Covering Climate Now

Environmental journalists know the value of a climate debate

June 14, 2019
Democratic presidential candidate and Governor of Washington Jay Inslee speaks about climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations on June 5 in New York City. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Climate change has become a defining issue in the early Democratic presidential primary. But the Democratic National Committee has rebuffed calls to hold a dedicated debate on the topic, raising concerns that the issue will once more remain siloed during an election cycle.

DNC chairman Tom Perez wrote on Medium this week that the party wouldn’t acquiesce to candidates who wanted single-issue debates, although he said he has “made clear to our media partners that the issue of climate change must be featured prominently.” Perez, who served as Labor Secretary under President Obama, said he wanted to have candidates “engage on a range of issues that matter to the American people.”

But climate change wasn’t treated as just one “issue” during Obama’s presidency. It was spread out across the cabinet. The State Department, for example, negotiated  the Paris Agreement, and the Transportation Department focused on the risks extreme weather posed to infrastructure.

Recently: Severe weather pits meteorologists against some viewers

As journalists and candidates seek to show that climate change is too vast to restrict to an environmental issue, there’s concern that the DNC’s decision is going the opposite way. By refusing to devote one night to an “issue that threatens to throw human civilization into crisis,” wrote New York Times columnist Justin Gillis, the DNC is enabling “another round of presidential primaries in which the climate crisis is basically hidden in the attic.”

Jay Inslee, the Washington governor and presidential candidate who led the calls for a climate debate, told Mother Jones that he would still participate in a separate climate debate despite apparent DNC threats to blacklist any candidate who did so (Perez has said candidates can participate in issue-based forums and town halls). “Sixty-second sound bites, which is all you’ll be able to get in a party debate, is grossly inadequate to the task,” he said.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Unlike previous elections, climate change tops voters’ concerns ahead of 2020; an April CNN poll of Democratic voters found that 82 percent listed climate change as “very important.” That should incentivize candidates to discuss climate change from as many perspectives as they can, Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado, Boulder, says.

“Climate change is an issue that cuts to the heart of how we work, live, organize ourselves, how we meet our needs every day,” Boykoff, the author of the upcoming book Creative (Climate) Communications, says.  “Given the information we have, given the challenge we face, it’s insufficient to not have a dedicated debate to it.”

Dedicating a debate to climate change would elevate “the public’s awareness of the biggest story of our time,” Bobby Magill, a reporter at Bloomberg Environment and the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists, says in an email.

“There are so many climate-related issues at stake: The Green New Deal, which has become a GOP favorite subject of scorn, as well as carbon pricing, renewable energy, national security, rising seas, immigration and the future of fossil fuels,” he says. “Most of those issues affect everybody and are highly political.”

Campaigns are rarely the best venue for policy discussion, and party polarization means that a general-election debate over climate change effectively devolves into whether or not to trust the scientific consensus. But among Democrats, there is the chance for nuance. And while sixty-second answers won’t allow candidates to get far beyond the top-line goals of their climate-change plans, filling 90 minutes of debate time would force each to reckon with the differences between their plans, whether it’s the phase-out timeline for coal and natural gas, or how they would engage Congress in passing climate legislation. Elizabeth Warren could talk about how her public lands protection plan would limit fossil fuel drilling; Michael Bennet could offer more detail on his “Climate Bank” strategy to catalyze private investment.

Mitchell S. McKinney, a professor of political communication at Missouri University who has studied presidential debates, says parties have rarely held single-issue debates; candidates and organizers are more interested in giving voters an overall impression of a candidate’s style than the depths of their policy plans. But, he says, climate-focused candidates like Inslee can turn the stage to their advantage.

“If a candidate gets a budget question, a terrorism question, a trade question, they could frame their answer around climate change,” McKinney says. “We would expect candidates to have a sense of the public agenda, and they’ve got their own topics they want to dwell on.”

Horse-race political coverage isn’t designed to elevate policy nuances, which could bury climate change even on the big stage. A full, wide-ranging specialized debate could change that, SEJ’s Magill says.

“This kind of debate might demonstrate to journalists who think climate and environmental issues ought to be siloed that they’re really central to the future of politics,” he says.

To get a sense of how wide-ranging a climate-change debate could be, I asked journalists who work on environment and climate change issues what questions they would want posed to candidates. Here’s a sample of the responses:

Bobby Magill, energy reporter for Bloomberg Environment: “Elementary school kids today could easily live to see some of the worst effects of climate change by the end of the century. Scientists expect us to see catastrophic climate impacts much, much sooner. What do you have to say to those kids about what you’re doing today to protect them from the effects of climate change they will almost certainly experience?”

Seth Borenstein, science writer for the Associated Press: “Do you support or oppose the concept of geo engineering, such as artificial sulfate pollution, to cool global temperatures? Why or why not?”

Kate Sheppard, Senior enterprise editor for HuffPost:What role will equity play in your plan to address climate change? How will you ensure that those hurt most by the burdens of pollution are helped most by its solutions?”

Ben Geman, Energy reporter for Axios: “Do you see using trade policy, such as the idea of border carbon adjustments, as part of climate policy?”

Rebecca Beitsch, environment reporter for The Hill:A lot of the plans coming out so far don’t have many details on how to tackle pollution from transportation. I’m curious how they’d deal with this tricky sector, especially if it involves changing consumer behavior.”

Amy Carlile, managing editor, Energy & Environment Publishing: “What, if anything, can you and other politicians do to make climate change less of a political issue in the US?”

ICYMI: How teen climate activists get—and make—climate news

Jason Plautz is an award-winning journalist based in Denver who covers environment policy, politics, and research. His writing has appeared in Science, High Country News, Undark, Reveal, HuffPost, and others. He has held reporting positions at Greenwire and National Journal, and was a Ted Scripps Fellow in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder.