguards that protect the air and water for millions of people, moderators of the Democratic presidential debates should be engaging the candidates in substantive discussions of climate change and environmental justice issues. 

As we did in 2016, Media Matters is tracking how often moderators in the 12 Democratic presidential primary debates ask the candidates about climate change, which is a top issue for many voters.

  • Climate change in the Democratic primary debates by the numbers

    Our count of questions includes discrete climate questions, follow-up questions, and invitations to other candidates to respond to the initial question or to another candidate's response. The percentage is based on the total number of questions or invitations to speak offered throughout the debate.

    • Debate 1 (June 26-27, 2019): 10 questions (5.9%)
    • Debate 2 (July 30-31, 2019): 23 questions (9.5%)
    • Debate 3 (September 12, 2019): six questions (7%)
    • Debate 4 (October 15, 2019): zero questions
    • Debate 5 (November 20, 2019): five questions (6%)
    • Debate 6 (December 19, 2019): nine questions (9%)
    • Debate 7 (January 14, 2020): eight questions (9%)
    • Debate 8 (February 7, 2020): four questions (5%)
    • Debate 9 (February 19, 2020): 11 questions (13%)
    • Debate 10 (February 25, 2020): zero questions
    • Debate 11 (March 15, 2020): Seven questions (11%)

    The scorecard will be updated after every debate.

  • First debate was hosted by NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo in Miami

    The first Democratic primary debate was held in Miami, Florida, on June 26 and 27. The two-night event was hosted by NBC, MSNBC, and Telemundo and moderated by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd, Rachel Maddow, and José Díaz-Balart. It received about 15.3 million viewers on the first night and nearly 18.1 million on the second, breaking the record for the biggest audience for a Democratic primary debate.

    The moderators asked a total of 170 questions over the course of the two nights, but just 10 were focused on climate change, or less than 6% -- five questions each night.

    The first debate kicked off amid a high-profile campaign calling on the Democratic National Committee to make climate change the sole focus of at least one of its 12 planned presidential primary debates. 

  • Second debate was hosted by CNN in Detroit

    CNN hosted the second set of Democratic presidential primary debates on July 30 and 31 in Detroit, Michigan.

    Out of the 242 questions asked by the CNN moderators -- Jake Tapper, Don Lemon, and Dana Bash -- just 23, or 9.5%, were climate-related. Fifteen of the 20 candidates were brought into the climate discussions.

    During both debate nights in Detroit, moderators ignored climate change during the first half of the event -- even though the public told CNN in an online poll that they wanted to hear about the climate crisis more than any other topic.

  • Third debate was hosted by ABC and Univision in Houston

    The third Democratic primary debate was hosted by ABC and Univision and held in Houston, Texas on September 12. The debate was moderated by Jorge Ramos, Linsey Davis, George Stephanopoulos, and David Muir. 

    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. Out of the 85 questions asked, only six, or 7%, were about the climate crisis.

    Just weeks prior to the ABC/Univision debate, on August 22, the Democratic National Committee’s resolutions committee rejected a resolution to sponsor a climate debate.

  • The fourth debate was hosted by CNN and The New York Times in Westerville, Ohio

    There were no questions about the climate crisis during the CNN/New York Times Democratic presidential primary debate in Westerville, Ohio, on October 15. The debate was moderated by CNN anchors Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and the Times’ national editor Marc Lacey. This was a marked decrease from the already meager number of climate questions asked by CNN’s moderators at a previous two-night Democratic primary debate in July.

  • The fifth debate was hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post in Atlanta

    The fifth primary debate was hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post and held in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 20. The debate was moderated by an all-female panel of MSNBC anchors Rachel Maddow and Andrea Mitchell, NBC News' White House correspondent Kristen Welker, and The Washington Post's White House reporter Ashley Parker. 

    The climate crisis was the topic of 6% of questions, or five out of 77 questions total. Approximately one hour passed before the moderators posed one audience-submitted question about climate change and four brief follow-up questions.

    The MSNBC/Washington Post debate came on the heels of two candidate forums which highlighted specific impacts of the climate crisis and environmental injustice on communities across the country -- but none of the questions from moderators in Atlanta focused on substantive discussion of climate or environmental justice.

  • The sixth debate was hosted by PBS and Politico in Los Angeles

    The sixth Democratic primary debate was hosted by PBS and Politico on December 19 in Los Angeles, California. The debate was moderated by Judy Woodruff, Amna Nawaz, and Yamiche Alcindor from PBS NewsHour and Tim Alberta from Politico.

    The moderators posed a total of 96 questions, and just nine were climate-related, or 9%. The subject of climate change was raised early, unlike in previous debates, and every candidate on stage was given at least one opportunity to speak about it. The early climate-related discussion lasted 13 minutes. 

    Though PBS NewsHour has a long history of producing substantive climate journalism -- making it well-suited to facilitate a wide-ranging, substantive discussion about the candidates’ plans to address the climate crisis -- debate organizers chose to have Politico chief political correspondent Tim Alberta moderate the climate portion of the debate.

  • The seventh debate was hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register in Des Moines, Iowa

    The seventh Democratic primary debate was hosted by CNN and The Des Moines Register on January 14 in Des Moines, Iowa. It was moderated by CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, CNN political correspondent Abby Phillip, and Des Moines Register chief political reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel. Only 9% of the questions, or eight out of 91 total asked by the moderators, were about the climate crisis, and all were asked in the last 30 minutes of the debate.

    The moderators were widely panned for ignoring or cutting off potential climate discussions initiated by the candidates and for raising the issue so late in the debate.

    While the apocalyptic Australian fires served as the backdrop of the January 14 debate - the climate-fueled event was not mentioned. 

  • The eighth debate was hosted by ABC News, WMUR-TV, and Apple News in Manchester, New Hampshire

    The eighth debate was hosted by ABC News, local ABC affiliate WMUR-TV, and Apple News in Manchester, New Hampshire, on February 7. The debate -- the first of three in February -- was moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, and Linsey Davis, and by WMUR-TV’s Adam Sexton and Monica Hernandez.

    Only 5% of the questions, or four out of 79 total asked by the moderators were about the climate crisis.

    ABC has a poor history of climate reporting which has translated to an equally poor performance on the debate stage so far.

  • The ninth debate was hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and The Nevada Independent in Las Vegas, Nevada

    The ninth debate was hosted by NBC News, MSNBC, and The Nevada Independent in Las Vegas, Nevada, on February 19. The debate -- the second of three in February -- was moderated by NBC News host Lester Holt, NBC News and MSNBC host Chuck Todd, MSNBC host Hallie Jackson, Noticias Telemundo climate correspondent Vanessa Hauc, and The Nevada Independent's Jon Ralston. This was the first debate moderated by a climate journalist.

    Thirteen percent of the questions, or 11 out of 84 questions asked by the moderators, were about the climate crisis.

    This was a noticeable improvement on NBC’s and MSNBC’s previous debate performances in June, when only 6% of questions were about climate change, and in November, which also saw 6% of questions focused on the climate crisis.

  • The 10th debate was hosted by CBS News, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, and Twitter in Charleston, South Carolina

    The 10th debate was hosted by CBS News, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, and Twitter in Charleston, South Carolina. CBS Evening News anchor Norah O'Donnell, CBS This Morning host Gayle King, Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan, CBS chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett, and 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker moderated the debate. 

    None of the 90 questions asked by the moderators were about the climate crisis.

    This was the first debate hosted by CBS News in the 2020 election cycle, and the moderators’ lack of climate questions and overall performance were widely criticized

  • The 11th debate was hosted by CNN and Univision in Washington, D.C.

    The 11th debate was hosted by CNN and Univision in Washington, D.C. CNN's Dana Bash and Jake Tapper moderated the debate with Univision's Ilia Calderón. This was the fourth debate CNN hosted.

    Eleven percent of the questions asked by the moderators, or seven out of 61, were about the climate crisis. The candidates were allowed wide latitude to challenge and parry each other’s positions on climate issues, making for one of the more substantive climate discussions during this election cycle.

    This debate comes on the heels of CBS’ February 25 debate, when the moderators didn’t ask a single climate question.

  • Last August, the Democratic National Committee ruled against having a dedicated climate debate, which many environmental and climate activists and most of the Democratic presidential field believed would’ve given voters the best opportunity to hear a substantive discussion from the candidates about this vital issue. Absent a climate-focused debate, it is up to moderators to help viewers learn where the candidates stand on potential solutions, motivate them to articulate clear climate action plans, and ensure that that the climate crisis isn’t given short shrift as in years past.