Silent on climate: Why it wasn't a focus in the presidential debates

Climate change attracted very little focus in the debates. It's not because there's no difference between the candidates – but because talking about it might not benefit anyone.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton finish their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate in Las Vegas on Wednesday.

Presidential debates are intended to “provide the best possible information to viewers and listeners,” according to the Commission on Presidential Debates. That means highlighting differences between the candidates to help Americans choose their next commander in chief.

On Wednesday night alone, the candidates were asked to compare their economic policies, attitudes toward the Second Amendment, and positions on immigration. Other themes across the three debates have included the candidates’ fitness to be president and their vision for America’s future. One issue notable for its absence, however, was climate change.

Scientists repeatedly warn that our rapidly warming planet appears to have passed a point of no return: carbon dioxide levels went above 400 parts per million in September, a threshold not passed for millions of years. Even military personnel have weighed in, calling climate change a “threat multiplier” that makes military operations more challenging and costly worldwide. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, during the Democratic primary, cited climate change as the greatest threat to US security.

Climate change was vigorously debated by Democrats during the primary election, and many polls have showed voters consider climate a pressing issue, but most Americans still don’t rate its importance highly in comparison to other issues. 

Though some have argued that the issue should have received greater attention than just one question in the second debate and aside references by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the others, talking about it may not have been in the candidates' best interest.

“If you ask people if they think climate change is an important issue they’ll say yes, but if you think of it comparatively to other important issues it kind of falls by the wayside,” Geoffrey Skelley, a spokesman for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, told The Christian Science Monitor in November. 

Asked about what issues they wanted to hear about in the debates, respondents to an August Pew poll allocated the most time to terrorism and economic growth, while global climate change ranked near the bottom. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's supporters would give climate change four minutes in a 100-minute debate, while Mrs. Clinton's supporters would allocate 10 minutes to the issue.

It is therefore understandable that the moderators brought up the issue in connection to the economy. Audience member Ken Bone, a coal plant operator from Illinois, asked a question in the second debate that focused on finding a balance between meeting energy needs, facing environmental issues, and protecting jobs. 

Nevertheless, climate change received less attention than Pew respondents thought it deserved. This may be because of timing in the campaign cycle. The second debate took place soon after the release of a tape on which Mr. Trump made inappropriate remarks about women, sparking a renewed focus on the candidate’s perceived sexism.

Most voters already know where they stand on climate change – and have chosen their candidate accordingly. That means further debate on the topic wouldn't necessarily add value.

A recent Pew poll found that almost half of Trump supporters say natural patterns are causing the Earth to warm, and 30 percent are not convinced that the Earth is warming. This compares to 70 percent of Clinton supporters who say warming is "mostly because of human activity." Trump has described global warming as a "hoax," while Clinton has repeated that she knows it to be real.

The open discussion period during the debates allowed candidates to bring up topics that they think should be addressed. Some analysts suggested that Clinton should have used that time to raise the climate issue.

Though Clinton’s plan includes steps to revitalize coal communities, her focus on renewable energy seems to play less well in key swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and North Carolina. Across 13 swing states, coal supports 370,000 jobs and $90 billion in economic activity, according to an August paper by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity. The Clinton campaign has been outspoken about climate in other contexts, notably a rally in Miami with former vice president Al Gore, author of "An Inconvenient Truth." For debates, however, Clinton's strategy is "just to get through it" and protect her lead in the polls, a top Democrat close to the Clinton campaign told The Hill. Raising a contentious issue like climate change might have made that more difficult. 

The Obama administration, meanwhile, is trying to secure its climate legacy. The Paris Agreement hit its ratification threshold last month and will go into effect on Nov. 4, making it hard for the next president of the United States to renege on climate action, as Trump has said he would do.

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