There was a brief, beautiful moment last month when CNN and MSNBC aired climate town halls. Sure, the DNC had voted down an official climate debate where the candidates would have gone head-to-head on the most crucial issue of our lifetimes, but the media was finally making progress after years of failing to adequately cover the climate crisis.
Then Tuesday’s Democratic debate happened, and it was a reminder that nope, political media still by and large sucks when it comes to treating climate like a marquee issue. Moderators from CNN and the New York Times failed to ask a single climate question.
Instead, we were treated to questions about whether candidates were too old or young to be president and a question on bipartisan friendships that inexplicably used Ellen DeGeneres hanging with George Bush as a jumping-off point. In fact, the latter is a great example of how ill-equipped political media is to address the largest threat facing humanity.
A few candidates brought up climate on their own. In some cases, it was more of a virtue signal (sorry, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar). But others talked about it at length in response to non-climate questions, most notably Bernie Sanders and Tom Steyer. The most striking moment in the section of the debate about whether the government should prosecute opioid manufacturers for knowingly peddling highly addictive substances was when Sanders pivoted to fossil fuel executives who “know full well that their product is destroying this world, and they continue to make huge profits.”
But on the whole, there was a huge climate-sized chasm in Tuesday night’s proceedings. Some of that is due to candidates’ failings (outside the few mentioned above). Almost every single issue is connected to climate change in one way or another because it permeates everything. Any one of the 12 people on stage could have taken questions that had climate ties—the role of the military in the Middle East, the uses of a wealth tax, or even Medicare-for-All—and made the clear in their responses.
But the real fault is with debate moderators. Maybe CNN felt they checked the climate box with their town hall last month, and if so, that’s worrisome. The climate crisis isn’t some box to check—it’s an all-encompassing issue. Even if CNN didn’t want to do a breakout climate section, there’s no reason not to pepper climate questions into the long sections on foreign policy, healthcare, and even gun violence. Perhaps the biggest failing of the night, though, is what moderators chose to ask instead of climate questions.
We were treated to CNN’s Erin Burnett grilling Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Sanders about if they were too old to be president (they’re all in their 70s); Tulsi Gabbard, who’s 38, on whether she is too young. Last time I checked, all candidate met the minimum age requirement, and there is no maximum age. Also, the guy in the White House is 73 years old and believes exercising too much will use up the body’s limited amount of energy so, uh, yeah.
But the real proof of just how warped political journalists’ views of what’s important are came in the final question. After 170 minutes of failing to ask about how candidates plan to rapidly wind down fossil fuel use and re-engage the world on climate after four years of abdication by the U.S. government, this was the final question Anderson Cooper posed to the candidates:
“Last week, Ellen DeGeneres was criticized after she and former President George W. Bush were seen laughing together at a football game. Ellen defended their friendship, saying, we’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK that we’re all different.
So in that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs.”
On its own, this is an extremely dumb question that will reveal exactly nothing about any of the candidates’ character or fitness for office. I simply do not give a fuck that Cory Booker has dinner with Ted Cruz or that Gabbard has a respectful friendship with Trey Gowdy. I mean sure, it pulls back the mask a bit on how things work in Washington, but then that wasn’t the point of the question.
The weird mainstream media fixation on bipartisanship is a huge blind spot, but it’s downright dangerous when it comes to climate. American politics have become asymmetrically polarized around our warming planet. Republicans have chosen to deny the science while pulling in millions in donations from the fossil fuel industry. Democrats have largely stuck with the science even if their policies haven’t wholly embraced it until recently. The media’s fever dream of bipartisanship—a middle ground for policies that do exactly jack shit to address the climate crisis—has led to decades of climate denial and delay, and the last question asked at the debate shows they still haven’t caught on. As long as the political press keeps dry humping the idea of bipartisanship, Republicans will continue to be able to stonewall and obfuscate on climate change.
In that light, the real climate questions we need to be asking are if candidates would abolish the filibuster and what executive actions they would take to kickstart the radical changes we need to make to our systems. And hey, that’s what Vox’s David Roberts and Umair Irfan did last week. It’s almost like journalists who cover climate should be moderating these spectacles. Sigh.