Only 6% of the questions at the first Democratic primary debate were about climate change -- and they weren't great

Five of 10 candidates on stage were not asked about climate change at all

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

Note: This post is about night one of the first Democratic debate. For analysis of both nights, June 26 and 27, see here

On the first night of the first Democratic presidential primary debate in Miami, on June 26, only 6% of the moderators' questions were about the climate crisis. The five moderators posed a total of 82 questions to the participating candidates and just five of the questions centered on climate change. Only five of the 10 candidates were asked about climate change; the other half were not invited to discuss the topic.

During 20 presidential primary debates in 2015 and 2016, just 1.5% of moderators' questions were about climate change. This first primary debate night was only a mediocre improvement over that cycle -- and an inauspicious beginning to the 2020 campaign season.

Three of the climate-related questions posed by NBC's Chuck Todd were particularly poor, emphasizing the potential costs or difficulties of taking climate action, without noting the extreme danger of not taking action.

Todd's question to former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke:

Congressman O’Rourke, you’ve also put out a big climate change plan from your campaign. You want some big changes in a pretty short period of time, including switching to renewable energy, pushing to replace gas-powered cars in favor of electric ones. What’s your message to a voter who supports the overall goal of what you’re trying to do, but suddenly feels as if government is telling them how to live and ordering them how to live? What is that balance like?

Todd's question to former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro:

Secretary Castro, who pays for the mitigation to climate, whether it’s building seawalls for people that are perhaps living in places that they shouldn’t be living? Is this a federal government issue that needs to do that? Do they have to move these people? What do you do about that, where maybe they’re building a house someplace that isn’t safe, who pays to build that house? And how much should the government be bailing them out?

Todd's question to Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan:

Congressman Ryan, I got a full question for you here, which is simply this: There are a lot of the climate plans that include pricing carbon, taxing carbon in some way. This type of proposal has been tried in a few places, whether it’s Washington state where voters voted it down. You’ve had the yellow vest movement. We had in Australia one party get rejected out of fear of the costs of climate change sort of being put on the backs of the consumer. If pricing carbon is just politically impossible, how do we pay for climate mitigation?

That Todd's climate questions were weak should not be a surprise. On the relatively rare occasions when Todd brings up climate change while hosting NBC's Meet the Press, he tends to ask questions that frame the issue too narrowly and through an overly political lens.

MSNBC's Rachel Maddow asked one climate question of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. She focused on climate impacts in the host city of Miami and asked Inslee whether his climate action plan could “save” the city:

You have staked your candidacy on the issue of climate change. It is first, second, and third priority for you. You've said it's all the issues. Let's get specific. We're here in Miami which is already experiencing serious flooding on sunny days as a result of sea level rise. Parts of Miami Beach and the Keys could be underwater in our lifetimes. Does your plan save Miami?

In the fifth and final climate question of the night, Todd offered former Maryland Rep. John Delaney 30 seconds to discuss carbon pricing.

Climate activists and Democratic voters who've been calling for a dedicated climate debate were not happy with the low number of questions allotted to the subject and the feeble nature of those questions. Their continued calls for the Democratic National Committee to hold a climate-focused debate have only been bolstered by the moderators’ lackluster performance.

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.