‘Horrifying.’ CBS debate under fire for ignoring climate

Source: By Adam Aton, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, February 26, 2020

CBS News moderators ignored climate change in the final presidential debate before the South Carolina and Super Tuesday primaries, when one-third of delegates are at stake.

The candidates offered occasional views on the issue, but there was never a substantive climate discussion during the two-hour debate in Charleston, where sea-level rise is already fueling floods and making it one of the country’s riskiest home markets.

It wasn’t the first time the issue had been passed over. A debate in October had no questions about climate change. But the omission last night especially outraged activists and some experts because it’s so close to voting and because the Democratic National Committee last year quashed a push for a dedicated climate debate.

Greens felt robbed of having climate help define the primary’s most critical sprint, when two dozen states will go to polling stations and caucus sites over the next two weeks. The climate-heavy debate last week in Nevada was the top-rated program on broadcast and cable television with 12.1 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

The next debate is March 15, by which a nominal Democratic nominee could be established. Twenty-four states and territories vote before then, offering more than 1,770 delegates. A candidate wins the nomination with 1,990 delegates.

Few moments stood out from last night’s debate, which was dominated by shouting and cross-talk. Afterward it was the moderators and debate organizers who faced some of the harshest criticism.

“Moderators ask about a ban on sugary drinks but not about the environment or climate change when we are sitting at sea level. Come on,” said Democratic Rep. Joe Cunningham, who represents Charleston and about half of South Carolina’s coastline.

The moderators asked former Vice President Joe Biden about his poll numbers, media mogul Michael Bloomberg about his attempts to ban large sodas, and they ended the debate by asking each candidate to reflect on the biggest misconceptions about themselves and to name their personal motto.

“Asking about personal mottos and not climate is just embarrassing,” said Jamal Raad, communications director for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran as the self-declared climate candidate until dropping out of the Democratic primary race last summer.

“Horrifying,” tweeted Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), referring to the debate’s climate silence.

RL Miller, founder of Climate Hawks Vote and a candidate for the Democratic National Committee from California, which votes Tuesday, traced the problem back to DNC Chairman Tom Perez.

“Hey, remember when @tomperez made a bunch of empty promises about weaving climate questions into every debate, instead of a stand alone climate debate?” she tweeted. “That was funny.”

The DNC also had to defend its method for distributing audience tickets after critics noted that Bloomberg and Biden were getting heavy cheers.

Tickets were split between the campaigns, the DNC, the South Carolina Democratic Party and the organizations running and sponsoring the debate, which included CBS News, the Congressional Black Caucus Institute and Twitter, according to Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson for the Democratic Party.

Members of the public who wished to attend could only guarantee entry by becoming a debate “sponsor,” according to local media. The cost started at $1,750.

“We invited local and community leaders, and DNC supporters. This is the most diverse audience,” Hinojosa said on Twitter.

Climate registers high on primary voters’ minds, despite its inconsistent attention in the debates. Entrance and exit polls of the first three primary contests have shown climate registering alongside health care as a top concern, often outranking foreign policy and the economy.

And in South Carolina, 64% of all voters view climate change as a serious problem, including 89% of black voters, according to a Public Policy Polling survey commissioned by Conservation Voters of South Carolina and Audubon Action Fund.

Sea levels off the South Carolina coast have risen about 10 inches since 1950, and NOAA predicts that by 2045 Charleston will experience tidal flooding 180 times a year. The South Carolina housing market lost $1.1 billion in value due to flooding between 2008 and 2017, making it the fourth-most impacted state, according to a study by the First Street Foundation.

Biden said he convinced Chinese leader Xi Jinping, whom he called a “thug,” to join the Paris climate agreement. But he also said a hard line is sometimes the best way for dealing with Beijing, like when the Obama administration responded to Chinese air restrictions by flying bombers through the area.

Bloomberg defended Xi and called for cooperation with China on climate efforts.

Sanders and billionaire investor Tom Steyer both compared climate change to the coronavirus, saying both require scientific muscle and international cooperation. Steyer called climate change the country’s biggest threat.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren called for abolishing the Senate’s filibuster because she said it gives the oil industry a veto over climate policy.

A CBS poll after the debate found Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Biden might have fared best, though often it takes time for a debate’s impact to become clear.

Asked who impressed them in the debate, 45% said Sanders, 43% said Biden and 40% said Warren.

Sanders also made the best case that he could to defeat President Trump, according to 26% of respondents, followed by Biden at 21% and Warren at 12%.