Need Climate Questions? We’ve Got Climate Questions.

September 30, 2020
Presidential debates may or may not touch on climate policies, but that doesn’t mean environmental journalists shouldn’t raise the issue with their state and local candidates. Photo: The Commission on Presidential Debates. Click to enlarge.

TipSheet: Need Climate Questions? We’ve Got Climate Questions.

By Joseph A. Davis

You might have caught the dispute over whether climate change questions should be included in the presidential debates, including the first last night between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. 

Fox News anchor Chris Wallace, who moderated the Sept. 29 debate, had announced a week earlier what the topics of the debate would be. There were six. Climate was not among them.

Predictably, there was reaction. Almost 40 Democratic senators wrote the Commission on Presidential Debates the next day demanding climate questions.

In the end, Wallace changed course and added some serious climate questions at the end of the debate. The whole discussion (including, er, interruptions) took over 10 minutes (here’s more from the headlines).

But all this may not really be news — politicians and news media have been arguing for years over whether climate gets enough attention in candidate debates. 

Perhaps what really is news is that voters now consider it a more important issue in their decision on who to vote for.


Why it matters

Yes, other topics like the pandemic, health care, unemployment and racial justice may edge climate out among top public concerns. 

But some polls and political observers are saying that climate change is mounting to a higher place (may require subscription) on the list than it had as recently as 2016 (or for that matter the Democratic primary debates of 2019-2020). 


Early in 2020, before the coronavirus 

had really kicked in, one poll had 

climate as the number two issue.


Early in 2020, for instance, before the coronavirus had really kicked in, a poll published in the Atlantic had climate as the number two issue.  

While relatively few environmental journalists may be writing debate stories or even national climate stories, many will still want to prod and poke state and local candidates (especially those running for Congress) who will be essential to any future climate legislation.

So SEJournal’s TipSheet provides this handy list of climate questions below for your use. And of course, if you are moderating one of the two presidential debates to follow — and can’t think of what to ask — feel free to use it. You’re welcome.

Here then are our 10 top climate questions: 

  1. Should the U.S. rejoin the Paris climate accord? President Trump has started the process of U.S. withdrawal, but it won’t become official until the day after the election. A new president could legally rejoin immediately on taking office. The United States is the only country in the world that has dropped out. As an elected official, do you think we should be in or out?
  2. What is your climate action priority? An elected politician can’t do everything all at once, or on the first day. President Obama fought his biggest battles, like health care, first. He left the hardest (politically) climate actions until his second term. Maybe curing the pandemic should come first, but candidates should say so. Also, questions should ask whether candidates can multitask.
  3. What are your 2021 climate legislation plans? The payload of the 2020 election could be legislation. If Trump stays in office, we can predict more rolling back of greenhouse gas limits. Biden has an elaborate climate platform that has been influenced and supported by Green New Dealers. Of course, it depends on Democrats taking the White House and Senate. And on all the internal party politics needed to get all Dems on board. Ask the candidate for a specific bill.
  4. Where do you stand on the climate-economic intersection? We are in an economic recession or depression. Many politicians in the United States and elsewhere envision a “green recovery,” where a government-assisted program to improve energy efficiency and promote renewables would create many jobs. That’s certainly the Biden plan to “build back better.” How would this work out in your area or region?
  5. What would you do about climate justice? The climate change story is very much one of equities. Whatever you or your community mean by “climate justice,” do ask any candidates what they would do to improve climate justice. Climate change affects some groups more acutely than others. Think about what country (or county) a person lives in. Consider ethnicity, race, nationality, age, poverty level and even gender. Then consider what different groups have contributed to making the problem worse.
  6. What’s your view on carbon pricing? Ask: Do you favor taxing carbon dioxide (or greenhouse gas) emissions as a way of reducing them? There are quite a few ways to apply the “magic of the marketplace” to reducing emissions. Another one is known as “cap and trade.” The bigger question is how can we use economic incentives to reduce emissions.
  7. How would you address regulatory controls? There are a number of key regulatory limits which can help slow climate change. For example, setting limits for electric power plant carbon dioxide emissions (e.g., Obama’s “Clean Power Plan”). Or limiting the emission of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from automobile exhaust pipes. Or controlling leaks and flares of natural gas (methane, a powerful greenhouse gas) from wells, pipelines and refineries. Does your candidate favor these or oppose them?
  8. What’s your view on science integrity? Will you base climate policy choices and actions on a foundation of sound science? How would you ensure this? Do you accept the scientific consensus? Would you commit to not trying to manipulate or suppress science for political purposes?
  9. Do you take fossil fuel money? A key purity test posed by the Green New Deal faction is whether the candidate accepts — or refuses to take — campaign money from fossil fuel interests. Of course, it is mostly too late for answers from Trump and Biden. But it is a question that can be asked of any candidate.
  10. Would you continue fossil fuel subsidies? Do you favor repealing fossil fuel subsidies paid for by the general treasury and the taxpayers? The subsidies are many and obscure. But experts say they may well amount to over $20 billion a year in the United States. This is a point some Democrats disagree on, so ask about subsidies that affect the fuels in your region. 

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 35. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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