“Climate People” to Debate Moderators: Survival Matters
September 26, 2016
Above, Candy Crowley of CNN, who moderated a Presidential debate in 2012, explains that she didn’t ask any questions about climate change, because, among other things, the price of gas.
Btw, “media people”, by “climate people”, did you mean the next 50,000 generations of human beings?
Donald Trump believes climate science is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to rob America blind, and he vows to try to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord immediately upon being elected president. Meanwhile, as Coral Davenport recently reported, world leaders have been trying to figure out if there is a way to lock in major countries behind the global deal before Trump can do that, because such an action could badly weaken the deal’s long term success.
In other words, international leaders are literally scrambling around to salvage the planet’s long-term prospects from Donald Trump. If he were to try to pull us out, it could not only deal a debilitating blow to the deal itself; one expert has warned it could also precipitate a diplomatic crisis.
If only there were an exceptionally high profile setting in which Trump might be pressed to detail his views on these matters.
Oh wait, there is. There are three presidential debates coming up, and the first one is expected to be watched by as many as 100 million people, an audience that may include viewers from all around the world.
As was widely noted at the time, the 2012 presidential debates featured zero discussion of climate change. But now, a confluence of new circumstances makes it substantially more pressing that the debate moderators and the candidates do discuss these issues this time around.
For one thing, the positions of the presidential candidates on climate issues could have vastly more real world significance than they might have four years ago. Take the Paris accord. It’s not clear yet whether Trump could succeed in withdrawing the U.S. from the deal in the short term, but even if he didn’t, there are other ways that Trump could frustrate its progress, simply by refusing to participate in international meetings about it or by refusing to submit reports documenting U.S. contributions to it.
Then there’s Obama’s Clean Power Plan, a rule that imposes targets on states for the reduction of carbon emissions from existing power plants. The plan is currently held up in the courts, but if it ends up proceeding, it will be key to long term efforts to reduce carbon pollution, and to meeting our commitments as part of the global deal. Trump has vowed to repeal the rule, along with untold other regulations, but that might be harder than it looks. Still, there are various ways he could undermine it.
Media Matters for America analyzed the 1,477 questions asked during the first 20 debates of this year’s primary season and found that only 22, or 1.5 percent, covered climate.
“That is really malfeasance on the part of our fourth estate,” says Shawn Otto, a cofounder of ScienceDebate, which pushes for more discussion of scientific issues from candidates.
Because so few moderators have chosen to ask about climate over the years, Grist turned the tables and asked moderators to answer for themselves. Most declined, including Crowley, but those who spoke up said a good debate question includes two elements:
- It exposes differences for undecided voters.
- It makes for dramatic TV.
“The exercise was always trying to draw out differences,” says Scott Spradling, a former anchor of New Hampshire’s WMUR, who participated in four 2008 primary debates. “Allow there to be opportunities to clearly state positions by the candidates, but to also draw distinctions so voters can be educated on where they differ.”
Los Angeles Times columnist Doyle McManus, who moderated primary debates in 2000 and 2008, said: “The second big goal, to put it as crassly as possible, is to produce a good television show.” Climate, apparently, gets poor ratings — a conclusion you can also draw from the scant amount of coverage it receives on the nightly network news.
“It doesn’t grab viewers the same way other stuff does: bombing in New York, terror, immigration,” says Tom Fahey, a former New Hampshire Union Leader reporter who worked two presidential primary debates. “I’m just talking about Joe Sixpack.”
Despite that, Fahey asked one of the most straightforward questions on climate in recent debate history: “Is science wrong on global warming?” he queried GOP hopefuls in 2007. “And what, if any, steps would you take as president to address the issue of climate change?”
Environmentalists say the focus on other issues is an industry problem. “The media themselves think of climate change as an environmental issue, and they have niche reporters on it,” says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. “They’re not the reporters who moderate debates. Their questions tend to go more to what’s in the news that week or some of the political attacks, some of the partisan stuff, some of the issues that they consider more immediate — and even silly things.”
Juliet Eilperin, the Washington Post’s White House bureau chief (and a former environmental reporter), says debate moderators rarely have environmental expertise. “While I think it’s most notable in terms of the moderators, you also see that on the trail itself. The candidates may not be asked about this as much because the people who are with them day in and day out have not been immersed in these issues.”
Pandering to the coal industry — and bickering over solid science — should be left well in the past.The discussion now must be about how to shift off of fossil fuels as quickly as possible.The candidates, not surprisingly, are like summer and winter on this issue. Clinton says she will work to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries agreed to limit warming to at most 2 degrees Celsius. On his campaign website, Trump says he would “cancel” that deal, which has been decades in the making and is very close to becoming international law.Clinton acknowledges the reality of climate science, which says unequivocally that humans are causing warming by burning fossil fuels, primarily for power and heat, and chopping down rainforests. Trump, meanwhile, “joked” in 2012 that China created global warming “in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” “A lot of it’s a hoax, it’s a hoax,” Trump said of climate science in January. “I mean, it’s a money-making industry, OK?”There’s no doubt Trump sides with the moneyed interests of the fossil fuels industry.“Oh you will like me so much,” Trump told an oil and gas conference in Pennsylvania on Thursday. “All of the workers that are being put to work, they are going to love Donald Trump.”There is, of course, the likelihood that Trump, again, will try to make a joke of climate change if asked about it during Monday’s presidential debate at Hofstra University in New York. He’s already said he doesn’t want Holt to fact-check the debate. Still, the NBC moderator would be wise to attempt to force Trump to explain his dangerous, anti-fact rhetoric — and in doing so he should remind the American people there is no scientific discord here.Trump’s instance that climate change is “a hoax” is as much a lie as his false birther claims about President Obama. Holt also could remind Americans that climate change can be fixed — and that fixing it also means fewer dirty-air deaths, cleaner cities and more-sustainable jobs.I recently listened to a panel discussion on this topic at the University of Oregon.“We have the technologies at hand, and even improved technologies close within reach that would allow us to decarbonize the world’s energy system over the period of a few decades,” the economist Jeffrey Sachs told the audience. “And we can do that at quite low cost.” Doing so, he said, would take only 1% of national income per year between now and 2050. “This is a huge bargain, given the dangers we would hereby avert by choosing this path,” Sachs said.Young people understand this best. They can’t vote, yet they will be the ones living farthest into the climate-changed future.I recently met most of the 21 plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit over the government’s insufficient action on climate change. They claim on constitutional grounds that inaction on climate is depriving them of their rights to life, liberty and property.I was saddened by how much these kids have to worry about climate change. “It’s hard to think about anything else when you have this massive, overarching problem,” said Aji Piper, 16. “It gives me nightmares,” said Levi Draheim, a 9-year-old who lives in coastal Florida, which he fears will flood. “Sometimes I catch myself waking up and (I’m) just screaming.”