Changing the climate of presidential debates

Changing the climate of presidential debates
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When future generations — or simply young people today — look back at the topics of recent U.S. presidential debates, they will be stunned that America’s political journalists ignored climate change, the issue that will overwhelm most others in coming years. In essence, debate moderators have pretended climate change doesn’t exist.

Not a single question on climate change was asked by any moderators in the three 2016 presidential debates, even though Donald Trump and Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCongress won't end the wars, so states must Democrats say it's up to GOP to stop Trump 2024 Hillary Clinton to speak at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders summit MORE had diametrically opposing views on climate science and policy. The same silence occurred in the previous round of debates in 2012, and also 2000, and 1996. And now climate change has been ruled out as a topic at the first 2020 Presidential debate this Tuesday in Cleveland.

The consequences on American policy of this willful climate silence during debates has been remarkably far-reaching, especially during Donald Trump’s presidency. The U.S. is the only country in the world to leave the Paris Climate Agreement, and Mr. Trump has ignored entreaties by other world leaders to use other means to make progress on the issue. Domestically, the Trump Administration has repealed or attempted to rollback every climate protection it can, especially limits on greenhouse gas emissions from most major sources, including power plants, cars, and oil and gas drilling.


More broadly, Mr. Trump’s denial of scientific facts regarding climate change has only emboldened him to deny facts of all types, making him the most untruthful President in American history. Trump has made more than 20,000 specific false or misleading statements, as cataloged by the Washington Post, an astounding record of presidential mendacity.

The most dramatic parallel is between President TrumpDonald TrumpFranklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Man suspected in wife's disappearance accused of casting her ballot for Trump Stefanik: Cheney is 'looking backwards' MORE’s denial of climate science and his constant false statements about the science of the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans, by far the most in the world. Yet, as Bill Gates and others have pointed out, “as bad as COVID is, climate change could be worse.”

Already this year, tens of millions of Americans have endured massive wildfires, smoke-induced air pollution, and also hurricanes, flooding and other impacts directly made worse by climate change. Over 5 million acres have burned in record-setting fires in America’s West Coast states, with at least 30 people killed, 5,000 homes and buildings destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of people evacuated or displaced. Along the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Sally earlier this month dumped more than 30 inches of rain in just four hours, inundating coastal communities, causing massive flooding, becoming just the latest hurricane made far more damaging by higher water temperatures due to climate change.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that cumulative cost of just 16 “weather events in the U.S. in 2017 was $306.2 billion.” Remarkably, the U.S. Congress spent more than $130 billion for disaster relief in 2017 alone, or about one-quarter of the entire U.S. non-defense discretionary budget that year.

And yet, in 22 general election presidential debates running nearly 2,000 minutes since 1988, climate change specifically has been discussed for less 10 minutes.


The fact that Fox News — a leading purveyor of the false information about climate change science and policy — is the network of Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceCheney: I can't ignore Trump because he 'continues to be a real danger' CDC director denies political pressure affected new mask guidelines Sunday shows - White House COVID-19 response coordinator says US is 'turning the corner' MORE, the journalist who will moderate the first debate this week in Cleveland, may be all many climate activists need to know. And Wallace was among those who ignored the climate in the 2016 debate questioning. It is a serious dereliction of journalistic duty that Mr. Wallace, who has had a history of surprising independence, and being equally tough on Republicans and Democrats, has again snubbed climate as a debate topic.

But given the scale of recent devastation and even greater long-term stakes, moderators of subsequent debates must ask serious and penetrating questions regarding climate change of both Trump and Biden, early and often. Among the topics they may consider:

When visiting California and touring areas of fire devastation, President Trump denied a connection between climate change and increased size and scope of wildfires, despite widespread scientific evidence of such connections. What are your views on climate science, and what do you say to the victims of these fires, hurricanes and other impacts?

Vice President BidenJoe Biden28 Senate Democrats sign statement urging Israel-Hamas ceasefire Franklin Graham says Trump comeback would 'be a very tough thing to do' Schools face new pressures to reopen for in-person learning MORE has proposed the most ambitious climate change programs in history, including more than $2 trillion in funding for clean energy infrastructure to decarbonize the U.S. economy. What evidence is there that this huge expenditure will limit climate change, and how will it be paid for? Given a divided U.S. Congress, what are the actual chances for legislation passing?

Corporations around the country and the world have begun investing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, while the Trump administration has overturned limits on emissions that some in the auto, oil and gas, and chemical industries themselves support. How will each of you work with businesses to increase economic growth and create jobs while improving sustainability?

Why is the U.S. the only nation in the world to opt out of the Paris Climate Change Agreement? How can it lead on the issue? Vice President Biden has emphasized the international scope of the climate problem, noting that 85 percent of greenhouse gas emissions occur outside the U.S. How can the U.S. compel China and other major emitters to cut their emission deeply?

And finally, how can clean energy investments and infrastructure funding jumpstart the faltering U.S. economy, creating good paying new jobs for millions of employed Americans?

Many other questions can be asked. But polling shows that 70 percent of Americans are seriously worried about climate change. It’s time debate moderators reflect those concerns, and the end the tragic silence on the climate crisis.

Paul Bledsoe is president of Bledsoe & Associates, a policy and communications consultancy, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as staff member in the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee, Interior Department and on President Bill Clinton’s White House Climate Change Task Force. He also serves on the Executive Council of Clean Energy for Biden, a group of more than 5,000 clean energy experts and professionals who support Joe Biden for President.