Climate change should have been a topic in every election debate this year. The U.S. was pummeled by extreme weather in 2018, and climate scientists are telling us that climate change is the big reason why. Voters deserved to know what, if anything, candidates propose to do about the problem.
But climate change got short shrift in most key Senate and gubernatorial debates this election season. Out of 78 debates Media Matters analyzed in tightly contested races, only 23 included a moderator or panelist asking a question about climate change -- just 29 percent. (For details, see our scorecard.)
That percentage is up a little from 2016 -- when only 22 percent of debates in key competitive races included a question about climate change -- but it's still far too low.
Yet we did spot a few encouraging trends.
After October 7, when the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a major report about the urgent need to address the climate crisis, many more moderators and panelists asked about climate change. Only 7 percent of debates (2 of 27) included a climate question before the release of the IPCC report. After the report came out, 43 percent (21 of 49) included a climate question -- a marked improvement. Nearly half of those questions directly referenced the report.
The journalists serving as moderators and panelists clearly recognized the importance of the IPCC's warning and became more attuned to the urgency of the climate crisis. We hope this attention to climate change will carry forward and inform their reporting in the future.
We also found that many voters pushed for climate questions to be included in debates, in red and purple states as well as blue ones. At the first Indiana Senate debate on October 10, moderator Anne Ryder, a senior lecturer at Indiana University's Media School, brought up the topic of climate change and said, “I’ll tell you, we’ve received more questions on this than any other topic.” In the next debate in the race, a few weeks later, moderator Amna Nawaz of PBS NewsHour told the candidates that several voters had not been satisfied with the answers they gave previously and asked them to detail specifically what they would do to combat climate change.
In a Colorado gubernatorial debate on October 23, moderator Nic Garcia, a political reporter for The Denver Post, introduced a question about climate change by saying, “When we asked readers and viewers for questions, overwhelmingly this was the No. 1 topic on their mind.” And at an Arizona Senate debate and a Wisconsin gubernatorial debate, moderators asked climate questions that had been submitted by members of the public.
Ahead of an October 21 Florida gubernatorial debate, citizen activists announced that they were going to press moderator Jake Tapper of CNN to ask a question about climate change. But Tapper caught wind of their plans and tweeted that there was no need; he already knew that climate change was a notable topic. He then made it the subject of his first question at the debate.
Rep. Jared Polis, Democratic candidate for governor in Colorado, said that voters asked him about climate change more than reporters did. “Climate change and environment are a lot more on the minds of people that I meet, and I've had over 300 meet-and-greets in all parts of the state,” he said during an interview on November 1.
When moderators did ask climate questions during debates, the candidates often revealed dramatically different views on the issue -- important information for voters to know.
During the October 16 Texas Senate debate, for example moderator Jason Whitely, a reporter at WFAA-TV in Dallas, asked Republican Sen. Ted Cruz about his history of climate change denial. Cruz responded by saying, “The climate has been changing from the dawn of time. The climate will change as long as we have a planet Earth.” Whitely pushed Cruz to clarify his views on climate change, but Cruz again dodged the question. When his turn came, the Democrat in the race, Rep. Beto O’Rourke, said, “Look, the climate is changing, and man-made climate change is a fact. Three hundred years after the Enlightenment, we should be able to listen to the scientists and follow their advice and guidance. And they tell us that we still have time, but the window is closing to get this right."
At the Arizona Senate debate on October 15, moderator Maria Polletta, a reporter for The Arizona Republic, asked Democratic Rep. Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Rep. Martha McSally about climate change. Sinema responded by explaining that she wants to work on water issues and said, “I firmly believe that as Arizonans, as Americans, we have the resources, we have the tools, we have the skills, and we have the knowledge. We can address issues of climate change together, and do so without harming our business prospects and without harming what makes Arizona so amazing.” McSally, in contrast, was scornful of the topic. “I can’t believe this is the last question,” she said before changing the subject.
With the 2018 election season coming to a close, we need journalists to further ramp up the focus on climate change. As new governors and members of Congress take their seats, they will have to make critical decisions about a rapidly changing electricity system, transportation networks, agriculture and land-use practices, and ways to make our communities more resilient in the face of disasters. Reporters should ask elected officials how climate change will factor into those decisions. And when the 2020 campaign season gets rolling, journalists and media outlets will have a crucial role to play in making sure that climate change is discussed in races from the local level all the way up to the presidency. As the recent IPCC report warned us, there's no more time to waste.