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Why Our ‘Only Existential Threat’ Got Shortchanged at the Debate

If you want to know why voters don’t consider climate change a priority, just look at how it was treated.

President Biden and Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Advocates for televised presidential debates argue that they offer the best chance voters will have during the campaign to get an extended look at the candidates, beyond what they see in 30-second ads and 8-second sound bites. We can hear them defend their records as they critique their opponents, and answer tough questions from seasoned reporters about key issues. It’s a rare opportunity to delve deep into substance on important issues.

If only that were how televised debates actually turn out. The one exchange on climate change that occurred in Thursday’s meeting between Joe Biden and Donald Trump showed just how problematic a forum for voter education this is.

Perhaps we should be thankful that Biden and Trump were asked a single question about climate, since one is certainly more than zero. Unfortunately, to consider what ensued at all enlightening, you’d have to have a pretty low bar.

“Will you take any action as president to slow the climate crisis?” co-moderator Dana Bash asked Trump. “Let me just go back to what he said about the police,” Trump responded, then rambled for a while on a number of topics, none of which were climate change. So Bash tried again: “Thirty-eight seconds left, President Trump, will you take any action as president to slow the climate crisis?” Trump’s answer was characteristic gobbledygook:

“I want absolutely immaculate clean water. And I want absolutely clean air and we had it. We had H2O. We had the best numbers ever, and we did — we were using all forms of energy, all forms, everything. And yet, during my four years I had the best environmental numbers ever, and my top environmental people gave me that statistic just before I walked on the stage, actually.”

Though no viewer would have any idea what Trump was talking about with “the best environmental numbers ever,” I believe I know what he was referring to: Before the debate, Trump posted on Truth Social some suggested talking points he got from Andrew Wheeler, the coal lobbyist he appointed to lead the Environmental Protection Agency, including that Trump should mention that carbon emissions went down while he was president. It’s true that emissions dipped in 2020, when you may remember there was a pandemic that shut down much of the economy. That did not, however, answer the question of what actions he would take in a second term.

Perhaps marveling at Trump’s claim that “we had H2O” when he was president, Biden took a moment to respond. “I don’t know where the hell he’s been,” the president finally said. “I passed the most extensive climate change legislation in history.” It would have helped viewers unfamiliar with the climate provisions in the Inflation Reduction Act if Biden had at least mentioned some of them, such as money for research into new sources of clean energy, incentives for domestic manufacturing of green technology, grants to help farmers cut emissions, and tax credits for electric vehicles and home electrification. After a digression into HBCUs, Biden returned to the issue: “He hadn’t done a damn thing for the environment. He pulled out of the Paris peace — Climate Accord. I immediately joined it, because if we reach 1.5 degrees Celsius at any one point there’s no way back. The only existential threat to humanity is climate change, and he didn’t do a damn thing about it. He wants to undo all that I’ve done.”

All of which is true, if probably too vague for most viewers to fully understand. But it did include a statement conveying the seriousness of the challenge (“The only existential threat to humanity is climate change”), and reference to some relevant facts. That led Trump to a criticism of the Paris agreement, that it’s “a rip-off of the United States.”

But any viewer not familiar with the details of the agreement would have had trouble following what Trump said; he seemed to be objecting to the fact that the agreement called on developed countries to help less developed countries adapt; he claimed that the agreement “was going to cost us a trillion dollars,” one of many fictitious numbers he tossed out. That left Biden to conclude that “we have made significant progress” under his administration, and tout his new Climate Corps.

In all, it wasn’t the least substantive exchange on climate one could imagine. A viewer who knew absolutely nothing about either of the candidates’ records would have learned that they disagree on the Paris agreement, and that Biden believes climate change is an existential threat. But as with the rest of this debate — and almost every televised debate — the best one can say from the standpoint of policy substance is, “That could have been worse.”

And now that there has been one climate question, chances are the moderators of the second debate will ignore the issue altogether. The prevailing view among political reporters is that, sure, climate is important, but the voters just don’t care about it all that much. Convinced by polls showing that other issues rank higher when voters are asked what their most important priorities are, they usually segregate climate coverage apart from the political stories that will dominate the news between now and November.

That creates a self-fulfilling prophecy: When news organizations run a thousand stories saying “Inflation dominates voter concerns” and then ask voters what their concerns are, most of them are going to talk about what seems to be on the political agenda. It’s not exactly a conspiracy to downplay climate as an issue in the presidential race, but it has much the same effect.

The savvy observer might suggest that it doesn’t really matter, since we know where the two candidates stand on climate change and the contrast couldn’t be clearer. And those of us who pay a great deal of attention to both politics and the climate issue do understand the difference. But that describes only a small portion of the electorate, which was why this debate was another missed opportunity. Even if it could have been worse.

Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.


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