Public Editor

With climate change town hall, CNN has an opportunity to show what it’s learned

September 3, 2019

“Americans’ belief in global warming sinks as Republicans shift,” a headline on CNN reads. The piece, from 2009, reports on a poll showing that roughly a third of those who accept that global warming is real “think it is due to natural causes, rather than manmade causes such as industrial emissions.” As a reaction to a Democratic White House, the article suggests, the number of people in America who believe that global warming has been caused by humans fell—from 54 percent in the summer to 45 percent in December. And, the article continues, “the number who say the United States should reduce emissions even if other countries do not follow suit has also dropped.”

In the decade since, coverage of the climate, the existential crisis of our time, has changed considerably. Today’s climate stories have largely tossed the false pretense that there’s a question to be asked about whether something is happening. Ten years ago, journalists downplayed the dire stakes of the climate threat, says Emily Atkin, who recently launched a subscription-based newsletter called Heated; now “something has clicked in the minds of the public and in a lot of journalists.” Mainstream outlets have moved on to covering responses and policies. The other day, for instance, the CNN homepage encouraged readers to eat less beef in order to save the rainforest and curb greenhouse gas emissions. CNN has also published stories recently about climate-crisis preparation camps in Europe, the potential for solar-powered railways to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, and the way climate change makes hurricanes more dangerous

But in televised debates, CNN has demonstrated a tendency to slip back into a “both sides” version of the climate story. According to Media Matters for America, during the CNN Democratic primary debates, less than 10 percent of the questions were about climate change. Dana Bash, who moderated parts of the July debates, asked candidates about the extent to which the Green New Deal is realistic.

In a sense, Atkin says, it was significant that CNN mentioned the Green New Deal at all, along with the idea of putting a price on carbon and the Paris Climate Agreement. Still, she says, Bash’s approach seemed a decade behind the curve. “The question framing really came at the problem, like, ‘Is it worth it to do something about this? Are there pros and cons to doing something about this?’ Rather than saying, ‘How are we going to do something about this?’”


Tomorrow, in a town hall dedicated to discussing the climate crisis, CNN has an opportunity to bring its debate coverage as far along as the rest of its reporting. CNN announced the event in July, noting at the time, “The 2020 Democratic field has been united in promising to combat climate change, with many candidates unveiling policy proposals to address the threat posed by a warming planet.” Many Democrats pushed to hold a debate on the crisis; last month, the Democratic National Committee voted the idea down

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But the town hall will go ahead. It’s expected to be seven hours long, with different moderators taking up the baton along the way. Wolf Blitzer will interview former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and Andrew Yang; Erin Burnett will interview Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Amy Klobuchar; Anderson Cooper will interview Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders; Chris Cuomo will interview Senator Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete Buttigieg; and Don Lemon will interview former Representative Beto O’Rourke and Senator Cory Booker. Bill Weir, CNN’s chief climate correspondent, will join in throughout the evening. The extent to which CNN seizes its (extremely lengthy) opportunity will depend on how it frames the stakes and specifics of the conversation. 

First, the moderators should operate on the assumption that the climate is in crisis and that this needs to be addressed. Early states consider climate change a top priority. “Accepting this moment as an emergency to the point where civilization is at stake—that itself would help frame the question,” Eric Holthaus, a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment, says. The climate crisis needs to be presented as an urgent problem, or else it’s not really being presented at all.

Second, most reporters—and most politicians—don’t have the grounding in climate policy that they do in many other campaign platforms. But most viewers don’t, either. The questions are an opportunity to outline the matters at hand, and to make candidates prove that they actually understand how to deal with the crisis. “I would really like to see moderators press candidates to demonstrate their understanding of this complex problem,” Atkin says. She rattles off examples: How will climate change affect global conflict? Where do you expect to see the biggest climate impacts on migration during your presidency? What are going to be the biggest health problems as climate changes, and how will health systems need to adapt?

Third, the climate crisis is a problem that many if not all of the people running for president have been in a position to try to address. “A great question to ask is: What have they actually done on climate change?,” Sammy Roth, energy reporter at the Los Angeles Times, says. “You’ve got all of these senators and governors—some of them have done quite a bit, and some of them, I really wonder what they’ve done.”

Fourth, the climate crisis impacts people. The questions should address not just facts and figures, but the lives that those facts and figures will affect. Holthaus suggests asking candidates how they intend to tap into popular energy around the problem. “If this is a true emergency, comparable to WWII mobilization, what are you, as a candidate, asking citizens to do? How can we help?,” he asks. “How can we be part of the answer?”

If, in seven hours, moderators keep their focus on the sense of urgency, the tangible plans candidates do and don’t have, and the ways in which the crisis is palpable and relevant to voters viewing at home, CNN has a chance to significantly better its televised coverage of the climate. If that doesn’t happen, then CNN will waste precious time by airing the equivalent of an article from 2009.

Editors note: CJR has appointed its own outside public editors for four vital news outlets — The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC — that currently lack any public ombudsman. You can reach them at (Any messages will be treated as off-the-record unless otherwise agreed.)

Emily Tamkin serves as CJR’s public editor for CNN. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.