As West burns, green groups want climate change to be central to presidential debates

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Sunday, September 13, 2020

A growing group of environmentally minded lawmakers and activists are calling on moderators to ask something — anything — about climate change during the presidential debates.

The steady rise in global temperatures was almost entirely ignored during the televised debates between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago — and they do not want a repeat of that situation in 2020.

The climate issue, they say, is more important than ever this year given the raging wildfires out West and the intense hurricane season in the Atlantic.

“I’m not saying that the debates should only be about this or that they should primarily be about this,” said Rep. Mike Levin (D-Calif.).

“What I am saying is: Don’t forget to talk about it,” the freshman lawmaker said over the phone from his home in Orange County, where he said nearby blazes turned the skies a dull orange earlier this week. “Because it’s no longer an issue that’s looming in the distance. It’s here. All I have to do is look out the window and see the threat.”

Seventy members of Congress and nearly four dozen environmental groups are asking moderators to prioritize climate change.

Earlier this month, Levin led nearly six dozen of his Democratic colleagues in penning a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates asking it to “make climate change a centerpiece” of its four events scheduled for this and next month.

“Given the dire nature of the crisis,” they wrote to the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that convenes the debates, “we ask that you break precedent and publicly call on the moderators to include climate in the topics that will be addressed during the debates.”

The moderators that the commission picked for the three presidential debates between Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden are Chris Wallace of “Fox News Sunday,” Steve Scully of C-SPAN and Kristen Welker of NBC News. Susan Page, the Washington bureau chief of USA Today, will moderate the debate between Vice President Pence and Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Biden’s running mate.

After the moderators were announced, the Sierra Club, the Sunrise Movement, the League of Conservation Voters and 42 other left-leaning organizations wrote a separate letter to the journalists arguing that failing to ask a question about climate change is “unacceptable.”

“This is not a partisan issue,” they wrote.

The commission did not respond to a request for comment. The first debate is set for Sept. 29.

The requests come after moderators didn’t ask anything about climate change in the 2016 debates.

In 2016, the closest thing to a question about climate change came from Ken Bone, a coal plant worker who asked the candidates about energy policy — though he is better remembered for his bright, comfy sweater that gave him 15 minutes of fame online.

“Last time, the only climate question was from one guy in a red sweater,” said Jared Leopold, a co-founder of Evergreen Action, an environmental group circulating a petition seeking suggestions for what to ask Trump and Biden about climate change. “It was inexcusable in 2016 to only have one question and it would be even more inexcusable in 2020.”

Levin, the California congressman who previously worked as an environmental attorney, said he was motivated to run for Congress in 2018 due to the lack of attention on climate change during the Trump-Clinton debate he attended in Las Vegas.

“I remember watching all of them and wondering where the questions were about climate change,” he said.

Debates have been a focal point for climate activists before.  During the presidential primary, the youth-led Sunrise Movement and other groups unsuccessfully pressed the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate specifically about climate change.

Moderators focused more on climate change during those primary events, though activists complained that only seven minutes were devoted to the issue during the first Democratic debate last year.

Trump and Biden have starkly different views on not only future energy policy, but also on the scientific reality of human-driven climate change itself.

Calling climate change a “historic” crisis during the Democratic National Convention, Biden wants to dramatically increase the number of electric vehicles on the road and eliminate carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035. If asked about climate climate, he would likely tout his $2 trillion climate plan.

Trump and other Republicans, meanwhile, did not address climate change at all during their own nominating event. In the past, Trump often called climate change a “hoax,” and it’s unclear how he would address a direct question at the debates.

More broadly, the wildfires in California and Oregon — likely mad more intense by human-caused climate change — have yet to penetrate the back-and-forth between Biden and Trump.

“We know Joe Biden may bring up climate change. Donald Trump won’t,” said Lauren French, senior communications director for Climate Power 2020, which help organize the green groups’ letter.