The climate crisis got short shrift during both nights of the first Democratic primary debates in Miami on June 26 and 27, showing why activists continue to demand a debate dedicated entirely to the issue of climate change.
The moderators asked a total of 171 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 percentage of climate questions increased slightly compared to the average number asked during the 2016 election cycle debates. During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, only 1.5% of the questions were about climate change.
NBC's Chuck Todd and MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked the climate questions on both nights of the June 26-27 debates. Their questions on the first night were poor, in some cases ignoring the crushing costs of climate disaster and instead fixating on the potential costs of taking climate action. The questions on the second night were at least more productive, asking candidates to describe their proposals and plans for action.
Todd’s question to California Sen. Kamala Harris:
We are moving to climate, guys. Sen. Harris, I’m addressing you first on this. You live in a state that has been hit by drought, wildfires, flooding; climate change is a major concern for voters in your state. It’s pretty obvious, obviously this state as well. Last night, voters heard many of the candidates weigh in on their proposals. Explain specifically what yours is.
Todd’s question to South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg:
Mayor Buttigieg, in your climate plan, if you are elected president, in your first term, how is this going to help farmers impacted by climate change in the Midwest?
Maddow’s question to Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper:
Governor, you have said that oil and gas companies should be a part of the solution on climate change. Lots of your colleagues on stage tonight have talked about moving away from fossil fuels entirely. Can oil and gas companies be real partners in this fight?
Maddow’s question to former Vice President Joe Biden:
Vice President Biden, on the issue of how you do this, Democrats are arguing robustly among themselves about what's the best way to tackle climate change, but if we’re honest, many Republicans, including the president, are still not sure if they believe it is even a serious problem. So, are there significant ways you can cut carbon emissions if you have to do it with no support from Congress?
Maddow also gave Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders 30 seconds to offer a response on climate change.
Still, only half of the participating candidates, 10 of 20, were even given the opportunity to weigh in on climate, and no one got to go into any depth, address follow-up questions, or debate fellow candidates on the specifics of proposals.
Now climate activists are pushing with even more persistence for a debate all about combating climate catastrophe. And they have a new ally who's employed by one of the networks that hosted the first Democratic debates: MSNBC's Chris Hayes. He sent this tweet after the second night of the debate wrapped up:
I think I've changed my mind on the need for a climate debate. I see the DNC's point that it opens up a set of asks for other specifically themed debates. BUT there is just nothing like the climate crisis and no way to wrestle with its scope in the context of a general debate.
— Chris Hayes (@chrislhayes) June 28, 2019
Methodology: In counting the number of questions asked by debate moderators, Media Matters included invitations to candidates to make 30-second responses. We did not include invitations to make closing statements. We also did not include interjections and clarifications from the moderators unless they were interjections to allow a different candidate to speak. Follow-up questions to the same candidate on the same topic were counted as separate questions.
Correction (9/30/20): This piece originally stated that 170 total debate questions were asked. In fact, moderators asked 171 debate questions.