Climate Change Goes Missing from the Debates

Matthew Freeman

Oct. 26, 2016

Whatever else may be said about Ken Bone, the red-sweatered citizen questioner at the second presidential debate earned an important place in the pantheon of presidential debates: He's the only person to ask a debate question remotely related to climate change in the last eight years.

As it happens, his question wasn't all that direct, since it didn't actually use the words "climate change." Here's what he asked: "What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly, and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?"

Donald Trump, not surprisingly, wasn't all that interested in talking about climate change, what with it being a Chinese hoax and all that. To her credit, Hillary Clinton made the connection, actually uttering the words, "climate change," as part of a discussion about the economics of energy and the need to revitalize coal country even as we shift away from coal as a source of energy for environmental reasons.

And that's the extent of the conversation we've had in the debates about this genuinely existential issue for the human race.

In the third debate, Chris Wallace of Fox News not only moderated but wrote and chose the questions he'd ask. He's been widely praised for controlling the debate admirably, and I'd agree he did a good job of traffic control, given the traffic. That said, since he was the only moderator who had the benefit of knowing what had already been asked in previous debates, he was the one in a position to fill in the issue gaps. I suppose that's what he tried to do in some areas, because while he worked some already heavily plowed territory, he did raise a few questions other moderators had not.

But not climate change.

Another way to describe his questions would be to say that he ripped a few pages from the Fox playbook. Take a look at the frames he chose.

  • He asked about Supreme Court nominations, wondering, "Do the Founders' words mean what they say or is the U.S. Constitution a living document to be applied flexibly, according to changing circumstances?," a phrasing Clarence Thomas or Antonin Scalia might have chosen.  
  • Then on follow-up, he actually quoted Scalia while wrongly suggesting that Clinton opposes the Second Amendment.  
  • Later, Wallace narrowed a question about reproductive rights for Clinton into a discussion of so-called "partial birth abortion," a grossly misleading phrase created by the right wing with no specific meaning to medical professionals, and not one that is exactly top of mind for voters.  
  • Later, he asked about the economy by painting a picture of Clinton as a big-government liberal and Trump as a heroic tax-cutter: "Secretary Clinton, in your plan, government plays a big role. You see more government spending, more entitlements, more tax credits, more tax penalties. Mr. Trump, you want to get government out with lower taxes and less regulation."  
  • In a follow-up question, Wallace went on to suggest that President Obama's 2009 stimulus was just another big spending bill that "has led to the slowest GDP growth since 1949." Another way he might have cast it was that President Obama inherited an economy careening out of control and managed with his stimulus (and other measures) to keep it from going over a cliff.

Wallace’s most disturbing frame of the night, however, was reserved for a discussion about Social Security and Medicare, which he labeled "entitlements," using a term most Americans probably equate with welfare programs. In fact, Americans pay into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds over the course of their working lives, in exchange for which they receive health care once they're 65 years old and a modest monthly check when they retire. The program is a lifeline for many Americans, and since it was enacted by FDR in 1935 it has genuinely transformed what it means to be elderly in the United States.

Wallace went on to say, incorrectly, that both programs will "run out of money" within the next 20 or so years, when in fact, what will actually happen, if we do nothing, is that the trust funds for these programs would be depleted, forcing them to rely on then-current contributions to sustain payments. That money-in-money-out circumstance would decrease payments to about 79 percent of the promised rate, declining to 74 percent by 2090. Now that's not good, and policymakers need to do something about it. But it does not mean, as Wallace clearly suggests, that Social Security payments and Medicare payments will stop.

It may well be that Wallace thought he was asking "fair and balanced" questions. But a debate that had time to rehash a number of issues that had already been discussed, and one that had time for Wallace to put his network's right-wing frame on a number of questions, should surely have found time for a straight-up question about climate change, an overarching issue that we simply cannot afford to leave unaddressed.

Full disclosure: In 1984, I worked on presidential debates for the League of Women Voters Education Fund, the national organization that sponsored the debates before it was muscled out of the business by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, the current sponsor. The League was known for producing stodgy debates that required viewers to listen to two-minute long answers in a rigid format – in other words, debates that didn't feature interrupting and heckling. I miss the decorum. We learned a lot about the candidates this year from their behavior, which is valuable, but we didn’t learn nearly as much about where they'd take the country if elected.

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