11% of CNN moderators' questions were about climate crisis at first Detroit debate night

Eight of 10 candidates on stage were asked about climate change, and the other two were asked about the Flint water crisis

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Note: This post is about night one of the second Democratic debate. For analysis of both nights, July 30 and 31, see here.

The public told CNN that the climate crisis was the topic they most wanted to hear about from candidates at the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit, MI, but during the first night of the debate on July 30, climate change was not among the top three most-asked-about topics.

On July 30, 11% of the moderators' questions and invitations to speak were related to climate change -- 14 out of a total of 125. Eight of the 10 candidates on stage were given the opportunity to weigh in on the topic.

In comparison, at the two-night NBC debate in June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate change and only half of the candidates were asked about the issue.

The climate portion of the evening came more than halfway through the debate and was moderated by CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash. She began by asking former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) about the Green New Deal:

DANA BASH (MODERATOR): Congressman Delaney, I’ll start with you. You say the Green New Deal is about as realistic as Trump saying Mexico is going to pay for the wall. But scientists say we need essentially to eliminate fossil fuel pollution by 2050 to avoid the most catastrophic consequences. Why isn’t this sweeping plan to fight the climate crisis realistic?

Bash also invited Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper to give their views on the Green New Deal.

Bash then approached the topic of climate change from a different angle, asking Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) about a bill to phase out sales of gasoline-powered cars, which is intended to help fight climate change:

BASH: Congressman Ryan, we are here in Michigan, where there are about 180,000 workers in auto manufacturing. Your state of Ohio has around 96,000 workers in that industry. Senator Sanders is co-sponsoring a bill that would eliminate new gas-powered car sales by 2040. Given the number of auto manufacturing workers in your state, how concerned are you about Senator Sanders' plan?

Bash also invited Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX), and South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg to weigh in.

In all, Bash posed questions or made invitations to speak about climate change 14 times, drawing in eight of the candidates.

But Bash's climate-related questions drew plenty of criticism. She directed the main questions initially to two centrist Democrats who are polling in the 1% range and asked them why or whether they opposed ambitious climate policies. She did not ask the leading candidates specifically about their more aggressive proposals.

The two candidates who were omitted from the climate discussion -- Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and author Marianne Williamson -- were asked questions related to the water crisis in Flint, MI. Bash directed the first one to Klobuchar:

BASH: I want to ask you about something that CNN heard from a Michigan Democratic primary voter, but we’re reaching out and getting their questions. Kimber from Birmingham, Michigan has this question, “What is your plan to address infrastructure, including the water issue so another Flint, Michigan does not happen again?”

Bash then asked Williamson for her views on the Flint water crisis.

This was a rare instance of corporate media acknowledging the issue of environmental justice during a major debate.

Climate activists were not satisfied with the amount and quality of attention given to climate change on the first night of the Detroit debate and are continuing to demand that one of the 12 planned Democratic debates be dedicated completely to the climate crisis. Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said last month that he trusts the host networks to ask about climate change “early and often” at the debates, but we aren't seeing that so far.

Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make responses, as well as follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic. We did not include invitations to make opening or closing statements. We also did not include interjections or clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak.