This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
At tonight’s presidential debate in Cleveland, moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News will doubtless ask Donald Trump about the blockbuster New York Times report that Trump paid only $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017 and no federal income taxes at all in 10 of the last 15 years. Wallace would be laughed out of the journalistic community if he failed to question a sitting president about such an obviously newsworthy revelation. But why isn’t Wallace planning to ask Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden about an even more urgent, subject: the climate crisis that is well on its way to rendering the earth uninhabitable in our children’s lifetimes?
On September 14, Trump visited California as the state suffered its worst wildfires in recorded history. Governor Gavin Newsom and other California officials implored Trump to recognize the scientific consensus that rising temperatures and drought were making such fires worse.
“It’ll start getting cooler, you just watch,” Trump responded.
“I wish science agreed with you,” said Wade Crowfoot, the secretary of California’s Natural Resources Agency.
“I don’t think science knows, actually,” Trump shot back.
In fact, the science is unequivocal: There is zero chance of the earth “getting cooler” anytime soon. Once emitted, carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere, trapping heat, for many decades. Even if all CO2 emissions were halted overnight, global temperatures would keep rising “for about 25 to 30 years,” Sir David King, the former chief science advisor to the British government, has explained.
As the presidential race enters its final weeks, will journalists challenge Trump’s dangerous inaccuracies about the intensifying heat waves, wildfires, and other impacts that are locked in for decades to come on this planet? Will they help the public understand the facts, perhaps by reporting that 11,000 scientists have warned that humanity faces “a climate emergency”? Will they reference United Nations Secretary General António Guterres’s statement that even in this time of a global pandemic, ensuing economic contraction, racial justice protests, and other front page news, “the climate emergency is the central question facing the world”?
The upcoming three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate offer an excellent opportunity to ventilate these questions, but don’t hold your breath. Wallace has made clear that climate change is not one of the subjects he plans to discuss with Trump and Biden tonight. And while climate change is intrinsically connected to each of the six subjects Wallace does plans to address—most obviously, “the records” of each candidate—Wallace’s ambition to be “as invisible as possible” during the debate makes it unlikely he’ll ask about those connections. If climate change is to be discussed, it’s Biden who will have to raise it.
It’s tempting to ascribe Wallace’s omission to the climate denial that pervades Fox News and other right-wing media outlets, but unfortunately it’s also true that much of the US mainstream media has long maintained a kind of Climate Silence. Moderators asked not a single question about climate change during the 2016 presidential debates. Or the 2012, 2008, or 2004 debates. (One must go back to 2000 to find 14 minutes of discussion between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush.) And this summer, US television networks were shamefully reticent about reporting how climate change was contributing to the fires in California and the hurricanes pummeling the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Only one of the 93 news segments that ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC aired during the week after Hurricane Laura slammed Louisiana connected the storm to climate change, according to a study by the watchdog group Media Matters. Of 46 segments ABC, NBC, and CBS aired on the California wildfires between September 5 and 8, only seven mentioned climate change, though later reporting, especially on NBC as part of a special week of “Climate Politics 2020” coverage coordinated by Covering Climate Now, was significantly better.
For years, many journalists have shunned plain-spoken coverage of climate change for fear they will appear partisan. That fallacy reflects the media’s single greatest error in covering climate change: treating it as a political story more than a science story. But the science of carbon dioxide is indifferent to political partisanship; it remains true whether presidents—or journalists—accept it or not.
The 2020 elections will shape whether humanity will “keep driving off the climate cliff or take the last exit,” Justin Worland wrote in July in Time, one of a growing number of news outlets finally doing justice to the climate story. Just as Americans deserve to know before they vote whether their president pays his fair share of taxes, so they should know whether all candidates seeking public office—for the presidency, Congress, state, and local offices—respect climate science, understand what’s at stake, and have real plans to address this onrushing emergency. But voters can’t easily do that without journalists’ help. It’s our job to separate truth from fiction and the important from the trivial. The press should be asking the climate question at the presidential debates and every opportunity from now through Election Day. Anything less is a betrayal of our civic duty as journalists.