Less than 10% of questions were about climate change at CNN's two-night debate in Detroit

Out of 242 total questions from CNN's moderators, just 23 focused on the climate crisis

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

The climate crisis was the topic of 9.5% of questions during CNN's two-night Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit on July 30 and 31. The moderators posed a total of 242 questions or invitations to speak on a topic, and just 23 were climate-related. Fifteen of the 20 candidates were brought into the climate discussions.

In comparison, at the two-night NBC debate in late June, less than 6% of the questions were about climate change and only 10 of 20 candidates were asked about the issue.

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.

On both nights, CNN chief political correspondent Dana Bash moderated the climate portion -- and on both nights, she asked whether the Green New Deal was “realistic,” focusing on the second night on questioning the feasibility of social and economic components of the Green New Deal.

Bash's July 30 climate questions are discussed here. Her July 31 questioning began with an invitation to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to explain why his campaign is centered around fighting climate change:

DANA BASH (MODERATOR): Let's now turn to the issue of the climate crisis. The United Nations says the world needs to cut all carbon emissions by 2050 or risk facing disastrous consequences. Gov. Inslee, many of your fellow Democratic candidates say that climate change is the biggest existential threat facing the country. You, though, are calling it the No. 1 priority in your campaign. What do you know that the others don't?

While answering, Inslee called former Vice President Joe Biden's plan “middling,” so Bash invited Biden to respond and then asked entrepreneur Andrew Yang to weigh in. She also allowed further back-and-forth between Inslee and Biden. Bash's next question was to Biden:

DANA BASH: Just to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration?

Bash invited California Sen. Kamala Harris to respond, and Harris brought up the Green New Deal. Bash then turned to New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

DANA BASH: I want to talk about that with Sen. Gillibrand. You're a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, which includes the guarantee of a job with medical leave, paid vacations, and retirement security for everyone in America. Explain how that's realistic.

She invited Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard to give her views on the Green New Deal, then turned to New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker:

DANA BASH: Sen. Booker, what's your response? Is the job guarantee in the Green New Deal realistic?

After bringing seven candidates into the climate discussion, Bash shifted to the issue of lead poisoning, as she had done the night before, first by posing a question to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio:

DANA BASH: Mayor de Blasio, your administration has come under fire after hundreds of children living in New York City public housing tested positive for elevated levels of lead. As you know, we're not far from Flint, MI, where residents are still dealing with the consequences of having lead in their drinking water. How can you assure the people of Flint and across the nation that you are the right person to handle such a problem?

Bash also asked former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro to explain why he's “the right candidate to solve this problem.”

Though some of its climate questions were weak, CNN deserves credit for bringing up a critical environmental justice issue in a nationally televised debate -- a rarity.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet was the only candidate over the two nights who was not asked to speak about climate change or Flint and the lead crisis.

Overall, climate activists were justifiably underwhelmed by the discussions on both nights of CNN's debate and are redoubling their calls for one of the remaining 10 planned debates to be dedicated entirely to the climate crisis.

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.